NEW YORK – Barbados’ bedrock tourism sector has been given renewed focus by the Prime Minister David Thompson’s new government. There is hope that his leadership along with that of Minister of Tourism, Richard Sealy, and chairman of the Barbados Tourism Authority, Ralph Taylor, will result in some major organizational changes needed to reposition the destination in the marketplace.

Even though local tourism players are wary of newly-proposed taxes on alcohol and substantially higher fees for visitor driver permits, the Prime Minister, who also is Minister of Finance, has demonstrated a refreshing awareness of tourism’s vital importance to the local economy and a keen willingness to protect and promote the Bajan brand.

According to local press reports last week on the budget, Barbados will spend an additional US$5 million repositioning the island in price-resilient tourism markets, while concessions and incentives are being planned to help bolster business as the vagaries of oil prices and uncertainty of airlift cast a cloud over regional tourism.

Yet Caribbean tourism has a history of recovering robustly from threats to its sustainability, from hurricanes to the fallout in travel following the terrible September 11 attacks to intermittent travel advisories. So perhaps this storm, packing turbulent winds of high oil and gas pressure systems, shall pass as well.

The staging of the first Caribbean Tourism Summit in Washington DC in June and the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in Antigua this month both provide reason to be optimistic. Officials announced plans to resurrect Caribbean brand marketing efforts to the tune of US$60 million per annum. Former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Dr. Alan Greenspan told delegates in Washington, “You have one of the greatest assets possible for tourism in your natural beauty,” encouraging those in the region “to continue to emphasize it.”

However, the recent departure of regional tourism czar Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace from the post of Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, as he assumes the portfolio of Minister of Tourism and Aviation in the Bahamian cabinet, leaves a short-term leadership void that is a setback for regional tourism.

But what is extremely encouraging is PM Thompson’s sensitivity to another important asset – the Caribbean Diaspora at whom he has reportedly asked the Barbados Tourism Authority to direct efforts, “in order to attract more friends of Barbados living overseas as visitors to Barbados.”

As tourism planners get down to brass tacks to market the destination, it is hoped that adequate resources will be made available to penetrate such a vibrant market in the economic interest of the nation. A forensic audit may be necessary to cut excessive spending in the marketplace traditionally associated with Barbados, as well as other destinations, so that new resources may be directed into emerging niche markets.

Promotional slogans like Barbados’ “Hard to get to, much harder to leave” must be abandoned due to its negative connotations, while new strategies that promote the nation’s people, its rums, its cuisine and festivals are embarked upon forthwith. Now really, could a four and a half hour flight from New York to Barbados make it that “hard to get to?”

Barbados should also examine whether those who have defaulted in certain areas of management of tourism for the past several years should be allowed to continue. What the island desperately needs is to attract – and not reject – some of its creative and vibrant human resources at home and abroad to help reposition its image in the marketplace.

Barbados or Little England, as the island is sometimes called, is known as one of the Caribbean’s most conservative nations – yet it is the envy of many of its neighbors. But in today’s economic climate, strategies to refresh the product, propel growth and position the island as a destination for all budgets and tastes, must be anything but conservative.

A new approach will be challenging, but with an aggressive strategy and common sense tactics, victory is assured. Over to you, Mr. PM and your new team.