by Derede Whitlock
The author is a seasoned marketing professional and served as Tourism Director to the USA from 2004 – 2014. As President of DSW Consulting Media, a marketing and public relations consultancy, she develops leading edge solutions for a varied client base. Whitlock is a member of Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI).
As Antigua and Barbuda prepares to reopen its ports it will not be business as usual, as our major source markets have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some visitors may be willing to immediately resume travel, the rebound will likely happen in a slow, careful, and highly phased manner.
As local tourism officials ponder how to get the right COVID testing policies in place to ensure the protection of guests and citizens, the hospitality industry should look to domestic tourism as a way to rebuild our economy.
Domestic tourism involves residents of a country vacationing within that country. So much culture and history abound on our piece of the rock. However, many who live here do not fully appreciate why visitors from all over the globe are willing to pay a premium to experience our unique attractions. “We live where you vacation,” a hashtag used on social media to proudly showcase our beauty, should now become “Let’s vacation where we live.”
In some Asian markets, the main strategy that helped to stabilize the hotel industry is a shift from targeting international visitors, to citizens traveling within their own country. Despite early panic in Japan and South Korea, tourism has started to show signs of recovery. But it is Hong Kong that stands out. After hitting a low in early February, domestic bookings grew 270% over a thirty day period. This uptick did not happen by chance, but because of swift action by hoteliers who turned to their domestic market when international travel to Hong Kong plummeted.
In Antigua and Barbuda, we must also begin to look more closely at domestic and regional markets, as well as the Diaspora market. Banner ads in popular local publications and targeted messaging in the appropriate media forums, will facilitate engagement and incentivize nationals to return home.
I challenge all nationals to visit at least ten major tourist attractions in Antigua and Barbuda before November 2021, when we will commemorate 40 years of political Independence. Rediscover our home with a sail to one of our many offshore islands, or explore our amazing hiking trails. Take a walk through English Harbour (the UNESCO World Heritage site) and journey back to the 17th century. Cruise around the island and see familiar landmarks, like St. John’s Cathedral from the vantage point of a tourist. Sample local bites along the way; from restaurants to beach bars. Be sure to explore beyond the beaches and take a guided tour to Walling’s Dam, Body Pond, or a trip to Barbuda to the Frigate Bird Sanctuary and the Caves at Two Foot Bay. With local feedback, tourism stakeholders can be confident that the experience will be unforgettable for our guests when they choose to return.
Going forward, domestic tourism can also help to stabilize the cyclical and seasonal flows of our tourism industry during the traditionally slow “off peak” periods. It can become a sustainable platform for year-round economic growth and development. Let us also embrace locally produced goods to strengthen tourism linkages with local farmers, fishermen, and agro-processors. We also have a duty to help protect the environment through better water conservation, avoidance of single-use plastics, a reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and by keeping our nation clean.
I encourage entrepreneurs who offer innovative, authentic tourism experiences to join an organization like the ABHTA to capitalize on networking opportunities. The Antigua and Barbuda Associations United (ABAU) based in the USA, has a Facebook group where local businesses can interact with nationals in the Diaspora (www.abaunited.org)
Hotels should consider alternative revenue streams to diversify their products and offer local rates where possible. Sugar Ridge Resort has developed a weekly calendar of events featuring a line-up of local talent. Their welcoming open-door policy to locals has positioned the resort as one of the destination’s best “happy hour” spots. Rather than standard staycations, hotels should partner with local tour operators to market unique experiences, or with local artisans to develop specialty souvenirs.
A stronger connection to our country’s endowed natural resources will bring the achievements of our national heroes, trailblazers, and institutions into greater focus, thereby making us a stronger, more cohesive community. We must embrace domestic tourism industry as a national asset. Through nation building we can begin to strengthen our economy in a post-COVID era.
We salute our essential workers who ensure that our country remains healthy and safe during this global pandemic. As we reopen our doors let us also celebrate our hospitality workers — the waiters, chefs, housekeeping staff, taxi drivers, vendors, immigration and customs officers, red caps — the pride of our tourism industry. Their sterling service will help to drive the economic rebirth of our country.
Each endeavouring, all achieving! Let us celebrate our unique culture and heritage and support our local tourism industry, as we brace for the challenges and opportunities ahead.