Barbados is Proving that the Future of Caribbean Tourism is Intra-Regional Travel
New York, New York (May 22, 2023) - For an island that was once a cornerstone of the Caribbean sugar cane industry, Barbados currently faces the unique challenge of scaling down cane sugar production and using tourism to boost GDP.
On May 6th I attended a press trip to Bridgetown, Barbados to cover the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s 41st Caribbean Travel Marketplace. It was the first time Marketplace had been held in Barbados. The excitement was clearly palpable, with more than 700 delegates and 200 companies from 25 countries participating in the event.
It was also the first time I had the pleasure of traveling to the island. My taxi driver Hashim became my first introduction to life in Barbados. “Barbados’ Coat of Arms carries the motto ‘Pride and Industry’” he explained to me as we were driving through Christ Church Parish to get to Bridgetown. “Barbados has pride, but we lack industry” he laughed. He informed me that Barbados has been forced to reduce its dependence on the sugar cane industry due to housing needs and the limited availability of land.
What he explained wasn’t much different from what I later learned about the future of the sugar industry on the island: competition from much larger sugar-producing countries is stiff. In fact, the production of cane sugar in Barbados has decreased so extensively over the years that out of twenty-six factories, only two remain.
Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley realizes this. She has shifted the focus of her administration to the development of tourism as a driver for regional wealth. In a keynote speech she gave at the Caribbean Travel Forum, an industry-focused discussion held the day before CHTA’s Travel Marketplace, she had this to say about regional tourism: “Will we be shapers or takers? And what do I mean by that? For the most part, this modern incarnation of tourism has been driven by foreign capital, has been driven by foreign airlift, has been driven by foreign markets, has been driven by things that are exogenous effectively to our development.”
She urged regional stakeholders to rethink the challenges currently facing the industry, stating “…how do we allow others to control whether the tap is turned on or off with respect to the flow of people to this region?” When the world was locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and there was limited travel to the Caribbean from the US and Canada, the Caribbean suffered. In her words, this approach to tourism has “carried us as far as it can.”
Her speech underlined a striking trend. According to CHTA’s President Nicola Madden-Greig and ForwardKeys Vice President of Insights, Olivier Ponti, tourism recovery in the Caribbean is outpacing other regions across the globe. Indeed, part of that recovery was due to the proliferation of short-term rentals like Airbnbs. Regional analysts are seeing that the post-pandemic traveler is more interested in unique experiences than accommodations. Short-term rentals place the modern traveler squarely in local communities and give them access to experiences they may otherwise be shielded from at traditional hotels.
The future of wealth generation in the Caribbean is exactly that. A parallel strategy that incorporates local short-term rentals and a re-branding of traditional hotels as a means of experiencing travel luxury. The fact that Barbados currently serves as a regional hub for inter-island transportation allows this strategy to come into play. InterCaribbean airways uses the island as a pick-up point before shuttling travelers from other regional islands like Grenada, St. Lucia, and Dominica. Improving intra-regional travel is so important that it is a priority for many Caribbean governments.
For an island that is only 166 square miles, small enough to see coast to coast from the highest vantage point, Barbados has rich cultural and nature-based experiences for interested travelers. Barbados is indeed unique in the experiences it offers. For one, it is one of only three destinations in the Caribbean that offers the unique experience of taking a submarine to explore a coral reef, courtesy of Atlantis Submarines.
In Barbados I participated in the night tour, where we descended 150 beneath the surface of the ocean with only the lights of the submarine illuminating the sea floor. As the submarine cruised around for nearly 90 minutes, we saw turtles, stingrays, transparent squid, and even a shipwreck. The most enchanting part of the descent occurred when the captain of the submersible turned off the lights on the submarine. Looking out of the submarine window, all we could see in the pitch-black darkness was the subtle glow of trillions of plankton churning in the sea around us. In that moment they appeared as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Barbados is also one of only a handful of Caribbean islands that has monkeys. The species, the African Green Monkey, was brought from Africa during colonialism and it has since thrived. You can see them at the Eco-Adventure Park at Harrison’s Cave in the middle of the island. The Park features lush botanical gardens, an aviary, and a tram ride through the famed Harrison’s Cave, a geologically active limestone cavern. Harrison's Cave was perhaps the most unique nature experience I had on Barbados. The tram took us more than 130 feet underground through caverns full of geological features tens of thousands of years old. The sheer scale and beauty of the stalactite and stalagmite formations was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
The day before I was set to fly out, I sat by the beach enjoying a marlin sandwich dubbed a “fish cutter” at well-regarded Cuz’s Fish Stand. Dabbing pepper sauce on my sandwich I laughed to myself how clear it was that though we may hail from different islands and have different histories and traditions, the roots of our communities and nations are shared.
When war and supply chain disruptions threaten to disrupt Caribbean livelihoods, Prime Minister Mia Mottley put it best, “The first tourists are us.” When the tide rises and falls, all boats rise and fall with it.