Thursday, May 27, 2010

Will Barbados Fall to the Sovereign Debt Crisis? (II)

Left: Along with a Colorado friend, I dig into fresh, grilled fish (dolphin -no not "Flipper"!) served with macaroni pie at the Oistins Fish Market. This was one place we beheld servers on their best behavior - perhaps because they must pay for their own overhead!
ABOVE: Tourists flock to a vendor's stall to buy fresh grilled deep sea fish and "fixins" at the Oistins Fish Market. It's always crowded, especially on weekend nights.

Bottom: British tourists crowd a white sandy beach on the west coast. The island needs to tend to its service standards or it will lose in the foreign exchange battle with other tourist-based states.

In the last instalment we saw that small nations around the world face a sovereign debt crisis as their bond ratings are lowered and loans are harder to come by. Meanwhile, many of them are not only living beyond their means, but not even earning half the foreign exchange needed to justify their existing circumstances.

In the case of the island state of Barbados, which I recently returned from, the foreign exchange problems are exacerbated by increasing petroleum use and auto purchases which are clogging the island's highways and creating immense traffic problems. At the same time, despite decades of attempting to be self-sufficient in agriculture, the island continues to import more food stuffs than it can grow or produce itself.

One main exception may be fish, especially flying fish (almost the island's trademark) and assorted deep sea fish which are popular at the local fish markets, where vendors set up stalls to sell their grilled catch plus "extras" (macaroni pie, cuccoo, potatoes, Banks beer) to hungry tourists looking for a change from franchise fare.

As the attached photos show, these fish markets, mainly around the south coast town of Oistins, are very popular.

The beaches are also immensely popular and this is where the island's main foreign exchange earner or tourism comes in. The white sand beaches remain largely pristine, and the sea is inviting. Tourists flock here for a chance to swim each day in clear water at or near 83F, and/or the opportunity to lie on a beautiful beach and just soak up rays.

At last estimate, tourism earned nearly $23 million in foreign exchange last year for the island. But can this keep it afloat? I'm not sure.

While the sea, Sun and sand can consistently deliver their quality, the service sector remains disturbingly untrained except in the most posh resorts like Sandy Lane or the Crane Beach Resort (newly refurbished).

My own experiences constitute cases in point, starting from my first day in town, when - after doing a lot of basic business (banking, shopping, post cards etc.) I stopped to get a cold drink - in fact two, while at Cave Shepherd Dept. store. In their Ideal Restaurant, I asked for an ice cold Diet Coke plus a cup of ice and a cup of water with ice. The server kind of glared balefully, looked at me then responded: "Yuh cyan' get both cups without paying 30 cents more!" I told her I had no problem with that, I just wanted two ice cold drinks.

I more or less didn't pay much attention until the following night when my wife, myself and a friend from Colorado ventured to a barbecue chicken barn to order two half chicken orders with fries and a local drink called Mauby. It was just past 7.15 p.m. and no other customers were around, and one lady tended the orders. We gave ours, and then had to watch her slow, painful gait to place them if we were monitoring a crippled zombie not long risen from its abode. Her face betrayed no hint of welcome, passion or emotion, and when she did present us with our orders, she could as well have been serving up cold mash.... or serving warrants.

But the most distressing experience came a week later when my wife and I treated our sister-in-law to a late night dessert at the new TGIFriday's in Worthing. After a longish (35 min .) wait for relatively simple desserts (and again, virtually no customers at 11.p. m.) we asked a nearby busboy to check on their status. Within five minutes our waitress returned with them and literally spun them each across the table to our respective locations without a who, boo or hello....or 'Here you are!'

As I pointed out to our guest, stateside such a surly display of attitude would be met with firing - on the spot. If one doesn't like a job, especially in a place with nearly 18% consistent unemployment, then one needs to look for another but in no case treat her customers with such disdain.

Do any of these forlorn service workers understand what is at stake? That they are the front line "soldiers" in a competitive and endless battle (with other island locations, like St. Martens, The Virgins etc.) for foreign exchange? That people can as easily pack up and fly off to any of them rather than Barbados? That if they Bajan service workers don't develop a healthy understanding of the distinction between service and servility the island might well become another Haiti?

The question remains open, but one hopes that The Barbados Tourism Board will more vigorously pursue a hospitality and training agenda to root out the negative players and n'er do wells. The alternative is too catastrophic to contemplate.

As it stands, building a vigorous tourism product is really Barbados' only way out of its own sovereign debt crisis, though I'd definitely also consider limiting the use of automobiles as well as rationing petrol - which is now nearly $4.70 a liter (about $9.40 U.S. a gallon). Right now, given the excess petrol use - even if Barbados could triple its tourism foreign exchange, its future would be unsustainable.

One last point is worth noting: The island's population has always been given as around 250,000 and tops, 260,000 - indicating that an emigration outflow existed to enable stable growth- without having to deal with a surplus population. However, the 2009 CIA World Factbook shows it as nearly 288,000. This is far too much population for an island state that was already one of the most densely populated in the world when I left there in 1992 (at 1596/ sq. mile). The island must go back to rigorously controlling human numbers and using contraception as it did when Clyde Gollop was head of the Barbados Family Planning Association in the 70s and 80s. I wouldn't want to return in the future to see a disastrous path towards becoming a second Haiti.

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