Over the past few months, the whole world has come to a halt with the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. We in The Bahamas have not been spared either. All media attention – both formal and social media – has been reporting on this virus and the destruction that it is causing globally in terms of health systems, lives and economies. According to mental health officials, anxiety of COVID-19 has spread faster than the virus. Hence, my intention in this article is take your thoughts away from the pandemic for a moment and onto something more positive that the country is currently working on.
The avid readers of my monthly column would have realized by now that I have a special interest in community-based tourism (CBT). My passion for CBT in rural settings came from my almost 20 years of work in this field in Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Brunei and other South Asian countries. I have also written numerous opinion pieces in this publication on CBT over the last two years.
It is certainly a pleasure for me to write this article after facilitating a successful two-day CBT workshop for the residents of Bimini back on February 27-28, 2020, just before the lockdown. There is some sense of accomplishment in acknowledging that my ten months of perseverance to drive this form of tourism in The Bahamas is being realized, although the pandemic put a damper in the momentum of this initiative. Bimini was one of the first islands that reported COVID-19 cases (53 cases up to August 26). Nonetheless, this island has much to offer and will certainly bounce back as Biminites are committed to overcoming the current setback.
The CBT workshop
The CBT workshop was organized by the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) in conjunction with its strategic partners: the University of The Bahamas (UB) and the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC). The main target for this workshop was Biminites and residents of Bimini who have aspirations of running their own tourism-related businesses. Hence, this important workshop educated would-be and current entrepreneurs who wished to start new businesses or who had existing tourism businesses on the island and desired to expand on the opportunities that exist to expose the history, culture and marine activities to visitors in a sustainable way, thereby increasing tourism’s economic impact for Bimini.
As a guest in this country for more than three years, I have a unique external perspective of this country. The Bahamas should not all be about the “sun, sand and sea”. All of the countries in the Caribbean have similar picturesque beaches. What makes a country unique are its people, culture and heritage. If we are not mindful of the environment and preserve not only the physical but also the traditions, history and culture, we will not be conducting tourism in a sustainable and responsible way. This is critical in the new norm that is impacting tourism worldwide after this pandemic. Hence, the key is to find that balance so we ensure that future generations will continue to uphold what is uniquely Bahamian and expose that to visitors who increasingly want authentic and memorable experiences.
The recent CBT workshop took a step-by-step approach in getting the more than 40 potential entrepreneurs to prepare, develop and sustain their CBT products and services. The workshop ensured that local persons would embrace this opportunity for self-employment through a small business venture that will show the visitor how they live, where they came from and how they genuinely enjoy life on Bimini, thus immersing the visitor in their way of life.
According to Winston Rolle, senior business advisor at SBDC, “We are here to hold their hand as they bring their vision and business ideas to life or expand to meet the new demand for tourism products and services and benefit from the Access Accelerator initiatives to get their business to market as quickly as possible.”
Further, Chief Executive Officer of the TDC Janet Johnson said, “Local persons with aspirations of opening a tourism-related business need to avail themselves of the numerous training sessions to be offered for residents of Bimini.”
Participants at the CBT workshop left exuberant and excited about the opportunities and empowered to embrace them. Some of the comments from participants at the end of the workshop included, “This information was what I needed to start and grow my CBT business in Bimini… The residents in Bimini must be willing to accept new approaches and bring new energy to transform themselves”; “I am empowered after this workshop to help young people so my business can continue to sustain”; “I can now empower others in the community”; “The workshop was awesome, much-needed, impacting, challenging (in a positive way), educational and Bimini will benefit greatly”; and “CBT is an opportunity to expand the tourist industry year round here, especially in the low winter months for domestic tourism”. Much gratitude was expressed to the SBDC, UB and TDC for the inspiration to go forward with their business ideas.
The nine-step approach that was discussed in the workshop includes: (1) Assessment of community needs and readiness for tourism; (2) Educate and prepare the community for tourism; (3) Identify and establish leadership or local champions; (4) Prepare and develop community organizations; (5) Plan and design quality products; (6) Develop partnerships; (7) Adopt an integrated approach; (8) Identify market demands and develop marketing strategies; and (9) Implement and monitor performance.
Steps one and two give exposure, educate and prepare the community, with a target outcome of determining the level of community readiness. This is critical in any CBT project as the gestation period for a successful project is almost five years. Thus, without preparing the community, CBT will fail. A situational analysis must also be carried out and the training needs of the community identified. Steps three to five seek to develop community organization, planning and management. The CBT products should offer the following experiences – authentic, educational, entertaining, enjoyable and memorable. Continuous improvement in the service quality must be structured and a CBT action plan formulated to create a distinct tourism experience on Bimini. Steps six to nine aim to upscale and sustain CBT, with a target outcome of producing a CBT business plan and implementing a monitoring mechanism that will assist in continuous improvement of the products and services.
As Bimini takes the plunge to pioneer CBT, the potential for this form of tourism to be successful in all of the Family Islands is great. Like any tourism product, CBT projects need careful planning and management. The projects require innovation, targeted marketing and regular monitoring to ensure success. Scaling up of CBT to make it more competitive in terms of its business model as well as maximizing the spread of its economic benefits is the way forward for these outer islands. Moving forward, as we slowly overcome the impact of the pandemic, it is hoped that CBT can empower the community to manage tourism resources more effectively, generate more income, diversify the local economy, preserve their culture, conserve the environment and provide the much-needed training and capacity to succeed in this people-oriented business.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean, graduate studies and research, and professor, sustainable tourism, at the University of The Bahamas.