By Marvin A. Hokstam:
With its primary industry - tourism - already at the set maximum and its secondary industry - offshore - suffering from internally and externally induced ailments, Anguilla has to dip into its inventiveness to take advantage of its potential. Tourism officials believe they have struck gold with their plans to develop festival tourism and they’re chasing the dream relentlessly. Government has poured more than US$ 1 million into the plans designed to attract tourists in the low season and jump-start the high season. “Festival tourism will give the industry a new thrust,” said Festival Coordinator Fitzroy Tomlinson.
Tomlinson’s and Assistant Festival Coordinator James Connor’s appointments are evident of Anguilla’s dedication towards the dream. “We were hired to fix carnival,” said Tomlinson. A promoter who before produced a private festival, he got involved in Moonsplash -another prime Anguilla event - three years ago, after which he was asked to “do” the Summer Festival in August. He subsequently was hired by the Tourist Board “to develop ideas that would attract tourists.”
The most northerly of the Leeward Islands, Anguilla is known for its laid back atmosphere. Though there is potential to develop tourism into a multi million dollar industry, the island stuck to its decision of 25 years ago to position itself towards the upper end of the tourism market. “And we don’t have the infra-structure to sustain an industry like that,” said Tourism Director Amelia Vanterpool-Kubish. Not only is the number of inhabitants low (12,000, which is much more than 25 years ago), the destination never developed key tourism elements such as attractive shopping and cruise infrastructure. The destination enjoyed a steady average of 100,000 visitors per year, since 1991.
“Of course we could do better, but our goal is to keep the island tranquil. We have created the image of being a quiet island and in that respect we complement St. Maarten that’s thriving on cruise tourism. We maintained a certain standard of our hotels and we have beaches, with the advantage that they’re so quiet that people can have a whole stretch of sand to themselves. You will not find that anywhere else,” said Vanterpool-Kubish.
There are projects being developed to take advantage of the potential, but it’s not likely that the island will take it too far. An 18-hole Greg Norman championship golf course is being developed on 275 acres of beach side land and a tennis facility is in the planning to host regional and international championships. Some efforts are being made to attract smaller cruise ships and the Wallblake Airport runway is being extended to catch the market of private jets that now have to park in St. Maarten when they bring high-rollers for Anguilla. Obviously, though the island is cautious, consideration is given to the fact that tourism is the mainstay; that it’s suffering worldwide and that income is no longer an automatic given.
John Benjamin, Chairman of the Tourist Board agreed. He said that with offshore - Anguilla’s secondary industry - now earning less than 2 percent of the island’s income (a drop of 8 percent since external opposition against the industry started in the eighties), attention has to be given to tourism, which now accounts for 60 percent of the GDP. “We’re heavily dependent on tourism. The situation is not gloomy and certainly not as bad as other places, but we are not maximizing our tourism benefits. We can double them,” he said. “There are a number of things that we are doing that we could do better. We need to beautify the place. At the moment guests just stay in the hotels. They never venture out in The Valley. They need to feel comfortable in Cap Juluca and outside.” That, he added, as a matter of fact goes for most Caribbean destinations. “Just take a look at destinations like Orlando.”
Middle and lower income properties must be marketed more, for instance to visitors from the region that generally travel in the off-season. “And we could develop sports tourism. We should organize our annual cycling championships to attract more people from the region to our lower and middle income properties,” he said. And, he added, the bottleneck of visa requirements should be strapped to facilitate Caribbean visitors. “I have spoken to Government about it and senior members agree that it’s a problem. Those barriers should be removed,” said Benjamin. He said he’s fully behind the efforts that are undertaken to boost festival tourism.
“Maybe the festivals will not present direct returns on the investments, but there will be tremendous spill-offs,” said Festival Coordinator Tomlinson. He foresaw that the entire industry would see the benefits from organising events that will bring people to the island when it’s generally slow. “And festivals are a major marketing tool,” said Connor. The festival coordinators say things are looking good already. “American Eagle is one of our major sponsors and they have reported that they got good bookings for early November. Usually they don’t until late November. We’re not sure it’s because of the Jazz Festival, but who knows,” said Tomlinson.
The team got the plans all mapped out. Last November there there was a Jazz festival; summer festival is standard in August. Said Tomlinson: “The festivals will boost tourism. It’s a hard thought to sell, but when we get through with it Anguilla will become known as the laid-back, relaxed island where there’s good fun. And people here will benefit.”