Crossing the Tourism Rubicon Print E-mail
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Written by Roger Espejo   
Thursday, 15 August 2013 00:00

Why do we keep dividing ourselves? We seem to be masters of controversy, and, when you stop to think about it interpretation may have a great deal to do with it. The manner we perceive others who are not much dissimilar from us impairs our ability to communicate, build relationships and ultimately disenfranchises our ability to 'nation-build'.

History has shown that what you call something heavily influences how you treat it. This rule of thumb has been with us for ages and can be seen in just about any discipline and society. For this reason experts in different areas have sought to re-socialize ideas, places, events and things. Shell shock became a post traumatic stress disorder after World War One. Global warming became climate change some time ago. Personal soap is becoming a beauty bar and they want to call toothpaste dental gel. You get the idea. Nomenclature has to do with the attention something or someone commands and the way we appreciate it.  People apply the idea to themselves too. All the time; just look around. We should ask then: do we really have a cruise ship industry?

As a tourism-based operator the first time you ever approach a cruise ship at sea, whether to do de-boarding of passengers for tendering or for a shore excursion, it’s a powerful experience, ask anyone who's in the business. It's a reckoning like no other. Due to the magnitude of the vessel's presence it is an overwhelming experience and a palpable sense of triumph fills the air. It's also an entrepreneurial rush and the kind that more young Belizean entrepreneurs need to experience. Since the late nineties when local businessman Michael Feinstein and the government had the vision of establishing relations with Florida-based cruise lines and establishing a port of call, we have unjustly socialized the ethos of that business group which serves within cruise tourism and we have called it a "cruise ship industry". Other destinations call it that too and so it's not a marketing sin per se but it does play a role in the leverage afforded to members of the cruise tourism community. Moreover the local barriers to entry in this business sector have been soft where we've seen the emergence of the 'independents': the non-contracted businesses and tour operators who; out of relentless pursuit for 'survival', have made this business their 'bread and butter' as we say. Sometimes they lack standards (which regulators do need to address urgently) but are functional nonetheless. Their affiliation with the sector causes a tongue-in-cheek appreciation from industry outsiders (and insiders) and this has a lot to do with a little bit of everything: culture, politics, business and government, but I won't waste your time with any of that. This is about a perception issue within tourism and the idea that regardless of what brush we paint the international cruise industry with and regardless of how we esteem the different actors within the 2 principal sub sectors of tourism we're all selling the same product. More importantly this is about the idea that generation X and Y needs an economy, today not tomorrow, where they can experience that entrepreneurial rush and that unity is indispensable to the tourism industry's ultimate success.

Few locals know the real difference among the cruise lines that visit Belize to be honest and until we develop a discerning understanding of our partners will we better understand the sector. And while the differences among the lines are one thing, that which they have in common is obvious: it's us. Belize is of serious interest within the vacation market and, in poker language, that gives us an ace.  This is the message that next year's arrival estimates send and it's also the current message sent by Norwegian Cruise Lines - a cruise line that, has shown strong commitment to eco-friendliness & green technology by recently investing heavily in green scrubber technology, for two of its incoming ships  - a massive investment. It's important to understand then that the cruise lines themselves fight to differentiate themselves from one another and with the 'integrity capital' of the overall cruise industry being threatened we are likely to see an even more competitive era. Images of the Costa Concordia tragedy in 2012 and the Carnival Triumph fiasco this year will be slow to fade away in the minds of cruisers especially as yet another incident involving fire on a Royal Caribbean Ship took place recently. The point here is that cruise lines may now have an uphill battle selling cruises and we need to understand that it's because of operational issues NOT destination quality. We need to appreciate this and understand our leverage as a tourism industry: we have an excellent product. It may be our greatest time ever where tourism is concerned but also let's understand one thing: and that is that we don't have a cruise ship industry; we have a tourism industry: one tourism industry. The cruise ship industry exists in far away lands where tons of steel are shaped into larger-than-life vessels: Germany, Finland, Italy and Japan.

Our view of the potential contributions that cruise tourism can make to nation building is severely limited by our view of cruise tourism itself; the sector that many Belize City-based businesses thrive within year after year and also the sector, which if reconstructed in the South with rigid management, homegrown imagination & Belizean pride can help fulfill our growth imperative as a nation.
Let's appreciate that tourists (cruisers and overnighters alike) come to see the same country; a tourism product that can and should call for a premium and that can extend that entrepreneurial rush mentioned earlier. This year we started asking the vacationing world to 'Discover how to be'. This is an excellent message and we at home ought to internalize it too: Discover how to be one.  Both tourism sub-sectors have a unique opportunity to display unity for nation and forge a new tourism era for Belize.  Both sectors need to start communicating with more logic and less emotion; less rumors and more facts.

Surely our national perception of both will improve and that's the first step in crossing the tourism Rubicon.