EDITORIAL : WHITE SAND AND SPARKLING WATERS
I often wonder if when our very own Patricia J Adams, affectionately known as Tr Patsy, penned the words of the song This is Anguilla, she knew that the song would become a local favourite: “Come see our white sand and sparkling waters, brave sons and valiant daughters, blue skies and sunny weather, this is Anguilla, friendly Anguilla, peaceful Anguilla.”
Not only is the song a moving reminder of the beauty of our island and our people, but it beckons to the world to come and experience all the facets of the Anguilla we love. With limited natural resources, the development of Anguilla has hinged on its natural beauty and distinctive island charm. Over the years this is what has sustained our economy, kept our people employed and ensured that we were able to enjoy a decent standard of living. However, while to us, our island is unique, there are probably thousands of islands all over the world that can offer visitors a comparable experience to what Anguilla offers. The era of globalization, and in fact the global financial crisis and its effects on Anguilla, should make it clear to all of us that we can no longer simply trade on our island’s natural beauty to attract visitors to our shores. Based on figures we have heard quoted by the President of the Anguilla Hotel and Tourism Association (AHTA), in various fora, most hotel properties operate on average of at less than 50% occupancy. This is cause for concern about the viability of the tourism industry which is the livelihood of the majority of our population. While low occupancy levels can be attributed, in part, to the longstanding and troubling issue of air access to Anguilla, if we focus on this alone we will miss the bigger picture.
It is my view that if we continue to focus only on “white sand and sparkling waters”, our hotel rooms will not be filled even if we have a Boeing 747 landing here every day. While improved air access will help tremendously, what is also necessary is a rethink of what we offer: the total visitor experience. If tourism is going to work for us, and it must as we have little else to rely on, we have to distinguish ourselves, set ourselves apart from our competitors some of whom are our own Caribbean neighbours.
A good place to start will be to build a culture of excellence. This, of course, is much more difficult than it sounds. If journeying by sea, it must begin with the ferry experience – if by air, it must begin the moment the plane touches down in Anguilla. There must be professionalism, efficiency and a welcoming demeanour in our interactions with our guests and each other. Ferry boat operators have to professionalise their operations and also improve their vessels and service. Further, a more efficient, technology-based immigration system needs to be implemented, and the taxi dispatch operations must be properly coordinated. In our restaurants, accommodations, car rentals etc,, excellent service must be our mantra regardless of whether or not the establishments are budget, moderate or expensive. All citizens must be consistently encouraged to exemplify a culture of excellence by ensuring the cleanliness and beautification of their surroundings.
Additionally, we can improve the visitor experience by providing rich cultural experiences. I am certain that when we visit other countries we try to discern the culture of the people and we are attracted to things and events that give us a glimpse of that culture. I believe visitors to our shores would also be interested in similar experiences. We therefore need to highlight our museums, make Amerindian sites more accessible, and engage in the renovation and restoration of historic buildings, especially those that form a part of the heritage trail. An upgrade of “The Strip” to make it more attractive, and a hub for local delicacies, would also be a welcome addition to the visitors’ culinary experience. Also, our bustling creative arts scene comprising a myriad of visual artists, craftsmen, poets and authors, singers, song writers, dancers, photographers and filmmakers can be strategically leveraged to provide a unique visitor experience – and in fact can assist in attracting visitors to Anguilla.
Again, while when people think about eco-tourism they think about lush forests, rivers and waterfalls, there is no reason why our salt ponds, shrubs, mangroves, offshore cays, rich bird and marine life can’t work equally well for us. Given the laid back pace of our island, eco-tourism is a good fit as it is likely to attract the type of visitor who also enjoys a laid back pace. I say we have to capitalize on our assets and make them work for us.
With Anguilla’s peaceful atmosphere, another area worth exploring is health tourism. We currently have a medical school and the Minister of Health has made it clear that he is vigorously pursuing the establishment of a state of the art health facility in Anguilla. If we do it right, there is no reason why Anguilla can’t be marketed as a hub where persons can come to undertake medical procedures and then relax and rejuvenate in a serene environment.
These are just some thoughts about what can be done to set Anguilla apart from other islands. I do not have all the answers to jump start our tourism industry. However, I believe I am correct in saying that Anguilla does not need to be like everywhere else. We can and should dare to be different.