IF WE AS a country are serious about tourism as a means of diversification, we must position ourselves in market spaces that are blooming. Indeed, sustainable tourism calls for us to be ahead of the curve and demands that we do not quickly respond to protecting traditional spaces/interests.
One cannot deny that for many of the Caribbean tourism destinations such traditional spaces may represent the destination’s core tourism offering but if we are to reap the benefits of new tourism growth, we must be very measured in our approach to imposing regulations and instead take time to find ways of tapping into new trends/behaviours, whilst simultaneously respecting and supporting the space/contribution of traditional players.
A quick perusal of tourism trends, including a review of online articles, will show that the fastest growing area in tourism is in the exploration and discovery of unique, culturally authentic experiences. Where we sit today in 2019, such experiences do not only refer to festivals and events such as Carnival but to the exchanges and interactions that take place in the everyday living spaces of locals.
Visitors to our islands are exploring and discovering the local language, the street foods, the local rums and beers and these are becoming their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts, their conversation pieces. In other words, they are becoming a key aspect of the global marketing presence of TT that is not paid for by the tourism authority, the taxpayers or the private sector.
Given this buzzing tourism growth space, it is little wonder that the fastest growing area in accommodation worldwide can be found in alternative booking platforms such as Airbnb. These platforms give visitors global access to a wide range of unique local accommodation provided by everyday homeowners who can make available to travellers and visitors his/her property (or maybe a room even) at varying short-term rental values.
It is important to note that this type of accommodation not only meets the need for variety, flexibility and cheaper options but aligns closely with the everyday cultural experiences that the visitor is seeking.
Airbnb properties worldwide are not only appealing to younger people with less spending money, but are attracting people across generations and across socio-economic status, regardless of their purpose of travel (ie business, meetings, leisure etc) and one may find that many Trinidadians/Tobagonians themselves have stayed at an Airbnb right here is the Caribbean or, as we like to say, “abroad.”
If we are interested in tourism growth, we need to be open to new business models and support those prepared and willing to embrace such ventures – turning their personal assets into wealth-generating, forex-earning opportunities.
In 2017, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation signed what it called a “landmark” agreement with Airbnb. Further, even as I write, tourism authorities in the Caribbean region (including our own Caricom neighbours) are pursuing formal arrangements with Airbnb and incorporating these platforms into their wider tourism strategy/policy.
One may ask why is this so? They should get that:
1. There are existing assets (properties of private homeowners) which can be immediately leveraged in the tourism sector to expand the number of rooms available in the destination without significant upfront and heavy investment or costs to taxpayers; and this capacity can be used alongside that provided by the traditional hoteliers.
2. Sharing platforms such as Airbnb creates and builds the entrepreneurial capacity instead of simply creating employment – as property owners become sole traders within the total tourism effort.
3. (Very importantly) these platforms enhance the global digital presence and access to destination (via the properties that are displayed/listed).
Very often the industry speaks about air and sea access but really, you if you are not paying adequate attention to your digital presence globally you are falling way behind. It is instructive to note that such global digital presence (via these platforms) actually brings a greater return on investment on the country’s tourism spend and indeed can “invite” increased visitor arrivals even in the absence of such marketing spend – (which the hoteliers advised was absent over the past two years).
Whilst I agree we need to have a well developed, well targeted campaign, we can’t just be complaining about the lack of marketing on the one hand and condemning those who are actually marketing TT globally via these platforms on the other.
4. Rating and standards in today’s digital marketplace are established by peer reviews – Airbnb and Airbnb Experience (the tour operator arm) require that participants or suppliers of service fill out very detailed forms including standards of delivery but ultimately depend on peer reviews for the ratings associated with the various providers.
Research has shown that there is a higher level of trust in these peer reviews than those traditional international star ratings set by some “international body” and intermittently monitored by local institutions that people (who are visiting our shores) have never heard about and are unlikely to ever meet.
Travelocity, Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon all use peer reviews and commentary and so does Airbnb. In fact, peer reviews and ratings are the digital equivalent of going by a doubles vendor or the bake and shark guy you do not know but are advised to select the one with the biggest crowd and the best raves.
It is under this broader policy understanding and with the input of those people already involved in the Airbnb/Flipkey tourism offerings that regulations can be best formulated. Simply rushing into regulations is unlikely to be the best path for TT given the fall-off in visitor arrival numbers.
In closing I wish to point out that the airline industry went through a similar shift in the late 1990s and early 2000s when traditional legacy airlines were challenged by new business models and technology platforms. Initially, the American Airlines and Deltas of the day responded to the rise of the JetBlues and Southwests not much differently from our hoteliers.
Twenty years onwards the travel industry has fully embraced this new space and even the traditional players are finding profitable competitive spaces in which to operate. Today, the accommodation sector and indeed the tour operator sub-sector (through Airbnb Experience) are witnessing a similar shift and I pray that we as a country adopt a smart approach in moving forward.