Political activist Athie Martin
Political activist Athie Martin

Being a hotel or guest house operator is not easy.

There are bank debts to honour; anxiety about the weather because storms can have far reaching impact on 'stay over' tourism; the list of worries seems endless.

But one source of worry towers above all others-- room occupancy. The bottom line of the business is: empty rooms cut profit.

Statistics show a decline in stay-over visitors for January to December 2015 with 74,474 stay over visitor arrivals compared to 81,511 in 2014.

We invited some prominent hotel and guest house operators to share their concerns, experiences and observations about Dominica's tourism industry today.

One common concern is the way Government and the tourism agencies are marketing Dominica as a stay over destination. Many industry insiders believe the level of marketing is inadequate and the focus is wrong.

"They are more concerned with cruise ships. I don't think the cruise ships leave much money behind them…" an operator who wished to remain anonymous said.

The operator believes more has to be done to market Dominica's exquisite wilderness.

"The country is very beautiful. The people are kind and gentle and friendly. That is what the world is looking for now…just a tranquil interlude to renew the spirit," the operator noted, adding, "It's too bad because Dominica really has it all."

Environmentalist and hotelier, Atherton Martin noted that small islands like Antigua, St Lucia and Grenada have double digit growth in stay-over tourism. They also have international airports.

"But Dominica was doing much better before . . . Even if you have an international airport, you have to advertise, you have to promote, you have to identify and locate your destination and product. We don't do that."

Martin contended that there was an inadequate average annual budgetary allocation of around EC$4M per annum to promote Dominica as well as pay administration costs at the Discover Dominica Authority (DDA).

While the allocation was recently pumped up to about $6M, Martin said the industry standard is to invest an average of 20%-25% of a tourist-destination country's gross income on marketing.

Minister of Tourism Robert Tonge said that tourism's contribution to the economy is in excess of $340M.

Martin pointed out that St Lucia spends about $20M per year on destination promotion.

"We have lost focus on what is Dominica's unique product. What differentiates us from Antigua, Guadeloupe, Grenada? What has differentiated us successfully over the years is the fact that we have presented ourselves as the nature island," he said.

Martin noted that Dominica had carved a niche for itself, but has failed to reinforce the brand.

Two other operators questioned the expertise of those who have the responsibility to market Dominica effectively.

"Either we do not know what we are bringing to the plate. We don't necessarily appreciate what we have or we don't know how to sell ourselves," one said.

Another common concern is that of insufficient air access, as well as prohibitive cost of travelling to Dominica.

According to the Tourism Ministry's 2015 Statistics Report, "more than 10,000 less passengers arrived at Douglas-Charles in 2015."

The report said that 7,840 of this loss was in stay over visitation.

Some also complained that many parliamentary representatives and the Minister of Tourism have never visited some properties, even though they are an integral part of the tourism industry.

"It makes us feel so bad…we have a few constraints and we haven't anybody to talk to about it. And my question is: 'Why even bother?' one operator said, adding that this lack of acknowledgment makes doing business much more difficult.

Another operator pointed out that a pat on the shoulder and a little encouragement go a long way.

"There seems to be a lack of understanding. To me, there has to be a distinct effort to make people feel that you appreciate their effort and encourage them not to let go," this operator noted.

Another major concern is: what special facilities/benefits are being extended to operators who have made the effort to be certified by the DDA?

Certified hoteliers claim that uncertified operators are getting the same treatment as they are even though they had to spend time and money implementing the systems required for certification.

Operators also complained of scanty bookings, particularly since Tropical Storm Erika; one operator lost most of the bookings up to the end of May 2016.

Already, that property was operating with occupancy rates of less than 25% of its capacity.

"I think since the cancellation of the World Creole Music Festival last year, people – regulars, so to speak, and even others—felt that if we had cancelled our biggest event then we needed a lot more time than we were letting on."

Another lamented scanty bookings for the Summer 2016, which traditionally produces a generally full house at that operation. This operator has observed a gradual decline in bookings over the last 10 years or so.

Martin noted that many in the industry want to sell their properties

But the overall commercial business environment is so negative that people do not want to buy, he said.