Gregor Nassief
Gregor Nassief

Gregor Nassief, the president of the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association (DHTA)recently spoke with the Sun on a wide range of issues affecting the tourism industry in Dominica and how Nassief expects the industry will respond in 2016 especially post-Erika. Here is the complete interview; the questions were submitted via email.

What are the projections for 2016?

The industry is still in recovery from Erika and will spend the first half of 2016 regaining its footing, and returning to growth during the 2nd half, certainly for Winter 2016. But we are still likely to end 2016 behind 2014 in terms of arrivals due to Erika's impact. Based on the vital importance of tourism to our economy, we need to take the bold steps necessary to turn this recovery period into a new phase of sustainable growth. I believe 2016 needs to be the foundational year when we do what is necessary so that 2017 and beyond delivers unprecedented growth for the sector.

What are some of the initiatives that can be expected?

In terms of destination marketing, we need to revise our branding and revamp our communication and marketing strategies to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities brought about by the explosive growth globally of adventure tourism and health and wellness tourism. We also need to finally get into the 8.5m – 12m budget range recommended in the Tourism Master Plan to effectively market the destination.

In terms of air access, we must continue to work with our airlift partners for convenient and reliable connections through our surroundings hubs. Much has been achieved with Seaborne from San Juan and WinAir from St. Maarten. We need to work more closely with LIAT to ensure better service and improved connectivity particularly through our Antigua and Barbados hubs. And we need to continue to push for a seat on the LIAT Board, something that is long overdue.

2016 should also be the year where the idea of a national airline – whether or not we own or operate the assets, but where Dominica controls the routes and schedule – gains traction, of course without cannibalizing our airlift partners, and servicing hubs and source markets not currently covered. Of course it may be a few years to lift off, but the groundwork should begin in earnest this year. 2016 should also see the implementation of an e-commerce initiative making it easier for visitors to book flights, accommodation and tours. The Ministry of Tourism & Urban Renewal in collaboration with the private sector is hard at work on many of these initiatives.

The visitor experience continues to challenge us. A massive public awareness campaign combined with a zero-tolerance approach to any and all practices undermining our tourism product is necessary. It pains me to say this but Dominica is dirty. Litter, vagrancy, poor environmental practices, noise pollution…… the laws exist, it is time to enforce them. We fully support the Prime Minister's recent statements in this regard and 2016 should mark the turning point in confronting these challenges. We are also not as friendly and safe as we once were. The DHTA has advocated for some time for the appointment of a special task force to tackle these environment and product integrity issues and we are hopeful this is put into place very soon.

Regarding investment, the DHTA will continue to push for further reform to our fiscal incentives regime to increase our competitiveness from an investor perspective. Some has been done, but much remains to be done, particularly to allow local investors to play a more significant part in tourism investments. The Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) should find its footing in 2016 as approved projects such as Range/Kempinski and Tranquility/Hilton gain sales momentum in Asia and the Middle East.

On the product development and promotion side, the DHTA and its members need to be far more aggressive in 2016 in promoting and marketing packages/experiences in collaboration with the DDA to lure visitors to the destination. Also, the Ministry of Tourism & Urban Renewal is working on important initiatives for the yachting sector due to its high potential so 2016 should also see important advances here. What would you wish to see done differently?

Three things really: priority, timeliness and partnership.

First, priority. Tourism needs to be declared a national priority and every single one of us needs to play our part in making it succeed. The most recent statistics show tourism's remarkable contribution to Dominica's economy: 381,000 visitor arrivals (more than 5 times our population), ec$343m in visitor expenditure and ec$190m in foreign exchange earnings, contributing over 10% of the nations GDP and employing over 1,800 persons directly, with tremendous spill over benefits and linkages to Agriculture, Manufacturing, Commerce and Construction. Tourism is arguably the economic engine with the greatest potential for growth and with the broadest and deepest linkages and spill over benefits in terms of the other sectors of the economy. And most importantly, it is the industry that can create most of the jobs for our young graduates returning home now and in the future. It is also the industry that can give our Agricultural sector a much brighter future.

Second, timeliness The time it takes to respond to issues affecting tourism. We can't be talking about vagrancy and litter for 10 years. It cannot take an association like the DHTA 8 years to get VAT taken off service charge, or 5 years to get a level of reform to the fiscal incentives regime. It can't take nine years to tighten up regulations. Stakeholders must push harder for the required changes and Government must respond with far greater speed and agility.

Third, partnership. There is a deep distrust between the Government and the Private Sector – going both ways. A country cannot move forward – an economy cannot sustainably develop and create jobs – without the Government and Private Sector working in partnership for the betterment of the country. The Government needs to create an enabling environment for business and stimulate consumer demand so that the Private Sector can be the real engine of growth. Regardless of where the responsibilities lie for the current disconnect, the Prime Minister should lead on bridging this gap and bringing about a closer and more productive working relationship.

What are the challenges?

Tourism is not a product you buy on a shelf. It is the experience of a destination, from arrival to departure, with hundreds of mini-expereinces in between. To a visitor, Dominica is not just its waterfalls and its hikes and its diving and its sulfur springs. To a visitor, Dominica is also the friendliness of its people, it's safety and security, the cleanliness of its environs, its environmental practices, its carbon footprint, the relative quiet of its surroundings, the order and appeal of its cities and towns, the openness and tolerance of its society, the efficiency and customer-friendliness of its public and private services – vendors, retail store and restaurant staff, immigration and customs officers, taxi drivers and tour guides. The visitor experiences all of this. Our spectacular natural assets mean nothing if we do not offer visitors a safe, clean, friendly and green experience. The challenge is to get all 72,000+ Dominicans on board because we are all part of the tourism product! Success in tourism requires that we all play our part, that we each invest a bit of ourselves in making our destination the best possible experience. It is a small investment that will pay huge dividends for current and future generations.

And how did the sector perform in 2015?

Without Erika it would have been a relatively flat year in terms of visitor arrivals. Due to Erika the industry suffered a significant hit. However, there was good progress on many fronts. To mention a few: our destination marketing budget was increased, our fiscal incentives regime was improved, the visitor arrival and departure experience at the Ferry was made more efficient, Seaborne's new schedule thanks largely to negotiations by Ross University was a huge plus for air access and the signing of Range/Kempinski and Tranquility/Hilton was a major milestone for the island's tourism development. The announcement between Range, Kempinksi and the Government regarding overseas internships for State College tourism graduates was a wonderful and creative initiative in developing our human resources.

And the setbacks of 2015 besides the obvious damage wrought by Erika: LIAT's reduction of flights after Erika was a huge negative and continues to affect us. The BREA report on the satisfaction level of cruise visitors was devastating – we ranked 34 or 35 out of 35 destinations in many key questions. It is a wake up call. The DHTA, DDA and Ministry of Tourism & Urban Renewal and all stakeholders in the public and private sector must work together to significantly improve our image as a cruise destination. The report was a potent reminder that regardless of what we have to offer as a destination in terms of our many wonderful sites and attractions, if we are not safe, clean, friendly and green, then we are not a destination worth visiting. The great opportunity for us is that if we tackle these issues for visitors, we significantly improve the quality of life of all our citizens.