DHTA president Gregor Nassief
DHTA president Gregor Nassief

The head of tourism's private sector body here wants the industry declared "a national priority" and be given the attention it deserves as the engine of the economy.

President of the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association (DHTA) Gregor Nassief has also reiterated a call for every Dominican to be involved in the industry to ensure its success.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Sun in which he discusses tourism's performance in 2015 and its prospects for 2016, Nassief makes reference to the sector's "remarkable contribution" to the economy, having earned the treasury EC$343m in visitor expenditure and EC$190m in foreign exchange earnings and contributing over ten per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

According to the head of the highly successful Secret Bay Resort, tourism also employs over 1,800 Dominicans directly, with "tremendous" spillover 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 spillover 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," he says.

The DHTA head expects the industry to spend the first half of 2016 "regaining its footing" following the devastating blow it suffered from Tropical Storm Erika last August , with growth beginning to return sometime during the second half of the year. However, he believes arrival numbers this year will lag 2014 figures because of the storm.

He also believes TS Erika has presented an opportunity to improve the sector and its overall contribution to the economy.

"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."

Nassief emphasizes the need to "revise our branding and revamp our communication and marketing strategies" to take advantage of opportunities presented by the global growth of adventure tourism and health and wellness tourism and to "finally" allocate the EC$ 8.5m – EC$2m budget range recommended in the Tourism Master Plan to effectively market the destination. While he stresses continued partnership with airline partners "for convenient and reliable connections" through the surroundings hubs, including Antigua, Barbados, St Maarten and Puerto Rico, the local hotelier also believes this is the year for work to begin on the establishment of a national carrier.

"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," he suggests.

He also recommends an e-commerce initiative to make it easier for visitors to book flights, accommodation and tours, saying that the Ministry of Tourism and Urban Renewal, in collaboration with the private sector, is hard at work on many of these initiatives.

In the interview, Nassief also addresses the length of time it takes to deal with some of the challenges that confront the industry, partnerships and investment in tourism. He also tackles the visitor experience, calling for a public awareness campaign and a "zero-tolerance approach" to practices that undermine tourism. "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."

He also describes the recent cruise visitor satisfaction report by Business Research & Economic Advisors (BREA) as "devastating". The survey of cruise passengers and crew placed Dominica at or near the bottom in all the key areas.

"The DHTA, DDA [Discover Dominica Authority] 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," Nassief concludes.