Barbuda in the limelight
It is more than fifteen years since I last visited Antigua.
My main memories were of the water, sailing around the island and diving into the crystal blue seas. Despite enjoying a wonderful holiday, I’m afraid I remember very little about the people I met, I struggled to engage with them, and I’m ashamed to say that I failed to get under the skin of the history, heritage or culture.
Returning for travel trade event, Showcase Antigua and Barbuda this year, I experienced a very real change. Everywhere I went, the people of the islands were friendly, interested, helpful and frankly, delighted to see me. Is this a simple reaction to the shock of Covid? Or does this change run more deeply? Has there been a slow but acute transformation going on?
The Minister of Tourism for Antigua and Barbuda, Charles ‘Max’ Fernandez, has held the position since 2018. He is obsessive about inclusion and collaboration. In his view, it is the responsibility of every single member of the population to support tourism to the islands.
He recognised the experience of the visitor goes way beyond interactions within the controlled environments of hotels and restaurants, seeping through to airport security, retail transactions, taxi drivers and interactions with everyone from policeman to postmaster.
These small interactions are what drive repeat visitation, and create the ‘brand ambassadors’ he speaks of who will tell their friends to consider Antigua and Barbuda for their post pandemic dream holiday.
He understands that the devil is in the detail and that, to make his vision a reality, all Antiguans and Barbudans need to commit to the common cause. It doesn’t matter if you don’t work directly in tourism. Your economic future is tied up in the tourism industry and it is in everyone’s interest to make it work.
With this in mind, Minister Fernandez has engaged people from across the population in his 10 year plan (Vision 2032) to bring Antigua and Barbuda out of the pandemic stronger than it went in. The competitive advantage gained by being the first Caribbean destination to open to international visitors will have taken market share from its neighbours for last year, but the challenge remains to keep pushing to maintain that advantage. There are big plans, innovative plans, to achieve this.
The return of Showcase, the first such event to be held in the Caribbean since the pandemic, is an initial, but highly symbolic step in Antigua and Barbuda’s ambition to position itself as a leader within the region. Other initiatives include marketing June 2022 as ‘Romance Month’, offering, among other things, a fast track immigration lane for couples at the airport. There are big plans for events this year, with the return of Carnival this summer and a month long celebration of Antiguan music throughout October, leading up to Independence Day on 1st November.
There is a priority to restore airlift back to 2019 levels and 5,000 people have been trained in the new health and safety protocols.
Shining a light on Barbuda
Probably the most interesting ambition is to really get behind Antigua’s smaller neighbour, Barbuda, to encourage visitation to this largely untouched destination. As Mr Colin James, the CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority told me, ‘Barbuda will become the new St Barts’. The first Nobu restaurant in the Caribbean has opened in Barbuda and Robert de Niro is investing heavily in the island with plans for a Nobu Beach Inn. Other luxury resorts will follow.
The tourist board has turned the lack of infrastructure into a marketing message ‘We have one ferry, two flights and ten taxis. We’d love you to come, but please, not all at once.’
It’s an ambitious goal. I went to Barbuda and it has the potential to be something incredible. The beaches are simply exquisite, the true pink sand and crystal turquoise sea of the advertising images. For now, there really is very little there. Just 1,500 people lived on Barbuda before the development projects started. Now the number has jumped to 2,500.
There is one bank, one petrol station, few shops, few places to eat. And the impact of the 2017 Hurricane Irma, which devastated the island, is still visible throughout the coconut plantations.
There is a lot to do. However, I don’t doubt that the plans for luxury hotels and a new infrastructure will be completed. The bigger challenge for the government will be bringing this tiny island community with them, engaging them to embrace a very different future.
Because, no matter how beautiful the beach, how clear the water, or how exclusive the hotel, the perfect holiday experience relies on the best service, delivered authentically by the people who know the destination. And that means Minister Fernandez will need to be listening very carefully to the community. Because his success in transforming Barbuda from simple island to luxury travel destination relies on its people.