Finding and Re-Finding Yourself

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Interview with Senator the Honourable Robert Tonge, Minister of Tourism and Urban Renewal for the Commonwealth of Dominica

For my project, I wanted to meet with the government ministers and get a pulse for what they feel is needed in order to create more jobs on the island and reduce poverty. Tourism seems to be one of the biggest ways to make that happen. What are your thoughts on tourism as an avenue for employment generation?

As you rightfully know, here in the Caribbean our choices are somewhat limited in terms of bringing economic activity to the country. The tradition here has been agriculture, but when Dominica and some of the other Caribbean islands lost preferential treatment in agricultural trade, we really couldn’t compete on the same scale as the larger nations. We can still sell our produce to other island nations, but it obviously does not generate the income as exporting to Europe once did. So now, many are turning to tourism as an economic driver. For example, countries are using a citizenship by investment program to create income. For families who have the means and interest in purchasing land or traveling, this is sometimes of interest for them.

Tourism is one of the major drivers for Dominica now because we see it as a way to create more jobs for our people. Entering the tourism market however is not without its challenges. One of the major challenges we’ve faced is how to promote the country. The average person does not know about Dominica. More than likely, they know of the Dominican Republic and so when they hear about Dominica they assume the Dominican Republic. But if they were to see our island and compared us to the Dominican Republic, there would be no mix up.

IMG_2438We have to be very clear with our marketing for the country. Spending is limited, so we cannot just cast out a wide net; we have to be very pointed with marketing. If we place our advertisements in front of people who are more interested in a white sand beach and drinking a tequila, as opposed to someone who is into nature and sustainability then we are marketing to the wrong crowd. But if can place our advertising in front of people who appreciate what we have to offer, then we we believe that we can provide the kind of experience that they are looking for. So the idea is to be very pointed with are marketing. We try to use technology and analytics that allow us to place our advertising in front of people who are interested in nature, healthy food, hiking and diving. Using analytics helps us to connect with the right people in a much shorter period of time and at a time of decision when they are actively in the market for a tropical destination like ours. We want Dominica to be a country where it is all about finding and re-finding yourself. Dominica is a place to come enjoy nature, taste wonderful food, meet friendly people and find yourself again.

Sustainability is also very important for us here in Dominica. We want our hotels to provide the type of experience that shows sensitivity to the environment. When you hear that Dominica is the “Nature Island” of the Caribbean and the world, you expect to see certain things when you come here. Something that we are concerned about right now is keeping our country clean. It all starts with us. I always use the phrase: “Garbage has no legs, no feet and no hands; garbage cannot walk or crawl. We are the ones that determine where garbage ends up.” We have the ability to reduce our impact upon the environment. We want visitors to see that our island is clean. One of the efforts I have embarked on is the cleanliness of the gutters in Roseau. We have guys that wake up at 5:00 AM in the morning to go out and clean the streets of the capital city. Rather than campaigning first, let us begin to clean first and set the example. Let us start the trend and then say, “Hey, I am Dominica and I do not litter.” A city that is cleaner, a city that doesn’t smell, a city that is not overrun with rats and cockroaches will be more pleasant for residents and more attractive to visitors. We are passing legislation that require restaurants to have grease and food traps so that waste is not running off into gutters and polluting our waters.

IMG_2303We also want to make Dominica more accessible. Sometimes booking travel to Dominica can be very difficult. Many travel agents do not know who we are, so we are joining different travel associations that will make more people of aware of who we are. We are trying to put our name in the Global Distribution System (GDS) so that more travel agents will have visibility of Dominica and so that when you go on those different search engines, Dominica will pop up more. Someone trying to book a flight to Dominica should have more information and options on how to get here. We can potentially lose around 20% of our business if someone goes to a travel agent wanting to book for Dominica, but not enough data is available quickly. After spending 15 to 20 minutes searching, the agent may suggest someplace else.

We want to increase our budget for marketing so that we can get more people to come to Dominica. If we can fix the awareness, we know that people will come here and have a fantastic experience. From the time a guest hits the ground, we want our customs and port officers to welcome them with a smile. We want our receptionists to be welcoming. We want our bus drivers to exemplify courtesy and safety. We want our hotel staff and bartenders to practice hospitality. We know that we will need to improve in all of these areas to make our tourism experience better and so that what a guest experiences matches what has been advertised. The government is making an effort to encourage this mindset and invest in developing these kinds of accommodations. We are looking for ways to promote our unique hotels, describe their various amenities and facilitate hotel bookings through a hotel booking system that can be utilized by guests to make and pay for a reservation online.

Another step for us would be to improve our human resources by ensuring that more people are properly trained and certified. We will utilize a strategy to train trainers in different areas of hospitality. This will not only improve our services, but it will help our workers feel more confident and content in their roles. A certified worker will be more marketable in the industry and more trained workers will raise the standards of excellence island-wide. We have to improve on our hotel stock and we have to ensure that the sites that our guests go to are more people friendly. We are more or less soft-adventure, but we are going to have people who come here who cannot walk to the waterfall. So at some point we are going to have to build a track that will make it possible for anyone to be able to see and enjoy beautiful waterfalls.

So the idea is that, if we can put all of these things in place: marketing, awareness, sustainability, accessibility, technology, hospitality and training; then more people will come to Dominica, more jobs will be required in the tourism industry and many others will be indirectly employed as a result of the influx of people. From the perspective of the Ministry of Tourism, we can make our stakeholders happier by attracting more people to our shores. We are guided by principles in our tourism master plan and we have tourism initiatives taking place around the island, but when all is said and done it is about creating as many jobs as possible.

What about tourism niches like agri-tourism where guests are taken out to visit farms or pesca-tourism where people are taken out on fishing excursions that support local fisherman and at the same time helps to mitigate the exploitation of fish populations?

As a tourism destination, Dominica is unique in that we are all about the experience as opposed to just spending your entire vacation just relaxing on one beach. What is offered at hotels on most of the other Caribbean islands is all-inclusive and they are more profitable by making it so that you never leave their hotel. Dominica is different because we want you to go out and explore. Passengers of a cruise ship in port can take an agri-tourism excursion to an organic farm, survey the island landscapes, learn about local practices, sample some of the produce and make a donation. One farmer said that the tips he made on the tour were more than he could make by selling the produce in the market. Tropical Storm Erica has damaged some of the roads that lead to those farms and the cruise ships are only here for a season, but these are still areas that we feel can benefit tourism in the local communities. We want to advise our hotel owners, stakeholders and potential entrepreneurs with some ideas that have been successful on other islands to see if they might be interested in capitalizing on some of those same tourism and ecotourism opportunities here.

How do you encourage communities to develop their own special tourism niches?

We have also been supporting Community Based Tourism so that individual communities can benefit from tourism. The reality is, if the communities do not benefit from tourism then they really do not care to uphold the standards that we would like to reflect. One of our better projects is the village of Mero, where the entire community has realized that the beach is a major asset. So now they make sure that the beach is clean and they ensure that the area is safe for people to come. Even among the locals, on a Sunday the number of Dominicans that visit Mero beach is amazing compared to what it was before. This is all a result of the tourism and cleanup efforts that have been put in place there.

There are other areas around the island where we are trying to encourage community-based tourism projects. In the North of the island, for example, we have the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services, (PAYS), which provides nightly security in the harbor, island tours, hikes, dives and other services for people and their boats that are anchored in Prince Rupert Bay. This has been so successful that we are looking at the possibility of providing moorings for boats in other coastal areas of the island so that they too can offer similar services in those communities and introduce more customers to their shops who might purchase fresh produce, water, food and other items.

Another idea we have been thinking about is developing an App like Uber or Lift that not only provides transportation but also puts tour guides on board. So if you are visiting the island you can open up the App and find a tour guide in your area. There is a company out of Jamaica that does this. This app will give better visibility and improve the chances of persons in those respective areas of generating business as a result of this technical tool. Community tourism really makes a difference because it can decrease unemployment in specific areas and give people a sense of responsibility to care for and protect those areas.

If university students were to come to Dominica to complete their internship projects in the areas of tourism or entrepreneurship, what particular projects would you suggest?

I think that for short projects one of the best things that a university student could offer is training. That could be training in the areas of tourism or concepts in entrepreneurship and also some motivational speaking. Also, as previously mentioned we could certainly benefit from assistance with marketing and creating awareness about our Nature Island.  In the area of technology, we could use some assistance in App development from computer programmers. Students could also assist in other areas like water and sewerage management.

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It was really great for Senator Tonge to take the time to meet with me. We had a great conversation and the focus of his work was so fresh on his mind that he answered many of my questions even before I could ask them.  Dominica offers so much in regard to ecotourism, adventure tourism, beautiful landscapes, healthy food and undisturbed natural environments.  Though it’s tourism industry is relatively young, that is what makes it a great opportunity for entrepreneurship.

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