If only Dorset were a bit more like Barbados! Of course, our beaches are almost as good, our countryside is arguably more inviting, and this summer’s heatwave has pushed our temperatures close to Caribbean heights.
It’s our attitude to tourism that all too often lets us down.
For decades, Barbados was Britain’s prime source of sugar – the Barbadian economy’s sweet success was almost entirely due to our appetite for the stuff.
However, by the early 1950s, production of cheaper homegrown sugar beet – first introduced to the UK in the 1900s – had reached the point where we no longer relied on the Caribbean canefields, and Barbados began to slide towards financial ruin.
With a foresight bordering on the clairvoyant, the Barbados government decided to diversify into tourism – at precisely the time that the fledgling package holiday industry was starting to take off.
The Barbados Development Board was set up in 1957, followed a year later by the establishment of a tourism board; hotel development was actively encouraged; within a decade or so, the island’s economy was transformed – and back on track.
Today, the island’s tourism bosses have recognised a new trend. It seems that 21st Century holidaymakers prefer the freedom of self-catering accommodation to the constraints of the hotel room, so Barbados has devised an entirely new tourism strategy geared to meeting that demand.
What is extraordinary about this is that Barbados has managed rapidly to reach a kind of “can do” consensus. With tourism accounting for more than 50 per cent of the island’s foreign exchange earnings, everyone is on-side.
Of course, Dorset is more than six times the size of Barbados, but our populations aren’t that different – just under 300,000 over there, just under 400,000 over here.
And if 300,000 people can agree a strategic approach to the future of their all-important tourism industry, it is surely not beyond the realms of possibility that 400,000 might be persuaded to adopt the same approach.
Barbados has just one tourism authority, enjoying the full support of an active and enthusiastic ministry of tourism and, apparently, of the population at large.
Dithering, divided Dorset has no such luxuries. The county’s tourism sector is fragmented and factional, with local councils and trade bodies jealously guarding their little patches of tourism turf, seemingly incapable of working together.
There is a crying need for cohesion. There is also a crying need for Barbados-style foresight.
I have little doubt that, in a few months’ time, Dorset’s tourism businesses will be able to look back on another hugely successful year’s trading. That’s not the point – the past is history, it’s the future that matters, and that’s where the focus should lie.
Dorset fully deserves its successes, but it also deserves more successes, and they will only come about if tourism interests take a strategic, county-wide approach, and embrace the opportunities afforded by changing market trends.
Barbados has shown the way. It looked to the future, and adapted accordingly. Dorset would do well to follow the example.