Joy Jibrilu, Director General, Ministry of Tourism, the Bahamas

Chief executives of global companies in six industry sectors offer their assessments of the business environment they expect to be facing next year. The interviews were conducted by Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann.

The U.S. continues to be our No. 1 source market, and it’s a relationship we value for so many reasons. Yes, we’re blessed with beautiful sun, sand, sea and climate, but we cannot ignore the fact that we are perfectly located next to the U.S.

But one of the things that I hope we have learned from the recent recession, which affected America so terribly, was that it also impacted our economy in a very, very detrimental way. That speaks to the need to diversify our market.

I think we got very comfortable knowing the U.S. was right there. Our visitor numbers were up, and so even though we talked about it, we didn’t do much.

So we’re re-engaging in a meaningful way again with Europe. Historically, we had wonderful numbers from Europe through the 1970s and 1980s, and those numbers have taken a beating because we took our eye off that particular ball. We’re opening up offices there, and I’ve been to Europe several times, and already in one year we’ve seen growth, substantial growth. The United Kingdom alone, in 2014 to 2015, year to date, has grown by 11%, and we’ve seen those numbers reflected across Europe.

We want to continue to grow Latin America. We have direct airlift on Copa out of Panama, and that’s been a great move. Brazil and Colombia, in particular, connect through Panama. We’re strategically going after direct airlift. We’ve had some meetings with other carriers out of Latin America.

We’ve also signed a memorandum of understanding with Eastern Airlines to get airlift from the West Coast direct to the Bahamas. We have historically had a really strong relationship with Eastern, and so I can’t express how happy I was when they approached the Bahamas to re-engage, and we hope it will materialize. That could lead to the possibility of connections with flights out of China. There are three flights from China into L.A. each day, bringing 900 people. I have heard some incredible statistics: the average Chinese visitor spends $6,000. We have opened up an office in Beijing and sent staff there, learned the culture, learned what is needed.

If we can just get a tiny bit of some of these incremental visitors and visitor spend, I think it bodes well for us as a destination.

The Chinese are very interested in Baha Mar. They know all about it. We cannot ignore the fact that Baha Mar should’ve opened. It’s a beautiful property, and about 95% completed. It has gone into receivership [and] China Export-Import Bank, the mortgager, has taken over as mortgager in possession. But interest in it remains very strong from potential investors. The government has met with many potential investors, and, in fact, I have a meeting today with potential investors, with the prime minister.

People like that it’s 95% complete, approvals are all in place, the government continues to support the project and the brands associated with it, for the most part, are remaining committed and believe it presents an incredible opportunity.

Our prime minister is so optimistic. I’ve learned to be a bit more cautious than he is, but I can say unequivocally that the interest is clear because I’ve had the privilege to sit in a number of meetings. It’s in the hands of China Ex-Im Bank. I can’t provide a time frame, but as soon as we know, I will gladly share that.

The U.S. continues to be our No. 1 source market. But one of the things I hope we learned from the recession is that we need to diversify.

[Regarding the geopolitical situation], I know Paris very well, having studied there, and it breaks your heart that they’re going through what they have. I feel I have to be so careful when people are suffering and going through challenging times, yet on the other hand, I look at the Caribbean as a region and believe that Americans and Europeans will be thinking about where they’re going to take their vacations.

We know that the interest in travel is as high as it has ever been. Where they may have gone to North Africa, even to places in Europe or Turkey, I think they’re going to think twice and wonder if they should stay closer to home.

We have been very fortunate in the Caribbean that there has been stability. We’ve operated, to some degree, under the radar, and we pray that that continues, and we believe that we will be indirect beneficiaries of what’s happening globally because, to date — thank God, touch wood — we have proven to be a very safe destination.

As for consumer trends, everyone’s throwing around the word “millennials” for these young people with access to money. They’re looking for innovative things. They have the desire to travel, many of them have the means to travel, and we are seeing the change. We’re still a family destination, but we’re seeing younger people thinking of the Bahamas as different. What that means is, it’s no longer just Nassau and Paradise Island, but our Family Islands.

This is what is unique about the Bahamas: Jamaica’s one island; Barbados is one island; we get 700 islands and thousands of cays, and we actively market 16 of them. It’s possible to have a different experience in each. Visitors are going to the islands to dive, to bone fish, to bird-watch, so we’re promoting ecotourism and activities that may not have been promoted as heavily in the past. We’re differentiating ourselves to ensure not only that we retain our market share but that we grow it.

We’re engaging not just in traditional media and PR, but we’re looking at digital. Our social media is robust. We have some young, dynamic people who are, frankly, educating me daily, and the numbers are reflecting what they’re doing.

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