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Barbados, Hawaii, Palau: “How to get our Islands Back with Good Tourists?”

Barbados tourism rebounds with record July arrivals

Islands want good tourists. Not only should arrival numbers measure the success of an island destination. Islands want sustainable tourism – locals must have a voice.

Hawaii wants good tourists. Visitors to some Hawaiian sites like Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve have to get a crash course on Being a Good Tourist. The cost to visit that beach is $25 for visitors, but free for locals.

“It felt like we got our islands back.”, was the comment by the head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, native Hawaiian CEO.

Palau wants good tourists, and they should pay: The island nation of Palau is charging visitors a $100 entry fee.

Barbados has a chance to develop “good tourism” from the very beginning of this new nation.

Barbados just left the British Commonwealth and became a Republic and elected its first president.

The first Hon. Minister of Tourism Senator Lisa Cummins also has a new vision for Barbados’ tourism in which the focus shifts from the number of tourist arrivals to the development of an inclusive industry in which all Barbadians become players.

Now, it’s time to take a risk, challenge the visitor, and give them something real, which has been echoed on a number of island nations around the world.

She is supported in her vision by the newly appointed German Canadian CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing, Inc, Jens Thraenhart. Jens was awarded the Tourism Hero Title last November by the World Tourism Network.

Thraenhart’s selection to head Barbados’ main tourism marketing body had been questioned by some Barbadians who felt the position should have gone to a Citizen of Barbados.

Tourism Heroes Awards:L-R:(Juergen Steinmetz, Hon. Najib Balala, Hon Edmund Bartlett, Jens  Thraenhart, Tom Jenkins

In an interview with the Barbados Sunday, Sun  Jens Thraenhart explained:

“I very much believe in the vision of the minister; how to really transform tourism because I think traditionally people are looking at tourism just in terms of arrival numbers,” while admitting his initial reticence about applying for the BTMI job when he was approached by various executive search firms, “including the agency that was looking to fill the BTMI post”.

“To be honest with you, for me this was so far-fetched. I said, ‘I am not going to even put much hope in this. My mentors said, ‘You are never going to get this job, even though you might be a great fit’ . . . Even when I was in the finals, I felt I was still that token one.” He turned out to be the one getting the nod.

“When I sat down with the Prime Minister, I said people have not asked the most important question, and that is, why do we do tourism? The answer is, that we really want to create well-being for all the residents of the island.

“I said the other thing is that tourism starts at home, so we really need to make sure that people on the island embrace tourism. If the local people are present embracing tourism, then people want to come here . . . We need to go back to why do we do tourism. When we answer that question, we also make sure that we reduce what I call the leakage factor. That money does not go out but the money stays in the community.”

Before coming to Barbados, Thraenhart worked for seven years as executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, serving the six governments of Asia’s Greater Mekong subregion consisting of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, and Thailand and building a strong brand image for that region. By the time he left last year, he had established a reputation and an image in the international tourism arena that prompted one writer to say: “Thraenhart is credited with strongly enhancing the MTCO’s digital offerings. MTCO’s website and Mekong Tourism’s engaging social media presence have won several prestigious awards.”

He has been recognized as one of the Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Travel and Hospitality three times by Travel Agent magazine as one of the Top Rising Stars in Travel and was added to the Hall Of Global Tourism Heroes in 2021.

Tourism was, however, not his first career choice.

The son of renowned German virologist Olaf Thraenhart, the young Jens’ career path initially appeared to be following that of his father. He first studied medicine and also holds a nursing degree. That was until he realized he did not want to be with sick people all his life. “I convinced my dad to let me go to hotel school in Switzerland and I finished my last year in the US.”

While studying medicine he also got involved in the catering business, working in a bar and restaurant. It was a sideline that ignited his interest in hospitality and tourism, resulting in his entering Cornell University at age 30 to acquire the required knowledge and skills and put an MBA under his belt.

The transition to tourism was in the executive position of global head of marketing strategy, customer relations marketing, and digital marketing for the Canadian Tourism Commission, now known as Destination Canada.

Thraenhart sees “a lot of similarities between Barbados and the Mekong region when it comes to marketing the two regions. On one hand, in Asia, it is a lot about small businesses. These are the true heroes of tourism. It is not the big brands – it is the people that tell the story; it is the small social enterprises that create social impact and I always believe that social enterprises in tourism can actually drive true sustainability.

“Southeast Asia has a lot more challenges. You are dealing with six different scripts, but I think here in Barbados you have an island where you can touch the product; you touch the people; you can really drive engagement and participation and I think that is what is so exciting. You can really transform tourism, I think, from the bottom up.”

He suggested Barbadians can easily run on their reputation for being “welcoming people”, explaining the difference between Cambodia and Barbados was that “while the people in Cambodia will be super friendly, you will always feel a foreigner. But when you come here, you feel at home. You have that sense of belonging and community, that you are part of something and that is what I believe the brand is”.

And in this context, asked to comment on the recent contentious issue of Barbados’ branding and a logo, Thraenhart said: “No logo, no tag line, no color can identify that. It can enhance it but in the end, it is that emotional connection that’s the brand and I think when you have that, it is powerful and sustainable and it is driven through, again, going back to those small businesses, the people, and the stories that surround them.”

“I think we cannot just measure arrivals, how many people come, but we need to look at the impact of tourism but also the burden of tourism – what is that invisible burden that tourism can create,” Thraenhart added.

He pointed out that whatever program the BTMI may come up with for the island’s tourism development, there must be buy-in from the people. This, he suggested, was also important to the branding of the island. “I think it comes down to creating touchpoints with brands. It cannot only create increased exposure but also creates an emotional connection. I also see it in terms of building a brand and building that emotion.”

Essence of country

“For me, a logo or a tag line does not sell a destination. I actually believe that a destination is not sold by the logo or the tagline. But sometimes brands can put a lot of emphasis on a logo and a tag line. I believe that a brand is made up of the essence of what a country stands for.”

Some people have remarked on the apparent silence of the new BTMI head since his arrival in Barbados about five months ago. However, Thraenhart explained he had been spending those early days “really listening, and learning about the organization, about the various players and also about the island”, while also quietly working on some programs behind the scenes. He cited the BTMI’s summer campaign, which is built around three pillars. “The first is what we call top-down; the second phase will come in the winter, where we will go out to really engage the industry, the residents, and the visitors.

“The third part is what we call secrets…because we feel, and especially me coming in from the outside in, that many people think of Barbados just as beaches, and I have discovered that there is a lot more to Barbados. When people look at the Caribbean they think the islands are all the same, so we need to make sure that there is a differentiator when it comes to Barbados.”

He also outlined the BTMI’s “Five I’s campaign, which incorporates the many aspects of the new vision for Barbados’ tourism.

What does he say to those Barbadians who questioned his appointment?

“I think you always need to know your place. I was in Asia and I think the difference between me being a German/Canadian being in Asia is more extreme than me being here. So I know cultural differences and sensitivities because I have lived with them. I have lived all over the world. I have had to adapt and engage with all cultures. The second thing is the experiences. I worked in government, I worked in the private sector, and I worked in start-ups so I have an understanding of different organizational structures. I am able to work in different organizational settings and I also understand stakeholders.

“The third thing would be academia. I studied on three continents and I am finishing up my doctorate thesis right now. Having an appreciation for research and data, I think, is another thing.

“But I think in the end, I am here to support the team and I think we have a fantastic team here at the BTMI – passionate, hard-working and they know they are the real experts when it comes to really promote Barbados.

“I come in not to change the paradigm but maybe bring in new ideas and support the team so they can do a good job.”

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