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Tourism recovery: Island paradise banks on data

Curacao, a Lesser Antilles island country in the southern Caribbean Sea is beautiful but still relatively unknown to tourists. So what draws a visitor to its shores? A new data initiative by Baker Tilly has delivered actionable insights which could help the region revive its critical tourism sector.

Dutch 20-somethings like to stay in villas. Canadian tourists want winter by the beach and Venezuelan visitors are prepared to spend big on diving.

These are all findings arising from a unique dataset captured with the help of Baker Tilly advisors in the Caribbean, working to revive the economies of tourism-dependent islands using insights from digital rather than paper arrival cards.

It’s a level of market segmentation that has previously been impossible, but for Curacao, it has provided a window not only into the country of origin, age and gender of visitors, but also their interests and spending habits — before they even step foot on the island.

Baker Tilly’s Gary Brough, Managing Director for the firm in the Turks and Caicos Islands (“TCI”), says such data capture and analysis is still at an early stage but he expects the innovation will be quickly rolled out across the region.

“We believe our initiative is a game changer and will transform how tourism related decisions are made in the future by governments, resorts and other industry stakeholders,” Mr Brough says.

“The introduction of digital immigration cards and the application of data-driven decisions will accelerate pursuant to Covid-19 as more decision-makers recognise the importance of touchless digital transactions and the need to take a more structured approach to tourism decisions.”

“Once you start to analyse the data you can see trends in tourism that we never knew were there, but which can now be used to help target customers precisely.”
– Gary Brough

By digitizing the gold mine of information previously captured on paper, he says, these small tourism-dependent economies can start to target nuanced market segments.

The result is a set of actionable data-driven insights that can be used to help drive the tourism sector’s recovery.

“Once you start to analyse the data you can see trends in tourism that we never knew were there, but which can now be used to help target customers precisely,” Mr Brough says.

“The initiative is not limited by geography. Our strategic analysis of millions of visitors entry cards identifies those who have visited more than once, their lifetime value to a destination and the return on marketing spend which provides a destination with a rich understanding of who is visiting, where they are coming from, the purpose of their visit, how long they will visit for, and where they will stay while on the island.

“We have also been able to match this data with exit information, so we also know what they did, what they enjoyed, how much they spent and how likely they are to return and recommend the destination to family and friends.”

A world of information on tourists

The catalyst for the project was the experience Mr Brough gained while leading a master plan engagement for the tourism industry in TCI, where tourism is by far the greatest contributor to GDP.

“We realised that very relevant data was being captured at point of entry but was not being collated and analysed and used to drive decision-making,” he says.

“This was entirely consistent with our findings elsewhere in the region.”

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, a former tourism minister of The Bahamas and founder of specialist tourism advisors Aboardia, and who worked with Mr Brough on the TCI engagement, says digital tourism data could unlock enormous opportunities across the Caribbean.

“The radical change is that we are enabling visitors to complete and transmit their immigration card at the time of booking,” he says.

“So instead of you completing an analog card on the flight, as a country we know about you a long time ahead of your arrival.

“If you go to Expedia, and you make a reservation today, with your permission we now can begin to communicate with you, welcome you, thank you for your booking, and ask if you would like any help with planning your itinerary.

“It will open up a world of information that never existed before.”

“In the case of The Bahamas, if you convert just one per cent of cruise passengers to stopover visitors, that’s $75 million US dollars each year and for a country like ours that is astonishing.”
– Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace

The economic impact of such a change is significant.

Mr Vanderpool-Wallace points to cruise ships, for example, which normally supply only a ship manifest with limited detail on each passenger.

“We have 5 million cruise ship visitors a year in The Bahamas but the idea of converting cruise passengers to stopover visitors was not on the cards because there’s no way to contact those people,” he says.

“Well if you enable the cruise passenger to complete the digital card at home at the time of making that cruise reservation, you begin to capture a market that you have never contacted before.

“In the case of The Bahamas, if you convert just one per cent of cruise passengers to stopover visitors, that’s $75 million US dollars each year and for a country like ours that is astonishing.”

Other economic benefits lie in connecting the Caribbean’s small, often non-digital hospitality providers and tourism operators with insights that can guide investment, as well as improving the sector’s digital capacity overall.

“If I have a property in The Bahamas, I would like to know about my visitors compared to the visitors across the entire destination,” Mr Vanderpool-Wallace says.

“As you begin to broaden this across the Caribbean, I want to know how my visitors compare to visitors across the broader region and whether the trends are different.

“It is a complete transformation of the way tourism is managed and how it’s viewed.”

Mr Brough says his team is now working with global funding groups to back the roll-out of digital embarkation cards and the strategic analysis of the data captured, to support the revival of tourism and economies in the region.

“The Caribbean is the most tourism dependent region in the world and we’ve got six of the 10 most tourism-dependent countries in the world” he says.

“Economic diversification is an admirable goal but it can’t just happen overnight. It is a longer-term goal. If tourism is the major contributor to your GDP, then diversification means supplementing tourism and not replacing tourism.

“The stakes are very high and smarter, data-driven decisions and enhanced digitisation are a critical part of any solution. 

“Many tourism dependent countries don’t have the luxury of time. We need to make this work now.”

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Gary Brough

Baker Tilly (Turks and Caicos Islands)

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