Friday, June 3, 2011

A Tourism Idea for the Brac (Cayman tourism)

It’s always puzzled me why so many people on the Brac want the place to become like Grand Cayman. “More hotels!” “More jet planes!” “A dock for cruise ships!” Maybe Brackers aren’t as laid-back as they pretend. Maybe they dream of getting among the big tourism dollars like GCM.

While Manager of the Chamber of Commerce I was once thrown out of the Director of Tourism’s office for suggesting that the Brac should aim to attract budget travellers by opening the Island to a Youth Hostel and camping ground. The reaction was hostile. Why should Brackers aim for anything less than Grand Cayman was achieving? Hmm... how has that strategy worked for them, these past 24 years?

The International Youth Hostel Association is still going strong, although overtaken now by generic backpackers’ hostels. In my travelling days, official IYHA hostels were spread over most of the world. In Europe only USSR, East Germany and Albania didn’t have any; Poland had hundreds. Some were fairly grand, some very simple; some were attached to fancy hotels. All were cheap.

I recall paying a pittance at one basic-but-comfortable place beside a lazy river in a small town in France. The hostel’s warden was also the town’s mayor; he admitted the town lost on the venture. “It’s a long-term investment”, he explained. “Of course we lose money on you. But when you’re older and in a good job, you might remember us kindly and want to come back with your family. Then, we’ll make a profit.” “I might not come back,” I said. “Maybe not, but most of you will.” He was full of confidence.

That’s what I had in mind for the Brac- a long-term investment in the form of a cheap hostel and camping ground, listed in every budget-travel book in the world, in forty languages. It was a big mistake for our Tourism man to rubbish the idea. Young backpackers in 1986 would be around fifty today- ready to come back with their families and rich enough to spend real money.

There are plenty of places where the idea has worked. In 1973 there were a hundred of us staying beside Kuta Beach in Bali, paying a dollar or two a night for simple rooms. Despite its fame as a hippy hangout, Kuta wasn’t much of a beach. Unless they’ve brought some clean white sand in since, it still isn’t. But now, there are 114 hotels listed, priced up to $200. The local tourism people knew what they were doing, back in 1973, and weren’t too proud or greedy.

As soon as we got back from Kuta to our home on an island near Fiji, Linda and I turned our backyard maids’ quarters into a simple, informal (and slightly illegal) hostel. We charged a buck a night (about $10 in today’s money) for a bed, toilet, cold water shower and basin, and no cooking facilities. The word spread gradually on the travellers’ grapevine. Hey, it was worth flying into Vila after all; there was a place that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Before, Vila was not on the backpackers’ list of places to go.

Embarrassingly, the situation was getting out of hand by the time we left. One night we had two in the tiny room, six in tents, and three in our house. That’s when we got rumbled for doing business without a licence. “Come on! A buck a night is a hobby, not a business!” Well, okay. So ruled. Case dismissed!

Would the concept work on the Brac? I don’t see why not. It’s not as though anybody has a better plan.