Caribbean hospitality must be multilingual

As a child of the Cold War I grew up learning French at school and later, as my education progressed, I studied Russian and German.

As it happened I never used my Russian and it faded along with the former Soviet Union. However, I did have occasion to value the German I had learnt. While travelling as a tourist in the eastern part of Europe in countries like the Czech Republic I found that in the small hotels where I stayed, or with those selling tickets at railway stations, or at small country restaurants and bars, it was possible to overcome the mutual incomprehension by being able to speak in a language that belonged to neither of us.

In contrast, I use my French for work, but oddly the language that I have had the most need of, for work and travel – Spanish – I have had to try to pick up along the way.

I note all of this because learning languages, and as importantly, understanding something of the culture that goes with them, is becoming more essential as every day passes, particularly in the travel and hospitality sector.

Up to now the tourism industry in the Anglophone Caribbean has been able to rely on English as, until relatively recently, most visitors would come from the US, Canada or the UK or were likely to be from a social background where fluent English was encouraged as a second language.

That now is changing. More and more, as the Caribbean comes to recognise that it needs to diversify its feeder markets, the requirement is for an industry that can operate in other languages. From Jamaica to Barbados, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the tourism sector is now looking at how to attract visitors from Russia, Brazil, other parts of Latin America and Scandinavia. Some nations like the Bahamas are actively engaged in exploring opportunity even further afield in China; initially in the context of upscale gambling junkets, then probably, before long, as longer stay visitors, and maybe even in time, as cruise visitors.

What this means is that there is a real need, not just for hotels but for every significant tourist facing facility to develop an ability to speak and understand Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and possibly Mandarin as well.

If the Caribbean believes that it is the welcome and the experience that matters, and that this results in return visitors, then everyone from immigration officers to waiters, barmen and taxi drivers need to be able to engage conversationally, at least, in the language of the visitor. It also means that signs, menus, emergency instructions and welcome packs need to be translated into the language of the countries from which significant numbers of visitors are now arriving.

This is not likely to be easy particularly for an older generation of workers. It requires finding ways to marry the charm of being in the Caribbean with a level of service that a visitor expects and at least the initial willingness to speak in another language.

In many countries in the region there has been a noticeable change in respect of the visitor welcome. Over the last few years, for instance, taxi drivers in Barbados, in Montego Bay, and in some other destinations have become more engaged and helpful; immigration officers in Havana now usually speak two or three languages; in shops and hotels in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Russian has become more common; and in Jamaica a language skills training programme in conversational Russian and Spanish is being made available initially to 300 persons in the industry.

This welcome government initiative and others like it, which should start its life in schools, should now be actively promoted across the region by Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) and others as a vital component in ensuing future regional tourism competitiveness.