Tourist boards, governments and the industry spend millions of dollars to create a positive picture of ‘The Caribbean Experience’: a sense that all is well in a country and that a destination and a vacation will provide a happy and memorable experience.
However, recent damaging coverage about violent criminal acts against visitors in a number of Caribbean nations has not only caused the media in key feeder markets to question the safety of visitors, but is now resulting in interested parties, from lawyers to victims, disseminating negative messages on social media in ways that cannot be controlled and, if inaccurate, are hard to refute.
For example, in the Bahamas over the last year there has been a wave of violent gun crime against visitors and residents alike. It has become a national issue that is leading both the Bahamas government and the main opposition party to consider the reintroduction of capital punishment as a deterrent, and more generally much harsher sentencing of those caught and found guilty.
Reflecting local concern, particularly in relation to cruise visitors, the islands’ print, broadcast and on-line media have offered extensive coverage and commentary on the issue.
One particularly striking piece reflecting the challenges posed by on line commentary appeared in the Nassau Guardian. It quoted Jim Walker, a US Attorney and a partner in the Miami firm Walker and O’Neal, as suggesting in a blog that Nassau “may be one gunshot away” from seeing cruise lines drop it from their itineraries. The newspaper also quoted Mr Walker as suggesting that the Bahamas had not listened to the concerns of the cruise lines and that the islands may be progressing along a path similar to that which led them to withdraw from other nations in the past. The attorney was also reported as saying that the Caribbean now had some of the most dangerous ports in the world and naming them.
Mr Walker, whose views are available on his Cruise Law News blog, is just one of a number of professionals associated with the industry whose views are now increasingly widely read by travellers. His commentaries expand on the huge success of sites like Trip Advisor which have caused visitors quite understandably to rely more on peer reviews, word of mouth and personal experience to decide where they will travel to, and less on national and industry marketing and branding.
Whether Mr Walker’s views are or are not accurate is not the point. What is apparent is that the Bahamas has not been able to obtain equal coverage for its view.
By failing to act in good time to respond publicly to allegations and the earlier expressed concerns of the cruise lines; by not making clear that Miami or other US cities may be more dangerous; and despite the fact that almost all visitors to the Bahamas have a safe and happy experience, they seemingly have struggled, particularly in relation to social media and blogs, to ensure that the islands’ case does not go by default.
In this they are not alone.
When it comes to addressing damaging comments in the mainstream media or on social networking sites few Caribbean governments and the industry so far seem to have developed any viable social media strategy to address or respond to comments that may be damaging or incorrect.
What is clear is that on-line reputational damage is certain to grow, not least because almost all visitors are on-line, increasingly use social media and have come to expect the politics, the judicial system, personal safety, and the rule of law to be equivalent to where they reside.
It will not be easy, but what may now be required is for governments, tourist boards and the industry to determine and develop strategies that respond rapidly and in real time to inaccuracies and lack of balance that social media, blogs and on-line citizen journalism are prone to.
A robust professionally managed response strategy may be expensive but it is likely to be much less costly than the economic consequences of reputational damage.