BVI News

COMMENTARY: A maritime dejavu

Dickson Igwe

By Dickson Igwe, Contributor

Observations by the Virgin Islands political establishment on the matter of expatriate control of the maritime, yachting, and boating industry, are accurate. The maritime industry in the country is owned, managed, and directed, by expatriates.

However, it is not expats who are to blame for this imbalance. In fact, from this writer’s interactions with friends in the industry: customers and managers, UK and American, a number have been wondering why natives are not more fully involved in the industry.

One Canadian yachtsman, who spends a lot of time on a yacht at Nanny Cay, British Virgin Islands, could not understand why a lucrative industry, and one that is natural to the island’s geography, did not have more native involvement. He gave this Kids and the Sea (KATS) swimming instructor, numerous tips on getting more native involvement in the industry, from a Canadian perspective. The man is a retired educator from Nova Scotia. Educator Paul Strome, was once responsible for play and leisure activities in a remote Canadian community.

US manager of a yacht charter business at Nanny Cay, Dick Schoonover, told this writer, he had been waiting for years for the opportunity to aid with the training of natives in sailing and boating. The country boasts scores of instructors in specific sea skills, and maritime skills sets, both native and expatriate. These are men and women who are more than willing to share their knowledge with natives and residents.

The main reason for the imbalance in the maritime industry is actually quite simple. From the arrival of finance and tourism prosperity, in the early 1980s, the country has ignored the critical matter of leveraging its maritime sector. A country that was once upon a time, a maritime community discarded its seafaring culture. It left the maritime industry to others. Instead of producing seamen, the Virgin Islands began to produce white collar workers.

The BVI has become a near mono economy. It has come to depend overwhelmingly on the financial services sector. And now that the financial goose that lays the golden egg is laying fewer eggs, the country is looking desperately for alternatives.

In most areas of the tourism industry, apart from taxi services, expats are in control. This is not peculiar to the Virgin Islands. It is Caribbean wide. It has to do with the fact that tourism is an industry controlled ultimately by global players in the USA and Western Europe, who link with local players in key tourism regions.

Then, the BVI has failed to obtain the social, learning, and economic, benefits, derived from the maritime industry, especially in terms of the hard and critical skills, and managerial capability, that leads to local ownership, and the employment of natives in the sector. This is especially so in terms of the country’s youth.

A compulsory maritime curriculum should have been the status quo from the late 1980s. Swimming and diving, seas skills, sea rescue, navigation and climate, and basic boating and sailing, should have been learned by every student in the Virgin Islands compulsorily. The BVI is a maritime paradise. It is a natural maritime school. A maritime curriculum will enrich the total learning experience in the Virgin Islands.

The quest for a seafaring culture should have been pursued as a critical economic, learning, and social necessity. Every Virgin Islander and Belonger should have been a competent mariner and seafarer today. In much the same way every Israeli has to join the army at some point in his or her life.

This is an archipelago for goodness sake. The sea is the beginning and ending of life in these islands. Had a seafaring culture been in place, there would have been no concern today that the industry is not benefitting the native population. The tool of knowledge would have fixed a number of inequities in the system.

And that vision of building a seafaring culture may sound ambitious. But it is achievable.

Had there been a national focus on maritime learning, today there would have been no employment gap in the maritime industry between locals and expatriates. Hundreds of locals would have possessed the most basic and essential maritime skills required to enter the industry, and survive and thrive.

Presently, natives lack these skill sets, notwithstanding what is being said in some quarters. Entitlement will not work in the maritime industry. Competency, graft, and great customer service, are what are required to thrive. The sailing industry is an industry that is governed by a specific culture. It is a global culture that is twin with a maritime history that began with the medieval explorers, through to modern 21st Century sailing, boating, and shipping. Yachtsmen and women around the world share a common history, culture, language, and mind set. That culture must be learned.

One critical lack is people skills. The maritime industry is customer service oriented. It is a service-driven industry. Customer service skills are paramount for success in the industry. Customer service training goes with the technical and scientific learning crucial to the maritime sector.

Then, there is a lack of vision and mission by natives of these islands on the potential of the maritime industry to better their lives. One reason is the prosperity brought on by financial services. The financial services industry, the key provider of lucrative employment and prosperity in the British Virgin Islands is contracting. This is the result of global political developments outside of the control of the Virgin Islands Government.

Tourism, of which the maritime industry is an integral part, is the one alternative that can make up for the loss of jobs in the financial services sector.

However, the country is far from ready to capitalize on the gift of its maritime resources. Why? It has not developed a maritime culture. It has not invested in the learning that would have seen a generation of Virgin Islanders and Belongers, able to fully man the various sectors of the industry. The present skill sets are far from sufficient.

There is another matter. The maritime industry does not offer the high salaries and incomes the financial services industry offers. Natives have come to expect that after school, a big income and all the debt that follows is the way to go. That is a false economy. The days of super salaries after high school are over.

What the maritime alternative does offer are skills and opportunities that are globally sought after. It is also a good employer of labour. Maritime workers can learn scores of essential maritime and boating skills. These enhance quality of life. There are certifications and degrees to be earned in the maritime sector that are globally recognized. The industry further offers locals business opportunities.

Skills in the maritime industry vary. There is the fishing industry that is part of the country’s geography. Then the sailing industry offers scores of careers and jobs in fields such as rigging, boat maintenance, maritime electronics, moorings management, and navigation. Diving is a field in its own right. There is the ocean sciences and oceanography aspect.

There is the hospitality aspect of the maritime industry. Visitors to these islands come for the beauty and geography. The way to best appreciate these gifts of nature is from a sail boat. Catamaran charters offer decent accommodations and moorings where visitors get the best of sea and land.  Still, infrastructure and facilities can be further improved.

Scores of leisure activities in tourism require a maritime understanding.  Maritime training includes a basic knowledge of climate, navigation, geography, and even cosmology.  The maritime field is as wide as it is deep.

The preceding determines the critical need for a comprehensive maritime culture to be re introduced. The BVI, in decades past, was a maritime society. It was also agrarian. These two industries were the bread and butter of the islands. Boats manned by Virgin Islanders plied the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Sloops were the key to life and trade. Men with knowledge of boat-making and navigation linked the Virgin Islands with Caribbean Islands such as The Dominican Republic, St Thomas, and Cuba.

In any event, it will take years to re-establish that sailing culture. The time to start is today. A compulsory maritime curriculum should be introduced. Swimming, and sea and boating skills, should be made compulsory in schools. Bear in mind that a maritime curriculum will link with most academic disciplines: geography, math, history, chemistry, physics, languages, social studies, computer studies, and so on and so forth.

A great Virgin Islander stated once that, ‘’without vision the people perish.’’ The issue with the maritime industry is that the people with a vision for the industry are all expatriates.  They possess the vision to see the potential of the sailing geography of the Virgin Islands, and are able to leverage the industry for their benefit. You cannot blame them. Too many locals prefer to work in a bank or trust company.

So, it is no point crying if the lack of vision for a particular industry is capitalized on by those with a vision from alien shores. The best thing to do is to correct the problem. That will only happen through a change in the local culture, behaviour, and mindset. It will only be done through learning, and adopting the right values, culture set, and mind set, for success in an industry, with its own unique history, culture, and Modus Vivendi.

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