On The Record: Vernice Walkine, Director General, Bahamas Ministry of Tourism

SM: In your role, what's the greatest challenge?

Walkine: Some of the islands being invested in are small communities, and I have a responsibility to manage that and make sure these communities aren't overwhelmed. Also, after all of the development, we're going to find ourselves with almost double our current hotel room inventory, yet we have to ensure that we maintain reasonable occupancy levels. And other destinations, like Dubai for example, are making major improvements too, so we have to promote things that make the Bahamas stand out from the crowd. That is my task.

SM: When you were promoted 18 months ago, you became the first woman to occupy that position. So what do you bring to the job that's unique for this post?

Walkine: As a woman, I tend to look more at the human side of the industry. People often think of tourism infrastructure as bricks and mortar, but we have to think about how development impacts residents' quality of life: Once an island is developed, will people be able to afford housing there? Will their children be able to go to school? We don't want communities to be overwhelmed and we want to help them find ways to participate in the development in a meaningful way. At the ministry, after I came in, we created a department that talks with the communities to prepare the people there for these opportunities.

Also, I have seen a lot in my 27 years at the ministry, like the U.S. recession of the early 1980s which really affected us. So I can appreciate what we need to do to make sure we don't again go through what we did back then.

SM: What are your thoughts on stricter U.S. passport rules for more countries?

Walkine: We do have some concern. Research shows that the vast majority of Americans do not have passports. Our own research shows that about one-third of our visitors do not have passports. The reason for our concern is fairly unique to us--because of our proximity, we have been able almost to own the franchise for the quick getaway vacation. The person likely to enjoy a quick getaway was someone who didn't need a passport until now. We run the risk of losing that "franchise," and seeing our business decline due to the passport requirement, so that we are now no more desirable than elsewhere in the Caribbean.

We have also been concerned at the ineffective awareness efforts of the U.S. government--the Department of Homeland Security. We worry that there are still far too many Americans who do not know that they will require a passport for re-entry into the U.S. We worry that once the deadline is upon us, the State Department will be unable to handle the influx of applications. We are concerned that the initiative will be implemented during the peak winter season. The timing could not be worse.

So we are proposing to launch an awareness campaign early next year. Some of our major hotel partners have already implemented "refund" initiatives, where they will refund the cost of the passport upon presentation of a Bahamas stamp as its first-time use. We are hopeful that this will be a Y2K-like situation; we are preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best.

SM: What's your greatest hope for the Bahamas?

Walkine: My focus is on being able to present a whole menu of islands that are distinctly different from one another, yet each can sustain itself through tourism.