AT THE end of an unforgiving 2020, the world was hopeful to regain some level of normalcy with the coming of the New Year. At the dawn of 2021, countries began the dissemination of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. However, the stark reality is that individuals are still quite reluctant to embark upon leisure travel as multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 swamped the United Kingdom and the United States.
The tourism industry continues to suffer from the fallouts of 2020 as border closures, lockdowns and other containment measures, which were implemented to mitigate the spread of the virus, continue.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), 2020 was the worst year for tourism with one billion fewer international arrivals. International arrivals decreased by 74 per cent at a loss of US$1.3 trillion in export revenues. Globally, tourism was directly impacted by the pandemic, forcing approximately 120 million individuals on the breadline.
The Caribbean was not spared from this most devastating event. Many Caribbean countries depend heavily on tourism which contributes over 50 per cent of GDP and acts as a main foreign revenue earner. The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a distinct awareness that tourism had become the main driver of economic growth, employment and source of income for the region. While this industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors worldwide, it is also the most susceptible to external shocks.
During 2020, tourist arrivals to the Caribbean plummeted, as key source markets such as Canada, the United States and Europe were crippled by numerous surges of the virus. According to the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), countries such as Anguilla experienced a 58.3 per cent decline in tourist arrivals, Antigua and Barbuda a 44.8 per cent decline, and Grenada a 34 per cent decline.
Despite the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) was ushered in to pinpoint the vulnerabilities within their economies and incorporate strategies to revitalise and create a more resilient tourism industry.
Caribbean countries have to be forward-looking in order to increase competitiveness as well as boost resilience. This is critical as the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts Survey showed that the overall prospects of a rebound in 2021 had worsened as 50 per cent of respondents now expect a rebound to occur only in 2022 as compared to 21 per cent of respondents when the survey was done in October 2020. Based on forecasts from the UNWTO, the rebound in global tourism will be slow. (Source: UNWTO, First Citizens Economic Research Unit)
Although many countries reopened their borders and are welcoming international visitors, traveller confidence is very low. Enabling tourism once more will necessitate a conversation on safety and assurance for prospective travellers. One opportunity that the Caribbean can embrace in order to restore tourist confidence is by implementing a vaccination passport. This initiative would validate a person’s Covid-19 status and vaccination credentials.
Aruba is one of the few countries to spearhead such a project. This initiative allows individuals to upload medical data such as a Covid-19 test result and, eventually, a proof of vaccination, generating a health certificate or pass in the form of a QR code that would be presented at arrival and departure from one’s destination. This project is due to be finalised in March 2021.
Such a project could benefit the Caribbean, providing reassurance to both visitors and citizens alike. Countries within the Caribbean region have recently witnessed a resurgence in the virus. Thus, the implementation of the digital passport may support the tourism sector by engendering a level of comfort and safety and prevent further lockdowns.
Given the need to reduce person-to-person proximity, Caribbean countries should strive to become more technologically advanced, by implementing a contactless culture which enables visitors to utilise online resources from the inception of their vacation to departure. This will allow greater efficiency and convenience, ensuring a pleasant experience. Tourists should be able to book hotels, activities, transportation, access digital menus and amenities from the comfort of their personalised spaces via their cellphones and laptops. Through the digitalisation of the sector, this would not only ensure safety amongst visitors but also allow citizens to be trained, leading to a more competent and technologically advanced labour force.
According to the UN Secretary General, “Tourism is one of the world’s most important economic sectors. It employs one in every ten people on Earth and provides livelihoods to hundreds of millions more.”
Hence it is important for both private organisations along with governments to work together to ensure the sustainability of the sector. This should include improving infrastructure and increasing the competitiveness and resilience of the sector. Caribbean countries can also benefit from multilateral partnerships to boost travel amongst member countries.
International travel is estimated to have declined by approximately 80 per cent in 2020 and prospects remain highly uncertain and volatile in 2021. This experience may present an opportunity to implement more forward-looking policies that would safeguard the Caribbean economies from vulnerabilities and external shocks. As the region has experienced in the last year, such shocks can severely debilitate foreign exchange earnings and cripple economic prospects.
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