Covid-19 hits C’bean tourism

THE Covid-19 pandemic has created a global health and economic crisis, effectively placing nearly all countries in the same Covid-19 storm. However, not all countries are in the same boat, as some are more resilient than others.

Countries that are more diversified, meaning several industries contribute to their economic performance, are in a better position to weather economic and financial storms. In the Caribbean, however, many countries are undiversified, relying heavily on one or two industries, with the primary sector being tourism. The Caribbean is said to be the most tourism-dependent region in the world, with tourism being the main contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) in the vast majority of the region’s small island economies.

For many Caribbean countries, given its sizeable contribution to GDP, tourism is a key source of employment, with travel and tourism directly contributing four per cent to a high of 30 per cent to employment in select islands. For most islands in the Caribbean, tourism is the primary source of foreign exchange earnings, with foreign tourist spending accounting in excess of 70 per cent of exports for most nations.

Impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector

Travel restrictions and border closures imposed globally to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve significantly disrupted the tourism sector. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) warned that roughly 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry can be lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic and projects the industry to contract by 25 per cent in 2020.

Compared with the hotel industry, airlines and cruise ships are more severely impacted given the tight quarters and poor ventilation on airplanes and ships—conditions that can easily spread virus particles. In addition, cruise ships are further challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic given their target markets are elderly persons who are more susceptible to infection.

With cruise ships and air travel being the main mode of tourist arrivals in the Caribbean, border closures, travel bans and the cessation of cruise line operations caused the tourism sector to come to a halt. Data from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association indicated that roughly 90 per cent of hotels and other tourist-related businesses were either closed or partially opened during the peak of the pandemic. Consequently, tourist arrivals in the Caribbean fell by 54 per cent on a year to date basis ending March 2020.

When will tourism recover?

Currently, tourism has yet to resume to pre-Covid-19 levels as the majority of Caribbean islands remain partially or wholly shut down. While some Caribbean governments have begun to ease Covid-19 restrictions, many borders remain closed to non-nationals. Some countries that have reopened their borders to international flights include Antigua and Barbuda on June 1, St Lucia on June 4, Bermuda on July 1 and Barbados on July 12.

Other islands however opted to reopen on a phased basis, allowing visitors from certain regions into their countries such as Aruba who chose to allow travellers from Europe, Canada and the Caribbean to visit. Entry however is based on certain protocols, with the primary one being a negative Covid-19 test result.

Based on data from the WTTC, the tourism industry took roughly about 10 to 19 months to recover from previous viral epidemics including the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak (November 2002 to July 2003), the 2009 flu pandemic (H1N1) (January 2009 to August 2010), the Ebola outbreak (December 2013 to June 2016) and the Zika outbreak (April 2015 to November 2016).

Despite the resumption of international air travel and the opening of borders, challenges still exist, with the primary factors being the confidence to travel and the possible continuation of longer restrictions in place in the absence of a vaccine.

The recovery of the Caribbean tourism industry will also be heavily influenced by the economic and financial circumstances of the main tourist markets—North America and Europe. Faced with sharp contractions in GDP and historic unemployment levels, demand from the Caribbean major tourist markets are expected to remain weak in the near term.

Critical to the revival of the tourism industry is a coordinated approach of all stakeholders including airlines, cruise lines, hotels, entertainment ventures, restaurants and the public health sectors across the region. Collaboration will be crucial in establishing the necessary protocols based on international standards that will ensure consistency across the islands and restoring confidence to the international traveling public.


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