Tourism leaders optimistic about full Caribbean recovery post 2021

[Photo by Johnny Chen]

8 January 2021, Volume 43 Issue 1 

Caribbean tourism professionals have expressed cautious optimism that by the end of 2021 the industry will begin to experience a gradual but full recovery. 

Speaking recently to Caribbean Insight, Frank Comito, the outgoing CEO and Director General of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), said that while the industry did not anticipate tourism returning this year to anywhere near what it experienced in terms of arrival numbers prior to COVID-19, there were strong indications of pent-up demand and the redemption of previously cancelled bookings. 

Comito believes that the first several months of 2021 will be a challenge but noted that the industry expects to see gradual growth from a presently low base. “The region’s proximity to its main markets in the North America, and the appeal of our outdoor-based product, coupled with vaccine implementation all point to a steady return, likely to really show as we approach mid-year”, he said. 

Recent scenario modelling by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) also suggests the same. The Madrid based body estimates that full recovery to the 31.3m region-wide visitor arrivals recorded in 2019 will occur sometime between mid-2022 and the start of 2024. Estimates suggest that Caribbean visitor arrivals fell by 75% in the final three quarters of 2020 causing overall Caribbean economic growth to contract by 6.2% for the year. 

Comito’s view is reflected by Ministers and other industry professionals who emphasise the need for the industry to use the experience gained to end its traditional ‘business as usual’ approach. 

Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, said that while he did not expect the industry to bounce back until 2023 or 2024 based on when he expects air and sealift to have returned fully, he is cautiously optimistic that the island “may see an early significant boost in 2021 if the vaccine is highly successful and becomes readily available”. 

Bartlett said that 2020 was a watershed year for the industry in Jamaica with an estimated US$5bn loss in earnings and a 2.3m decline in visitor arrivals. Prior to the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry on the island had been forecast to experience a 5.2% plus growth rate over 2019, a record year. However, from March 2020 on, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a precipitous decline in visitor arrivals with just over 1.1m visitors arriving in the first ten months of 2020 compared with 3.4m over the same period in 2019. 2 

Looking forward, Bartlett said that the pandemic had illustrated the need to better diversify the island’s tourism economy away from primary suppliers of visitors such as the US, UK and Canada which were also having to address the economic shock of the pandemic. 

This will see in the short and longer term, the country craft a new product built around “inclusiveness, safety, security and seamlessness” he said. In addition, he noted that Jamaica’s tourism will become more “inward looking” with government sustaining in the longer-term recovery strategies that include improved linkages with agriculture and its ‘Rediscover Jamaica’ campaign which encourages Jamaicans to staycation, an approach initially adopted to offset the 2020 shortfall in international visitors. The minister also emphasised that he intends to make the case for tourism workers globally to be considered for early vaccination so that the sector can quickly recover. 

In a similar vein, Neil Walters, the Acting Director General of the public sector Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), in a new year’s message, said that although the region for the most part had been able to control the spread of the virus within local populations, the pandemic had crippled the economies of many smaller tourism dependent economies. Based on the experience, the advice of public health experts and the two-year cycle of previous pandemics, CTO he said, hoped that a return to ‘normalcy’ will occur beyond December 2021, but that the measures implemented to control the spread of the virus “may stay with us for an indefinite period”. 

Walters, Comito and Bartlett all indicate that the pandemic has offered the opportunity to reassess the role of the sector and its linkages. 

Comito says that the pandemic has enabled the creation of new public-private partnerships, has improved industry research and that with the roll out of the vaccine in the region’s major markets, the right assurances of health safety, the continued training of the workforce in conjunction with the Caribbean Public Health Authority (CARPH), and better messaging the industry should recover. 

He also believes that the collaboration regionally between CARPHA, CTO and CHTA to build health safety protocols, train, and track with employees and visitors will be the key to creating and communicating the confidence which travellers and those who book travel to the region need. 

He, however, cautions that recovery requires the industry’s stakeholders needs to develop responses to the many challenges the sector faces. These, he said, include addressing its vulnerability to economic downturns; developing responses to periodic climatic, political, and public health crises; better managing growth, affordable airlift, and rising costs; addressing revenue leakage and competition from other markets; improving public-private partnerships; rebalancing levels of foreign and local ownership; and doing more to link to local entrepreneurs and small businesses. 

What should not happen, he says, is sacrificing the progress the industry has made towards promoting sustainable development or diluting the cultural identity of the Caribbean. As visitor needs and behaviour continues to change, he says, every part of the industry must also adapt by training and empowering staff to accentuate and differentiate Caribbean hospitality, culture, identity, and diversity. 

This is a lead article from Caribbean Insight, The Caribbean Council’s flagship fortnightly publication. From The Bahamas to French Guiana, each edition consists of country-by-country analysis of the leading news stories of consequence, distilling business and political developments across the Caribbean into a single must-read publication. Please follow the links on the right-hand side of this page to subscribe, or access a free trial.