Tourism and recovery beyond COVID-19
Edmund Bartlett

THE full scale of the economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on tourism destinations across Latin America and the Caribbean cannot only be measured by analysing the pandemic's total direct, indirect as well as induced economic impact.

Beyond direct employment, income and gross domestic product, the tourism sector forges linkages with other segments of regional economy such as agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment, the cultural and creative industries and transportation. Through these linkages' additional income, employment and GDP are generated.

Unfortunately, it is true that the prospect of recovery for tourism in the region has been hampered by slow vaccination coverage rates. Just about a tenth of the region's population of over 653 million have received at least one dosage of the vaccine. Current vaccination coverage rates in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are thus lagging considerably behind the earmarked 500 million people that the Pan American Health Organization says need to be vaccinated in the Americas region to achieve “herd immunity”. As more and more citizens from major source markets such as the US, Canada and the UK are being fully vaccinated, the fear is that those seeking to make trips internationally will overlook Latin American and Caribbean destinations in favour of those destinations with high vaccination coverages, taking heed the recommendations of agencies such as the CDC and the WHO. The tourism-dependent LAC region is thus likely to experience the negative impacts of the crisis for much longer than other economies.

This is why I caution a wholesale designation of destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean as being unsafe for leisure travel. The efforts of individual countries in terms of adopting strict healthy and safety protocols that have kept both tourism workers and visitors safe, and infection rates within the sector low, must be recognised and credited. It is also equally important that there is sensitivity to the moral failure that has disproportionately affected developing countries as it relates to the uneven global distribution of vaccine supplies. Against this backdrop, Latin American and Caribbean tourist destinations that are COVID-resilient, measured by infection rates within the tourism sector, must be given the necessary international support so that they may recover in the shortest time possible, as the livelihoods of millions of people in the region now hang in the balance.

I am buoyed by the fact that the rebound of the tourism sector has started. The tourism labour force is now estimated at 70 per cent of its pre-crisis capacity. We welcomed over 135,000 visitors in May and expect, when the final figures are tallied, to receive over 155,000 in June. This is up considerably from the estimated 40,000 tourists welcomed in January and February. We are seeing positive signs that this trend will continue. In the meantime, we urge all Jamaicans to observe the COVID-19 protocols. Over the past year plus, thousands of Jamaicans have suffered immensely from the economic impact of the pandemic; the only hope for us to return to normalcy is by fully complying with the containment measures that have been implemented by the Government. We have, in fact, seen a dramatic reduction in the number of daily positive cases within the last month, which is a testament that the country is on the right track. At every nodule of the Government's response to the pandemic, the Ministry of Tourism has been fully compliant, forward-thinking and vigilant.

At another level, vaccination will also be critical to recovery efforts. Thankfully, rapid vaccination within the US and other source destination markets is providing a glimmer of hope that confidence in international travel will rebound shortly. This trend, however, has to be matched by an equally efficient rate of vaccination within destination countries to ensure that these countries can safely receive fully vaccinated travellers. Against this backdrop we thus welcome the news that the Jamaica Government has procured over 1.5 million doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines, enough to inoculate half of the country's population. The vaccines are slated to begin arriving in August 2021. The country has already administered doses to 155,000 Jamaicans and we are likely to also receive some more supplies from the Biden Administration. The president of the Medical Association of Jamaica recently expressed optimism that the country may be able to achieve its target of herd immunity this year, now that the country has secured more vaccines. This will obviously boost recovery efforts tremendously.

Looking to the future, however, it will not be business as usual. We need to now embrace new strategies, a new orientation, new focus, a new mission and new ethos that will ensure that our tourism sector is able to adjust to the new normal of constant, destabilisation of threats to ensure its adaptiveness, agility and ultimately survival in the post-COVID-19 era. We have long talked about niche markets, however we need to move fast to identify and target those niche markets that will give Jamaica a competitive edge in the post-COVID-19 era. In terms of our tourism practices, we will obviously need to think cleaner and greener to reduce vulnerabilities to both pandemics and climate change.

There is considerable opportunity for Jamaica to achieve competitiveness and resilience by establishing itself as a sustainable destination based on exploiting the country's natural advantage with respect to potential niche markets such as health, wellness, nature, culture and heritage, gastronomy.

Edmund Bartlett

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