Tourism, COVID-19 and the futureSunday, March 07, 2021
THE year 2020 saw the greatest disconnecting of the world since the Second World War, on account of the fact that air transport declined by over 60 per cent in the year.
Over 1.8 billion trips by air were taken in 2020 compared to 4.5 billion in 2019. Depressing air transport demand in 2019 had a significant impact on tourism since 60 per cent of international tourists arrive at their destination by air. Consequently, 2020 was the worst year on record for tourism as tourist destinations globally welcomed one billion fewer visitors in 2020, representing a 74 per cent decline over the previous year.
The Caribbean, which is the world's most tourism-dependent region, is reeling from the fallout of the pandemic on both travel and tourism. The IADB's Tourism Dependency Index, released in 2018, found that almost a dozen Caribbean countries were ranked among the top 20 most tourism-dependent countries globally, with Jamaica ranked as the 17th most tourism-dependent economy among 166 countries.
Across the Caribbean the labour-intensive tourism is the engine of growth, facilitating job creation, foreign direct investments, exports, cross-sectorial linkages and local economic development. The prolonged absence of a strong tourism sector in Jamaica and the Caribbean will place at risk millions of jobs, billions in foreign revenue and billions in GDP.
Fortunately, history has shown that tourism is one of the most resilient segments of the global economy. It rebounded quickly from past crises, soaring to new heights in most instances. This was true of the sector's recovery following recent disruptive events including: 9/11; the SARS outbreak (2004); the wine flu outbreak (2009); the economic recession (2007); the MERS outbreak (2012) and the Ebola outbreak (2014).
Obviously, the extent of the impact of the current pandemic on tourism dwarfs that of any other recent disruption. Nonetheless, the general principle underpinning the recovery process remains the same: tourism recovery requires strong leadership, Government support, cross-sectorial coordination, the harmonisation of global responses to disruptive events and innovative solutions. The recovery process must be strategic, coordinated and carefully planned and managed.
Admittedly, the pace of recovery for the tourism sector has been inconsistent and unpredictable as environmental conditions are changing every so often.
The tourism sector is not expected to return to post-COVID-19 levels until 2023. This projection is, however, based on current realities and is therefore subject to either favourable or unfavourable change. For one, there are a number of external variables that are negatively impacting recovery efforts across Caribbean destinations. The recent introduction of mandatory negative COVID-19 test result requirements by the governments of the UK, Canada and the US will create more bureaucracy and inconvenience for travellers at ports and will discourage non-essential travel. Since these three markets account for almost 75 per cent of visitors to the region, recovery will hinge on the extent to which these new requirements impact attitudes towards travel among their citizens.
The immediate recovery outlook is made worse by the recent decision by Canada's federal government and airlines to suspend all flights to the Caribbean and Mexico up to April 2021. Prolonged absence of flights into the region from one of our major source markets is obviously very worrisome from the perspective of recovery.
This comes on the heels of another recent decision by the Canadian Government to extend its ban on cruising in its waters through to 2022. This, combined with the general uncertainty surrounding the resumption of the cruise industry in the US, as the CDC has yet to give a definitive timeline for the lifting of its No Sail Order, are unfavourable for the resumption of cruise tourism – which is so vital to the Caribbean region that annually received more than a quarter or 36 per cent of all global cruise passengers , the greatest share among all regions by some distance, prior to the pandemic.
North America is also the world's largest market for supplying cruise tourists globally, with almost 50 per cent of annual global cruise passengers originating from the US alone.
Significantly, the Caribbean has been the destination of choice for 34 per cent of North American cruisers.
Generally, some of the bigger, more advanced economies have struggled to manage the pandemic as some countries have already entered second and third waves. Obviously, increased or high rates of COVID-19 infections will continue to lead to tighter restrictions being imposed on both domestic and international travel, which will inevitably delay the pace of tourism recovery.
Here in Jamaica we are also currently experiencing increased daily infection rates, which will obviously prolong lack of confidence in travel to the country, jeopardising tourism recovery in the process. On the other hand, through a number of measures we have managed to successfully isolate tourists from localised infection risks.
Our 88-page tourism COVID management protocols have been recognised by the UNWTO as exemplifying leadership in COVID-19 management within the travel and tourism sector.
Our tourist resilient corridors are also other innovations that intend to create safety bubbles for visitors to the island and the local communities with which they engage. These recent measures have been preparing the sector to meet the demands of the post-COVID era so that Jamaica is not left behind when the pandemic is over. This is in recognition of the fact that general understanding of destination security has been reimagined to emphasise not just the physical threats and political conditions that affect confidence in travel, but now critically include measures for ensuring the health and safety of visitors at all nodules of the tourist experience –from airport transportation and accommodation to dining to entertainment/recreation.
Destinations that have been attendant to health and safety measures across the whole industry, at all points of the tourist experience, are likely to enjoy greater confidence among potential travellers and ultimately recover at a much more accelerated pace than others.
So where are we currently? While the recovery of tourism hangs in the balance, the economic impact of the prolonged downturn is quite clear. Most hotels are operating at an occupancy level between 15 to 30 per cent. The labour force in the industry is estimated at 30 per cent of its usual number; with those currently employed being forced to work under conditions of drastically reduced hours and salaries.
Foreign revenues earned from tourism have drastically declined and the vital links that tourism has traditionally forged with other segments of the national economy, including agriculture, manufacturing, restaurants and entertainment, attractions and tours etc are at serious risk.
Recently, with the global push towards vaccination, there is, however, renewed optimism that under the right conditions a return to near-normal level by year end and beyond is now quite possible. Obviously, a lot will depend on the efficiency of the global pace of vaccination. If we are able to successfully vaccinate between 75-80 per cent of the population before year end we can achieve herd immunity and return to normalcy soon thereafter.
Indeed, we are quite likely to see a significant boost in tourist arrivals in 2021 if the administration of public vaccination is highly successful. Vaccination will obviously have to be coordinated across the whole industry and across all sectors to achieve the desired results. This is because the containment of the pandemic in general cannot be distinguished from the containment of the pandemic in the tourism sector, as tourism does not exist in isolation.
Similarly, both tourism workers and visitors will need to be vaccinated to ensure that we minimise exposure to infection and reduce overall transition rates. Our success in this area is absolutely critical to recovery.
Eventually, we expect that proof of vaccination may become a requirement for international travel – at least in the short term. Some cruise lines are already adopting this as a requirement. The extent to which Jamaica embraces any global protocol for pandemic management relies on multiple considerations that will be examined thoroughly at the appropriate time.
I end by repeating the call for equity in the global distribution of vaccines…the picture emerging is that advanced countries appear to be largely rejecting a united approach in favour of reinforcing inequalities on the basis of national citizenship.
The WHO has recently warned that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” as poor countries risk falling behind on account of the fact vaccine roll-outs in advanced economies are largely outpacing those in emerging and developing economies — even in countries with similar death rates. Indeed, while the US and mostly other wealthy nations have begun to intensely vaccinate their citizens against COVID-19, developing countries, home to billions of people, had yet to even receive vaccine supplies.
In fact, nearly 130 countries had not yet delivered a single dose of vaccine to their combined population of 2.5 billion people, as of last week. The current inequitable distribution of vaccines also means a greater risk of mutations that defy existing vaccines. This arguably constitutes the most urgent threat to fast economic recovery in the Caribbean.
Hon Edmund Bartlett is minister of tourism, Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives, and Member of Parliament for St James East Central.
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