The Caribbean is home to some of the most tourism-dependent countries in the world and the ongoing travel restrictions, border closures and strict social distancing protocols have resulted in an abrupt halt in visitor arrivals. Flights have been grounded in major tourism markets and the cruise ship sector has ceased activity entirely as most ports of call are closed.
After approximately three months of these measures in place, some of the Caribbean economies have decided to gradually reopen to reduce the potential economic fallout that can result from more prolonged closures.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism accounts for approximately ten per cent of global GDP and provides one in every ten jobs globally. For the Caribbean, the dependency on tourism is far greater as the region is actually classified as the most tourism—dependent in the world. Travel and Tourism is estimated to contribute almost 14 per cent of total regional GDP and a substantial 15.2 per cent of total employment. The tourism sector accounts for a massive 20 per cent of total exports making it a major foreign exchange earner. It is no surprise that the global pandemic has significantly cut economic growth forecasts, increased expectations for a sharp surge in unemployment, worsened the already onerous debt and further placed pressure on the external accounts.
As economic pressures escalate, authorities have initiated steps to reopen their economies and lift travel restrictions which were imposed to reduce the infection rate of COVID-19. Generally, countries have been able to contain the spread of the virus with most of the region currently with no active cases or all cases have fully recovered. However, countries such as Barbados and Jamaica continue to record new cases. As at 8 June, 2020, there are 33,157 cases in 33 countries/territories and 937 deaths. Haiti and Jamaica are the top countries in terms of confirmed cases recorded: 3,662 and 591 cases respectively as at 8 June, 2020.
Among the first to reopen borders have been Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia. St Lucia’s border officially reopened on 4 June, with specific criteria for entry into the island. Visitors must be tested for COVID-19 up to a maximum of 48 hours before their flight to St Lucia and must be certified COVID-free to be able to travel. The authorities have also introduced a host of new health protocols for travel, including mandatory temperature checks and use of masks during flights, in the airport and on arrival to St Lucia. St Lucia had recorded 19 cases with no deaths and no new cases since May 4, 2020, until June 4 when there was one new confirmed case. The island’s tourism sector contributes 40.7 per cent of GDP and 78 per cent of total employment and visitor spending accounts for 56 per cent of total exports.
Antigua and Barbuda welcomed its first flight from the US during the first week of June and visitors to the island will also be subject to stricter health protocols including a rapid coronavirus test upon entry. Prime Minister Gaston Browne has suggested that the country could face overwhelming poverty due to high unemployment and an economic collapse should the borders remain closed. Antigua and Barbuda has recorded 26 cases of the virus as at June 10 with three deaths. The country’s dependence on tourism is well above the Caribbean average, with travel and tourism accounting for 42.7 per cent of GDP, 90 per cent of total employment and almost half of total exports.
Jamaica is also getting set to reopen, even as the country continues to record new cases almost on a daily basis. The total number of confirmed cases in Jamaica is at 605 (as at June 10), with ten deaths. The country plans to reopen borders on June 15. According to Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism, “COVID-19 is estimated to cost the Government J$38.4 billion (US$272.3 million) between April 2020 and March 2021, and the estimated overall loss to the economy from visitor expenditure from stopover arrivals is J$107.6 billion (US$765.6 million).” Indeed, tourism provides about half of Jamaica’s foreign exchange earnings and 32.8 per cent of total employment.
The regional tourism industry will look vastly different in a post-COVID environment. Many countries have introduced more rigid health measures and requirements on entry. However, with more than 7.4 million confirmed cases globally and daily cases persistently increasing, the industry will be faced with significant challenges. The US accounts for 43 per cent of total arrivals into the Caribbean so of particular concern is the fact that the US is leading the world in terms of total confirmed cases, new cases and total deaths. At this point, countries continue to weigh the benefits of increased visitor arrivals and the economic tailwinds it would provide, against a second wave of the virus brought on by imported cases. It remains to be seen whether the region is at risk for prematurely reopening in a global environment of immense uncertainty and an ongoing pandemic.
Reproduced from the Trinidad Express