By Earl Bousquet
Just after being sworn-in last August as an independent Senator representing the private sector, Saint Lucia Hotel & Tourism Association (SLHTA) executive director Noorani Aziz was asked how he felt about the island’s tourism’s future.
His response was (in effect) that it wasn’t as much a matter of how bright it can be, as to whether Saint Lucians are ready for what it will take for the industry to survive.
And he’s right!
Every indication is that in the age of COVID, tourism cannot return to the same as before the global pandemic was declared in March 2020. Air and cruise lines landed and docked as flights and cruises dipped to the lowest-low, hotels closed doors and the industry virtually folded up with thousands of establishments and millions of workers in scores of countries feeling the pinches and punches of the global downturn.
It was like rolling down a river of no return as travelling became no longer hassle-free, nations erecting COVID guardposts at all ports of entry to keep out an invisible virus until travel protocols became the norm, restricting movements between bubbles that blew dry as hot air.
Every sector everywhere felt it just the same, but responses differ according to everything from levels of investment to equal levels of over-dependence.
The bigger the investment the greater the interest in solutions that wouldn’t result in the biggest losses. Likewise, the greater the dependence on tourism for the daily dollar to put bread on the table, the greater the wish of the most dependent that everything would return to what was.
And everyone’s been wishing over the past 20 months for solutions that won’t make things worse.
But never mind the good hopes and wishes, the absolute reality is that COVID’s accumulated effect on world tourism is such that you just can’t turn up at an airport anymore and buy a ticket to fly or to book a cruise, or just turn up at a hotel and book a room.
Returning to the past no longer possible and the pinch having turned into a punch-in-the-nose for the industry, it’s clear that the way forward will require entirely new public education approaches to get people to begin to start being willing to see tourism in a different light.
Even while holding different views on vaccinations, people accept that the COVID protocols are there and should be obeyed.
But apart from feeling and reacting to the pinches and punches most Saint Lucians still see tourism the way it used to be and wish it’ll get back to the new ‘Good Ole Days’ when the tourism dollar looked like it flowed in-and-out of pockets and accounted for over 60 percent of both national incomes and employment.
Same too, with COVID, with people having borne 20 months of the worst it’s thrown at the world – never mind constant arrivals of new variants of interest or concern and increasing deaths and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated; interest in vaccination is lowering while those opposed to vaccines find new ways to discourage people from taking any jab, or to refuse those vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).
What Saint Lucia and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations also overly-dependent on tourism face today is a double jeopardy situation of needing to get the responses right on both fronts – COVID and tourism – or things can and will go disastrously wrong.
First COVID: If the country doesn’t get it right, everything else suffers, but tourism is the most among the economic sectors. So, government policy – of necessity – has to be as flexible as possible without sacrificing safety.
Government must therefore do all it can to employ all means of messaging a new message that will get people to understand that the longer they take to get vaccinated, the longer the pandemic will remain with us; and engage the vaccine doubters and those who, for whatever reasons, are hesitant to or even refuse to vaccinate.
But it’s not at all easy, as every new development on the COVID front is met differently and put to different uses by different sides in the war against the virus – between pro-and-anti-vax elements – and the economic and commercial wars between the vaccine manufacturers and yet, together against any efforts by developing countries to develop their vaccines and virus-fighting capabilities.
The resulting melting pot of information for and against and different interpretations of similar developments ultimately lead to confusion among those less-minded to pay attention to ‘the science’ and ‘the numbers’ of unvaccinated people around them dying and being hospitalized; and more prone to believing conspiracy theories crafted to suit and bruise their genuine fears.
In the name of promoting ‘informed consent’, supposedly informed activism results in accelerating doubts and disbelief, as well as death and hospitalization levels, with Smart Alec arguments like protecting the vaccinated from the unvaccinated is ‘similar to racial segregation’.
Against such a background where decision-makers are also more moved by arguments between the ‘informed’, information residing strictly online and accessible to but not being accessed by 80 percent of users of online devices (including cell phones), it’s also important for those making and taking decisions to not get drowned in the melting pot and lost-out on assessing the real impacts of both negative propaganda and positive information on a population generally under-informed or mis-informed on important global issues.
‘Everyone’s a scientist…’
After 20 months, the usual observation everywhere today is that ‘Everyone is a scientist…’ and in Caribbean Christian society it’s also being said more loudly that ‘I know what the scientists are saying, but I am going by what the Bible says…’
Similarly, taxi drivers seeing cruise ships in Port Castries and unable to get a trip easily are trip-up into forgetting that the old tourism chocolate cake is no longer available, there are no slices reserved for anyone anymore – and in many cases, there’s no cake to be shared.
Saint Lucia’s tourism sector has much to be concerned about and the major players are as worried as beach vendors about what tomorrow will bring.
The new normal
The hoteliers and tour operators also have big headaches constantly having to find new ways to make old ends meet in the COVID age; when 500 visitors or guests is no longer considered a small amount, everyone today is valued ten times more in the new normal.
Likewise, after getting a welcome ease of being allowed to now carry 12 passengers as against nine before, some minibus spokespersons in Saint Lucia are now asking why the government didn’t simply allow for 13 passengers?
Competition and cooperation
Senator Aziz’s question – about whether we’re ready – therefore equally applies to our preparedness to face the tasks staring the region in the face on the COVID and tourism fronts.
This is no longer about competition between the hotels and tourism bodies, but more about cooperation between all – large and small, local, regional and international – from properties and tourism travel agencies, air and cruise lines, to taxi and minibus operators and drivers, tour guides and restaurant staff, workers at tourism-related establishments and vendors.
The honest reporting of the discovery of the latest COVID ‘variant of concern’ by South Africa, resulted in premature and punishing travel restrictions on about a dozen African states even before the new variant was named – a move that will definitely affect the tourism-dependent economies among them, with no such moves against an increasing number of nations on three other continents where the same virus was known to have been present before South Africa reported its presence.
Same with India, where New Delhi had to move Heaven and Earth to prevent the Delta variant from being christened with the country’s name, just because it honestly reported its finding.
The same can be said with the original COVID-19 virus, also reported by China to the WHO after confirming its presence there, but the world was led to believe that because it was found there, it also originated in Wuhan – with critics leaving no allowance for it possibly originating elsewhere.
Even without proof, China continues to be accused by the richest nations of the world of having invented COVID-9 in a lab, and deliberately spread it across the world in pursuit of global domination goals.
And now it’s Africa’s turn. Just days after an Associated Press (AP) report headlined ‘Scientists mystified, wary, as Africa avoids COVID disaster’ noted that despite only 6 percent of Africans were vaccinated, the continent has for months been described by the WHO as ‘one of the least affected regions in the world’ in its weekly pandemic reports.
And then came Omicron – and out went African tourism for at least the three weeks it will take before any of the worries and warnings of ‘possible’ effects could even start being confirmed.
Did the rich countries of the North decide to stick-it to Africa because it was doing too well and making them – with average 60 percent vaccination rates – look too bad?
Such a thought, most likely considered highly improbable, is just as likely in the historical context of the relationships between North and South from slavery through colonialism and after independence.
In such a case, can or should the Caribbean consider the likelihood of its tourism recovery possibilities outside of the global trend of early successes in the COVID fight being repeatedly reversed by unforeseen and unexpected developments, as seen on both sides of The Atlantic?
It didn’t help when the likes of then Saint Lucia tourism minister and head of the National COVID Command Center Dominic Fedee – more than once – boasted or offered false comfort of the island ‘doing better than others’ after related statistics showed the very first positive sign of the first reverse in a long history of negative trends.
Nor does it help tourism in Trinidad and Tobago when sections of the local press seem perfectly happy to be first to report that the twin-island republic, on one day, topped the world’s list of countries reporting ‘COVID deaths per one million residents – after all, there are only 1.3 million people in Trinidad and Tobago.
And worse, Dominica is included in the assessment of the number of deaths per million, while the island’s population is only just above 71,000.
It reminds of the situation (circa1980) when, covering the emergence and spread of AIDS, the USAID sponsors of information seminars for Caribbean journalists made great use of the statistical fact that Montserrat – with a population of just over 10,000 – had ‘a higher rate of AIDS infection per head of population than the United States…’
That type of statistical demagoguery still exists four decades later, but in more deadly terms – numbers of deaths being calculated and compared in the most diverse ways – from Saint Lucia’s opposition United Workers Party (UWP) gaily claiming less Saint Lucian died under its watch in 16 months than in three months under the new Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) administration, to using the WHO’s word against the imposition of travel restrictions (on African nations) to argue against tightening restrictions at Caribbean ports of entry as the 2021 Christmas and New year holiday season approaches.
In part 2, Bousquet’s Bulletin: WANTED! Urgent prescriptions for Caribbean tourism in the new COVID normal – answers the double jeopardy reality of tourism.
“The Caribbean needs an entirely new tourism product and the COVID effect has provided an unwelcome but unavoidable bunch of opportunities to turn the challenges into new opportunities.”~ BB