By R.D. Miller
The hidden engine
The Caribbean tourist industry has been its economic engine. It is the most tourist-dependent in the world according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). For some islands, experts also noted that tourism accounts for upwards of 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Since COVID-19, travel spending has suffered an unprecedented 42 percent annual decline (roughly $500 billion) from 2019. International travel and business travel had the sharpest declines, and experts have noted spending fell 76 percent and business travel spending fell about 70 percent.
Several decades ago, manufacturing areas like sugar, banana, coffee, poultry, and bauxite; played a key role in sustaining the economy. These jobs were the balance between the service economy that provided what established the middle class.
Sadly, many were sold to foreign investments; moved elsewhere because of globalization. Others were no longer competitively priced, received better tax incentives, cheaper labor. Some folded due to massive imports, poor management, or reduced production.
These factory closures have affected communities from local stores, restaurants, bars, and street vendors who depended on these operations. It has increased unemployment, poverty, inequality and widens the gap between the have’s vs haves-not; especially for the dominant Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Dominica, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and other parts of Latin America who were already looking for an economic booster shot.
Poverty and inequality have been on the rise regardless of the political side in power. It seems today, more charity organizations asking for aids rather than a platform to create innovation for the next generation.
Taking from Peter to Pay Paul
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reports of enormous fare hikes from taking a local taxi from an airport to a hotel lodging. Sadly, it seems to represent an opportunity for prior lost revenue and will discourage future trips, especially for budget-stricken travelers.
A simple COVID-19 test few argued as required or visiting and departing typically run between US$ 20-35. I have spoken to recent travelers who visited Jamaica that it can cost about US$80.00 and that varies depends on the location to get back on a flight.
Another traveler complained that while at airport checkout custom fined her for items because she may have forgotten to take off a sale tag. For several natives going on vacation, it is not unusual to purchase a new set of clothing.
These connected visitors often purchased items also to be given away or returned if not worn. Even a few extra boxes of protected masks to support aunt Jane is being seen as a business trip. In addition, reports items missing after inspection of luggage to clear check out.
Despite the pandemic risk, some will continue to travel due to heritage, cultural connections, while others just need a mental break.
Reports have shown excursion trips almost double in cost. Some of these businesses were already struggling financially before the pandemic. It is like you are simply paying for others who are hesitant to travel.
These deep-roots vacationers’ trips to an authentic small restaurant tucked away on a lovely rural hillside or a small beach shop away from the populated areas with an aunt, grandparents, uncle, or siblings play a pivotal role in the off-the-grid economy disposable income.
Visiting and spending out of protected tourist zones is like direct remittance, where countries like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Jamaica alone accounted for almost (USD10 billion) annually according to IOM UN Migration.
A delicate balance
The pandemic has divided many nations where local government officials struggle on what businesses should remain open or close temporarily. Health ministers also argued many visitors to the region were not adhering to the safety protocol, and I believe they should.
Managing the number of incoming visitors some of whom may not have been vaccinated and the local economic impact is a delicate topic. This pandemic has put leadership decisions between a rock and a hard place. It is a balancing act closing the local economy because others will die from the lack of an economy and vaccine.
Even though many locals have complied from social distancing, wearing masks, and are vaccinated, deep frustration continues. Some argued that locals are being locked down, while visitors are allowed to move freely and party.
The lack of consistency in local guidelines, from what business will be closed, or street will be blocked to enforce curfew to the type of transportation allowed to operate only add to the frustration.
Additionally, the debate regarding if few leaders are utilizing these times of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty to gently push in a direction to gain despotic political power through coercion and restriction. Though it may not be a push to reduce democracy. Freedom only comes through knowledge, and reasonableness is only possible if talk achieves consensus.
If you permit international visitors in to maintain the economy, and the number of infections and deaths increase, who do you blame, the virus, government leaders, or people who refused to take the vaccine?
COVID-19 survival is like an underground business operation where only those who are well-connected, wealthy, politicians, and who can afford to self-quarantine will abide by the rules. It is a balancing act navigating the pandemic risk for their economic viability.
Some locals are concerned that the healthcare systems had already been struggling in keeping up with critical needs. The pandemic only exposes its inefficiency from limited bed space to overcrowding to mitigate this pandemic and other issues before the outbreak.
Despite the blame game, I believe anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 or has other medical issues and is aware of potential medical hurdles would not risk their lives to navigate a few islands’ healthcare systems
Another shot not in the arm
On top of a fragile economy, local communities coughing up an economic virus on top of COVID-19. The pandemic has put the region’s governance under the microscope and exposed the fragile labor force and the poor.
For decades, it looks like leaders have been playing poker economics where no one knows the outcome of the hand dealt, expecting and promising a more reliable hand each election cycle since independence from colonial rule.
Today, many educated students are waiting to join a list of call centers with high student loans and limited job opportunities. The idea of purchasing a small house off the grid from a modest job is becoming more challenging.
Some reports show three out of four youths are unemployed. Many students are not achieving the critical academic requisite from the lack of resources, even heading back to the classrooms that were already overcrowded.
The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots; high unemployment and undervalued currency, dwindling middle class and yes, and increased poverty is breeding added violence from robberies, murders, and criminal assaults.
Generally, any increase in price on basic goods and services such as; bus fare, taxes, groceries, fuel, or government services, and if wages remain stagnant and have not budged in decades, families must cut back somewhere.
Often especially for basic food supplies, prices can vary from the adjacent store a few steps away, with little enforcement only adds to the economic struggles.
Several reports have shown nearly nine in ten voters say they are concerned about inflation, the rising cost of living, and limited job prospects and financial uncertainties have created more economic fever and financial strokes.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has been meeting to discuss a global coordinated partnership on the impact of the Coronavirus on world travel and tourism, according to reports, but who is at the table for the impoverished nations?
With the cost of living increasing globally, the pandemic remains unpredictable, more young people are becoming infected in the region and dying. Many communities are not close to a first dosage, while others are on the second, or even getting close to a third.
One hope is that access, to this vaccine does not become for sale or used as a political platform for future election votes.
The sun will rise again on these shores, and if people follow the science and recommendations, it may lead to less need for targeted price hikes.
There must be a balance where everybody can navigate this recent significant change; locals, incoming and departing visitors working collectively where no one felt left out or pressured to have a sense of normalcy.