By David Jessop
Recently published visitor arrival figures indicate that Caribbean tourism has started down the long road to recovery. Following a disastrous 2020 during which governments closed borders to try to halt the spread of COVID-19 and months when the sector all but ceased operations, visitor numbers are now slowly increasing.
According to Tourism Analytics, the Aruba based consultancy which publishes tourism arrivals figures on a rolling basis, stopover visitors to the island Caribbean excluding Haiti declined by 66.1 percent from 23 million in 2019, to 7.8 million last year. When it comes to this year, however, its website indicates that a gradual turnaround is now underway. When available stopover figures for the first three months of this year are compared to January, February, and March of 2020, the pre-lockdown period when tourism was still booming, its statistics indicate that visitor arrivals are slowly beginning to recover.
What Tourism Analytics figures evidence is that, led by the Dominican Republic, the USVI and Puerto Rico, the worst may now be past for some of the independent Caribbean’s largest tourism markets.
Speaking about this recently, Andrés Marranzini, the executive vice president of the Dominican Republic’s National Hotel & Tourism Association, Asonahores, told local television that he expects this year to see four million visitor arrivals, the same as in 2019. As the proportion of those vaccinated in the country’s main source markets proceeds and vaccine rollout accelerates locally, he said, the next 18 months “could see one single high season”. Marranzini warned, however, that this would require the Canadian, the EU and British governments to allow a resumption of travel to ‘safe’ destinations.
His optimism coincided with equally positive but more conservative comments by Héctor Valdez, the country’s respected Central Bank Governor. He told an IMF meeting of Western Hemisphere Central Bankers that the favourable outlook for the country’s economic recovery in agriculture and manufacturing was “supported by the positive signs that are being observed in tourism”. In his remarks, governor Valdez observed that the country’s 5.5 to 6 percent forecast growth rate for this year was supported by the bank’s projections that the country would receive 3.5 million visitors and that its recovery would boost construction, manufacturing, and commerce.
In a similar vein, Jamaica’s minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, said last month that Jamaica is projecting long stay and cruise visitor arrivals this year at 1.6 million and related earnings at US$1.8 billion. Although the figure, which is predicated on a recovery in the US market, is well short of the 4.3 million visitors and US$3.64 billion the country received in 2019 it would represent a significant turnaround.
The view that better times are ahead for tourism is shared by Adam Stewart, the executive chairman and chief executive officer of Sandals Resorts International, who says that the company is already seeing a 65 to 80 percent occupancy rate in the coming months in its hotels across the region.
Stewart told the Mayberry Investors Forum: “I think for sure the worst is behind us. Once the first vaccination was approved we’re seeing a huge correlation between people being vaccinated and consumer confidence”. He suggested that from May on, aggressive vaccination programmes being undertaken in key markets such as the United States and the UK, and high levels of pent-up demand would drive tourist arrivals to the region.
Encouragingly, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) is forecasting a 20 percent increase in arrivals this year over 2020 and a similar uplift in visitor expenditure which it estimates to have fallen between 60 to 80 percent in its member countries last year.
It cautions, however, that Caribbean performance in 2021 will depend largely on the success of the authorities in the region’s key markets and the Caribbean in controlling the virus. It believes that international travel confidence may not begin to pick up until this summer and may be modified by citizens in key markets being required to vaccinate before travelling abroad.
In contrast, the outlook remains bleak for the return at the scale of cruise tourism which remains subject to a ‘no sail’ order by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Speaking recently, Cuba’s prime minister, Manuel Marrero, said about tourism’s return, “people want to travel the same or more than before, but things will never be as they were”. “Now, the most successful destinations will be those that have known how to take advantage of this time of paralysis to innovate, to do things differently”.
Marrero, a former minister of tourism, told the country’s tourism executives that future success will depend on their understanding that the sector is a locomotive for the economy, and that they must significantly redesign tourism. This would involve, he said, ensuring COVID-safe conditions, offering service and cuisine of quality, providing universal internet connectivity, adapting marketing to be social media-oriented, and further diversifying the country’s tourism offering away from the beach.
“We are seen as a sun and beach destination, but the strength of our culture makes us different” as does the “varied nature” of the Cuban tourism product. We have to guarantee the highest quality in all tourism products that we offer in the country, both to the international and domestic markets”, he said.
The signs are optimistic, but all concerned also recognise that the sector’s fortunes can change suddenly as the impact of natural events such as the recent volcanic explosion on St Vincent and the Grenadines or the more active than usual hurricane season that has been forecast for this year.
Land-based tourism has a greater capacity than any other economic sector in the region to support post-pandemic recovery, because it can deliver rapidly an externally led financial stimulus that touches the economy as a whole. If treated thoughtfully, tourism and its recovery will play a central post-pandemic role to play in generating future regional prosperity and growth.
Measures taken now that ensure the sector’s safe recovery this year are therefore vital. Nevertheless, just as important will be governments and the industry giving greater consideration to measures that will make the Caribbean product sustainable, diverse, more socially relevant, and globally competitive far beyond the sector’s predicted full return by the end of 2022.