By Sir Ronald Sanders
To be among the first beneficiaries of a restarted global tourism industry, the present enforced downtime should be used by all actors to position Caribbean countries to compete immediately.
Hoteliers, restaurant owners, shops catering for tourists, should now be considering the protocols they need to institute to make themselves ready for the opening of borders. For instance, will face masks and gloves be part of the uniforms of everyone who interacts with visitors from the time they land and until they depart? In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, and for some time after one is developed, visitors and locals will want to be confident that contact will not lead to infection.
Airports and airlines in the region should now be considering how they will cope with even longer check-in times, physical distancing, and the necessary health checks that will have to be conducted before passengers are allowed on airplanes. At least basic protocols should be formulated, and training for airport and airline personnel should be undertaken now. The countries that are ahead of this curve will give the greatest incentives to airlines to favour transporting passengers into and out of their airports.
Eventually, no doubt, international agencies will establish rules and procedures for air travel as they did in 2001 after 9/11 and during the SARS outbreak in 2003. But, Caribbean countries need not await international rules before building confidence in their airports by putting sensible preparatory measures in place, rehearsing their execution, and training staff.
Many questions arise from what will be an entirely new situation, and Caribbean governments should be considering them now. Among them are: will governments be willing to accept visitors cleared of COVID-19 by sending countries or will they want to conduct checks themselves? Should it be the latter, clearing passengers for entry after landing, particularly if two or more large aircraft arrive in a cluster, would be a very long and tiresome process unless airports are reconfigured to deal with hundreds of passengers at the same time? Staff for clearing passengers will also have to be significantly increased and trained.
If Caribbean countries will have to ensure that passengers have been tested and cleared for COVID-19 on departure and arrival, work on addressing the enormous challenges should be addressed now. One consideration should be to re-deploy existing public servants from less urgent jobs to these necessary tasks.
Hotels should also be working to make themselves ready for visitors by preparing an environment that would give them comfort that they will not be threatened by COVID-19. This would include the mandatory use of masks and gloves by all staff at all times. Physical distancing will also have to be implemented in hotel restaurants and bars; crowded spaces will only return when an effective COVID-19 vaccine has been found and distributed in enough quantities worldwide to restore health security.
The treatment of cruise ship passengers will also pose new and huge demands. Since a significant part of their experience is to wander through capital cities, shopping from vendors, big and small, going to beaches, and using local transport, how are they to be checked and cleared for COVID-19? In the season, cruise ship passengers number thousands. If Caribbean health authorities want to ensure that these passengers pose no threat to the local population, measures must be put in place to cope with the issue.
Further, the cruise passengers and the cruise companies will want to be assured that the countries at which they are calling have significantly reduced COVID-19 infections and that they have in operation continuous safeguards against the spread of the disease. Undoubtedly, they will also want to be confident that the health facilities in the country are adequate for treating tourists who may contract the disease.
Therefore, this downtime should not be treated as a period of paralysis. It should be an interval to galvanize action by all in the industry, in each country, to institute measures that will give cruise ship companies, tour operators and airlines comfort that they are ready to protect the health of their visitors. They also need to communicate such actions to the global tourism community. When tourism authorities and hotels claim they are open for business, that claim should be supported by evidence of their readiness to provide an environment of health safety.
Cruise ship companies want to get their ships cruising. They have lost more than US$750 million in the first quarter of this year. Shares in Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian have dropped by 60 to 70 percent. They, too, have to restore passenger confidence that their ships will be safe. But, however safe they may make their ships, they will want to be assured that the ports at which they call are also safe.
Airlines have also taken a huge beating. Virgin Airlines is seeking a bailout, or it might never fly again; Airlines for America report that American, Jet Blue and others are already on track to lose US$87 billion in revenue this year; British Airways has had to lay-off 12,000 staff and is faced with closing down its operations at London Gatwick Airport from which Caribbean flights are served. Global air travel could lose more than US$252 billion this year.
Airlines, too, need to get their planes in the air. They will fly to the countries best prepared to deal with COVID-19. So, the players in the Caribbean tourism industry at local and regional levels should be taking action now.
They will be doing so in an atmosphere of concern about flying and cruising. Any pent-up demand for tourism will be tempered by fear and by cost. Configuring airplanes for safe physical distancing will reduce the number of passengers and consequently increase the cost of travel.
Both North America and Europe are now facing huge job losses and millions of people are forced to spend their savings. Only the well-off will easily be able to afford leisure travel in the immediate future. COVID-19 is forecast to cause a fall in tourism receipts globally of 20-30 percent (or US$450 billion) this year. By comparison, during the global recession of 2008 international tourist arrivals declined by only four percent, while the 2003 SARS outbreak resulted in a decline of a mere 0.4 percent.
The problem is real and alarming. Building confidence in tourism capacity must start now; if the Caribbean will be ready to take advantage of borders opening.
Unfortunately, all the preparation in the world on the part of the relevant Caribbean actors will in no way change the elementary fact that very few tourists will choose to visit our countries during the next vacation season, November 2020-April 2021.
We will see the main visitor countries of the world in North America and Western Europe — headed by the United States and its “America first” preoccupation — encourage their people to holiday at home this year and next so as to help rebuild their economies.
Who can blame them for doing so?
I believe these points are valid among many others that will be specific and peculiar to the many facets of the hospitality industry. It is important that we discuss, agree, and proactively begin as a region to make changes that are logical with the information that appears to be factual and tested. The regional approach makes sense because there are more similarities in our hospitality industries than most. There is also a significant measure of connectivity.
This means that the islands are indeed “their brother’s keepers” in this instance. Tours and packages that see the movement of visitors between territories must be carefully supported and maintained to an agreed-upon standard to offer uniform health security. It is likely a Caribbean zone policy may need to be adopted and supported by resources where necessary. I see a separation from logic when looking at the feasibility of hygienic travel operations in aircraft and cruise ships.
There can be no guarantees in these closed systems regardless at attempts to create social spacing and filter air supplies. The actions may reduce but not eliminate risk of infection in these conditions. This is bad news for the elderly, persons with impaired immune systems, and other high-risk conditions. It is likely that travel as a whole will suffer until a treatment, vaccine, or another ready solution appears in the marketplace. I am hopeful however with the rapid emergence of a number of promising solutions from various countries around the globe. Touted cures and pending have even emerged even from the Caribbean by professionals that risen to the challenge to solve this “once in a lifetime pandemic”.
I am also confident that once a solution is globally recognized that the industry will come roaring back driven by thankful global citizens who will be more appreciative of what they had before Covid-19 was an unwelcome guest in theirs lives. I suspect many who had put off their dream travel destinations for one reason or another will not so easily take life for granted again and will take the plunge.
Next issue. Where will the unemployed and people with resources stretched by the quarantines and curfews get spending money from for leisure activities in the near future…? Will travel be more expensive because of decreased travel volume, lost revenue, traumatized supply chains, and loss of competitive players in the market? There are many discussions to be had to help traverse these unfamiliar grounds.