Tourism must be prepared to respond to all forms of disruption
Although the misinformation continues to swirl, no cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have been reported in the Caribbean, and governments and the Pan American Health Organization continue to work together to prepare for any related possibilities.
At the time of writing, several Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, Antigua, The Bahamas, Dominica, and Trinidad, have imposed travel restrictions to and from China, and others have said that they are conducting rigorous screening at all ports of entry. In addition, some US cruise lines have stopped Chinese passengers and crew from boarding, and the indications are that cruise and air travel may be hit disproportionately in the coming weeks.
Making clear the importance of a well-prepared and measured response, and the need for multisectoral coordination between the health and tourism authorities, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett has said the global travel and tourism industry has a pivotal role to play in shaping the global response.
“At this point, the main focus of the global response to the coronavirus threat is to prevent further exposure beyond the currently affected areas, as well as to isolate infected persons from uninfected populations,” Mr Bartlett told the media.
Noting that accomplishing this will require the mobilisation of significant resources to establish reliable systems to monitor, evaluate, and isolate risk, especially at various points of entry, he said that large investments “were urgently needed to procure modern health technology to screen risks, conduct vaccine research, develop public education campaigns, and ensure real-time information sharing and coordination across borders”.
What the outcome for the region or the wider world from COVID-19 will be, will be seen in the coming months, but a significant short-term shock to global tourism is possible if the emerging health crisis cannot be contained.
This may well affect the Caribbean not just because of its heavy dependence on travel and tourism, but, as more generally, the sector benefits from the confidence that a vibrant global economy creates.
Recent experience, however, suggests that the Caribbean has an extraordinary resilience and ability to bounce back from a variety of crises.
Speaking recently about this, Luis Lopez-Calva, the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told the regional media that while it is too early to fully grasp the impact of the virus, “history demonstrates that in the region, volatility is the norm and not the exception”, and that the challenge, as always, will be “to return to a predetermined path of development in the shortest possible time after suffering from an adverse shock”.
Tourism is no exception. In recent years, the industry in the Caribbean has demonstrated its ability to recover quickly from hurricanes; climate change-related phenomena such as sargassum and beach erosion; and, for example, the reputational damage on social media caused by crime- and visitor-related incidents.
It has been able, albeit at a monetary cost, to demonstrate that it can overcome such shocks, so that today, with only a few exceptions, every nation in the region has this winter season been reporting very healthy visitor arrival figures and increased earnings from tourism.
This suggests that despite the immediate impact of hard-to-predict events, awareness has grown about preparedness and the development of systemic and robust responses.
In contrast, much less consideration is given to the less tangible but equally real economic disruption tourism is likely to face in relation to technology and changing attitudes to travel and tourism.
The industry in the Caribbean knows from experience that it is vulnerable to the appearance of international technology-driven innovators, such as Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb. What it may not yet be prepared for is the next wave of technological disturbance caused, for example, by 3D printing which potentially enables the manufacture of almost anything, including whole hotels, blockchain technology which link hoteliers directly to consumers.
There are also other, possibly more potent long-term disruptive trends, social in character, that will also require new thinking.
Around the world, increasingly vocal, populist environmental groups are expressing concern about the effect on global warming of carbon emissions. Their views on travelling less by air or cruise ship show signs of crossing into the mainstream, as does related thinking about the carbon footprint of travel, hotels sourcing in a local and ethical ways, and concerns that ‘over tourism’ is damaging host communities and the local environment.
The threat of a COVID-19 global pandemic is immediate and must be taken seriously. It may be disruptive for citizens and visitors in the short term, but as with all similar past events, it will pass.