Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Risk of early reopening of int’l borders

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett.
Since Jamaica and other Caribbean countries closed their international borders in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, hotels, shops and restaurants have gone unnervingly quiet, and large swathes of beaches normally occupied by tourists in lounge chairs have become acres of desolation.
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An acknowledgement by Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, on Thursday, makes as clear as crystal the reason behind the Government’s conviction that now is the time to reopen the country’s borders to international travel.

“It is a matter of economic life or death,” said Bartlett at a virtual news conference in support of the decision, as he rolled out the numbers to emphasise the point.

Tourism is Jamaica’s bread and butter, it contributes 50 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and generates 354,000 jobs, the minister explained.

At the same time, COVID-19 is estimated to cost the Government J$38.4 billion between April 2020 and March 2021, and the estimated overall loss to the economy from visitor expenditure from stopover arrivals is J$107.6 billion, according to Ministry of Tourism estimates, he said.

“You can see, therefore, that the phased reopening of our borders to international travellers on June 15 is not just about tourism. It is a matter of economic life or death,” Bartlett stressed.

Since Jamaica and other Caribbean countries closed their international borders in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, hotels, shops and restaurants have gone unnervingly quiet, and large swathes of beaches normally occupied by tourists in lounge chairs have become acres of desolation.

ROAD TO PERDITION

This has placed the economies of these tourism-dependent nations practically on the road to perdition, and they need more than divine intervention to restore economic health, political leaders have suggested.

However, while most of the Caribbean won’t reopen until next month at the earliest, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia have decided that they could not wait any longer, with Antigua’s information minister, Melford Nicholas, explaining that despite the continued high rate of infections and deaths in the United States, St John’s simply had to take the “calculated risk” for the economy’s sake.

“The government has indicated that there is a risk that we have to take. We are obliged to take that calculated risk to reopen our economy, and certainly the mainstay of the economy has been tourism,” Nicholas said.

However, questions remain as to whether the rewards will be worth the risk. Statistics obtained from the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization show that between 2015 and 2019 when the Caribbean was registering record numbers, arrivals fell sharply from August, hitting bottom in September and October, before beginning a gradual recovery in November. It’s a pattern that’s expected to be exacerbated this year due to COVID-19, tourism experts say.

Over 90 per cent of the hotels in the region are still closed, with two-thirds of them expected to reopen partially by the end of July, Frank Comito, the chief executive officer of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, told The Sunday Gleaner.

Critically, hotel occupancy through to the end of this year is expected to be between 10 per cent and 40 per cent and “closer to 10 per cent this summer”, Comito explained.

That the immediate reopening is likely to attract few revenue-generating tourists was evident when the first American Airlines flight from Miami landed at the VC Bird International Airport in Antigua on Thursday night. Of the 189 people aboard, 150 were Antigua and Barbuda residents who were trapped abroad, with the remainder including a “sprinkling of visitors heading to hotels”, local media quoted the minutes of a Cabinet meeting held last Monday as saying. And, the immediate future looks even less promising, with reports of fewer bookings for the remainder of the scheduled weekly flights.

It’s not immediately clear if the authorities in St John’s or the airline, which had been pushing the governments for an early return, will review the schedule if this pattern continues.

However, several sources in Castries have told The Sunday Gleaner that the flight to St Lucia which was scheduled for today was cancelled due to a lack of bookings, precipitated mainly by the country’s problems with testing. Included in the list of protocols is a requirement that visitors present certified proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of boarding a flight, and that they be tested daily while on the island. The reports could not be independently confirmed up to press time.

PENT-UP DEMAND

The push to reopen may also be supported by studies which show significant pent-up demand for travel, particularly to the Caribbean, said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, who has served as secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and minister of tourism for the Bahamas.

“That does not surprise us for several reasons. The first is that the Caribbean as a region has a global reputation for having done a great job in containing the spread of COVID-19,” Vanderpool-Wallace told The Sunday Gleaner via email.

“The second is that there is an intuitive belief among travellers that islands, in particular, have an inherent built-in protection against the spread of viruses. Third, since the beginning of travel to our region, it has been regarded as a salubrious haven for recreation, meaning ‘re-creation’. That makes the Caribbean especially desirous at this time.”

editorial@gleanerjm.com