Fri | May 14, 2021

A recurring nightmare - New virus strain marks latest chapter in rocky year for Caribbean tourism

Published:Sunday | December 27, 2020 | 12:14 AM

Visitors enjoying the Doctor’s Cave Beach in Montego Bay, St James. Arrivals and earnings continue to be affected this year by the coronavirus pandemic. A new variant of the coronavirus has dampened optimism for a bounce in the winter tourism season.
Visitors enjoying the Doctor’s Cave Beach in Montego Bay, St James. Arrivals and earnings continue to be affected this year by the coronavirus pandemic. A new variant of the coronavirus has dampened optimism for a bounce in the winter tourism season.
Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

In the remaining days of December 2020 and continuing throughout January 2021, True Blue Bay resort, a family-owned and operated boutique hotel on the south coast of Grenada, anticipated welcoming dozens of guests from the United Kingdom, including a dive group in mid-January.

These expectations have been dashed as many of these guests have already begun to cancel their reservations and the resort is resigned to losing this much-needed business at the end of a year of significant losses due to COVID-19.

“It’s like another punch,” Marie Estelle Fielden, the general manager, told The Sunday Gleaner, in reference to a decision by the Grenada government to suspend all flights from the UK indefinitely due to the new, more infectious variant of the virus first reported by authorities in London on December 14, one day after it was identified through viral genomic sequencing in 1,108 individuals. The Dominican Republic and Jamaica have also joined over 40 countries in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and the Middle East that have imposed bans and restrictions on travel from the UK in a bid to stem the transmission of the variant that health authorities say appears to be 70 per cent more transmissible.

However, other Caribbean destinations, including Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia – three of the five most dependent on the UK market – have said they would remain open to the Brits, with one senior government official in St John’s telling The Sunday Gleaner those that announced flight suspensions had acted hastily.

It’s a concern shared by Colin Pegler, the managing director of the UK-based hotel and destination representation company Resort Marketing International Ltd, whose $100-million portfolio includes properties in seven Caribbean destination.

“Anybody that’s committed to having a holiday is going to be mightily upset at having their holiday cancelled last minute because of what would appear to be an arbitrary decision by the country to ban flights,” Pegler said. “I understand the fear. Of course, we are all fearful of the virus, but at the same time, to just cancel flights without notice, ... I do question whether it was the right decision.”

The UK is one of the Caribbean’s most important tourism markets and second only to France as the largest source of tourists from Europe to the region. In 2019, approximately 1.3 million Brits visited the Caribbean – a 5.6 per cent decline when compared to 2018, mainly due to the collapse of Thomas Cook, according to the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). Of these, Jamaica received the second-largest number of British tourists, behind only Barbados, with the Dominican Republic in third and Grenada tenth.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage travel and tourism, there has been a seismic impact on arrivals, not just from the UK, but globally, with the CTO anticipating a 60 per cent to 70 per cent drop this year when compared to last year.

But there’s been a gradual return of flights since July and news of the administering of a vaccine has provided some hope for the industry’s recovery in the next several months. This new variant of the virus – which has also been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the World Health Organization, while in South Africa, a different coronavirus variant has been reported – is putting added strain on the already-challenged Caribbean tourism industry.

“The hopes of several Caribbean destinations which are more reliant on UK travel by both residents and visitors for a small bump in UK-related travel over the holidays and into early winter have been dashed,” Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), told The Sunday Gleaner. “This adds to the financial burden already being experienced by employees, businesses and governments.”

The accommodation sector, which during the worst periods of the pandemic experienced close to zero occupancy, had begun to register a rise in bookings for the Christmas season and the first quarter of 2021. This fuelled optimism that the first quarter would begin a gradual return to normality. But increases in COVID-19 cases in Europe and the United States which began in late October resulted in a fall in the pace of bookings and a rise in cancellations. This situation will be made worse by the recent developments surrounding the new virus strain, said Comito.

“There is no question. This is certainly having a downside impact on several destinations. We are hoping that this is a temporary setback. Six weeks ago, the industry was hopeful that the holiday season and first quarter of 2021 would see an uptick in travel. It (new variant) will certainly add another layer of uncertainty and vulnerability,” said the CHTA boss.

The severity of the impact on Caribbean tourism will depend on several variables, including whether this new strain proves to be deadlier – which at present it appears not to be – and if the developed vaccines work against it, several experts believe.

William ‘Billy’ Griffith, the managing director of WCG Consulting Ltd and a former CEO of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc, anticipates a short-term fallout for land-based tourism, particularly in light of the fact that the World Health Organization has advised against travel or trade restrictions for the United Kingdom. Cruise, on the other hand, is expected to suffer a more devastating blow, he said.

“We were warned of a second wave, but we could not have anticipated the timing of the lucrative UK visitor market being locked down at the busiest time of year for the industry. The impact will undoubtedly be felt but will vary as many countries have taken different approaches to this recent revelation of a COVID variant strain,” Griffith said.

“The impact appears to be more of a short-term one for land-based business ... . [However], this news will definitely be a further blow to the recommencement of cruise travel in the region and will cause further postponement. It is fair to say that there will be no winter cruise season in the Caribbean this year as managing the virus in a confined area is a totally different proposition than land-based tourism,” he added.

Meanwhile, Pegler, the British Resort Marketing International executive, revealed that people who had already booked travel for the holiday season had been engaged in a “frantic scramble” to switch to other destinations, including Mexico, Dubai and the Maldives.

He also said the decision by the three Caribbean countries was a “kick in the teeth” to the Brits and the airlines that resumed service “in good faith” when there was no air corridor in place by the British government.

“This is just a further blow. If I were the airlines, ... I would be wondering why on earth should I come [back]. This will have an impact on the airlines and the airlines’ perception as to whether or not to relaunch those flights,” said Pegler.

For Marie Fielden, the Grenadian hotel executive, the starts and stops have become all too familiar. Flights from the UK were scheduled to resume in July after Grenada reopened its international borders, but expired fire extinguishers at the Maurice Bishop International Airport forced a postponement of these flights, which eventually resumed in late October. Almost immediately after, the British government imposed a one-month total lockdown in a bid to control a fresh wave of the virus, leading to the suspension of flights until December 12. No wonder the current ban feels like a recurring nightmare.

“You know, we’re used to it by now because this is the story of our lives with closures, ... but like any other punch, you just have to get right back up,” said Fielden.