Cuba is planning to welcome tourists with COVID-19 tests and limit their contact with locals as part of a raft of measures designed to get its vital tourism industry back up and running.
The government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel said it would gradually open up the economy in the next weeks, with a particular focus on recovering tourism dollars lost to the lockdown.
Foreign tourists, the lifeblood of Cuba's economy, will be restricted to a well established string of coastal resorts to limit contact with the local population in a country, where Diaz-Canel insisted, the coronavirus pandemic was "under control."
Havana and the rest of the country will be initially be reserved for local tourism.
The island, with a population of just over 11 million, registered its first cases of COVID-19—three Italian tourists—in March. It reported only eight new infections on Thursday.
So far Cuba has reported 2,219 COVID-19 cases, with 84 deaths.
But the pandemic shutdown has throttled the economy, and the government is eyeing the early revival of tourism, worth $3.3 billion in 2018.
"Unlike other countries, Cuba already had a crisis by the time COVID-19 arrived," said economist Omar Everleny Perez, citing economic collapse in Venezuela and strengthening US sanctions.
"And tourism, which was a good economic driver, has been at zero for the last three months," he said.
The lockdown forced Havana to slash imports by 75 percent in the first quarter, according to official data
The result is that long lines of Cubans outside stores, hoping to stock up on food and toiletries, have increased amid worsening shortages. The Communist-run island's emerging private sector, invested largely in the tourism and restaurant sector, has been severely affected by the pandemic.
GDP is set to contract 8.3 percent this year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Cuba "is now entering a state of post-COVID recovery, which is aimed at returning to the best possible normalcy," Diaz-Canel said Wednesday.
But caution prevails.
"There will be no abrupt opening in the first phase," warned Prime Minister Manuel Marrero. He emphasized that Cubans will have to inch their way out of lockdown, and that face masks will have to be worn outdoors.
Although there has been no official word, international flights are not expected to begin until August 1, forcing Spanish company Evelop to cancel several flights tentatively scheduled for July.
When flights resume, tourists will have to undergo medical checks on arrival and have their temperature taken. Health checks will also be a feature of stays, and hotel occupancy will be limited to allow for social distancing measures.
With the race on to capitalize on the European and North American summer season, Cuba's competitors in the Caribbean have taken the lead in welcoming back tourists.
"Cancun and other beach resorts in the Mexican Caribbean—one of Cuba's main competitors—resumed activities today," Havana economist Pedro Monreal pointed out on Twitter.
Several Caribbean states have already opened up to tourism, while Jamaica and the Dominican Republic plan to do so by July 1.
Cuba is struggling to stay in the game.
On Wednesday, Spanish hotel chain Melia published a promotional video showing employees disinfecting its hotels in Cuba and promising tourists would be "safe" there.
State tourism entity Cubanacan struck the same tone on Twitter, talking up reinforced "sanitary hygiene standards."
Clear plastic panels are being installed in hotel reception areas to avoid people coming into direct contact, and hotels are moving restaurant tables to create more space and adding gel dispensers at elevator entrances.
The tourism ministry's new advertising campaign is a sign of the country's new normal: "Take care of yourself."
The latest challenge for the travel industry will be getting clients to feel comfortable booking travel for a post-pandemic world, at least for the short term, according to new findings from Travelweek’s COVID-19 Consumer Survey.
The survey, in partnership with Star Metroland and garnering close to 3,000 responses from consumers across Canada, indicates that 65% of respondents are not willing to book travel now for 2021, compared to 35% who said they would book now for next year.
When asked how soon after travel restrictions are lifted will they travel again, 34% of respondents said they would within four to six months, 32% said within one to three months, and 24% said they wouldn’t travel until seven months or longer. Only 10% said they would travel less than one month of restrictions being lifted.
In order to entice them to book future travel, nearly 28% of respondents said flexible cancellation policies would be the most important consideration, followed by price discounts (19.8%). Cleanliness/social distancing policies (19.3%), destinations with low numbers of COVID-19 (19.2%) and quality product (13.8%) rounded out the list of considerations when booking travel now.
As for when consumers foresee travel restrictions easing, 51% said 2021, 41% said sometime in fall/winter 2020, while a very optimistic 7% are hopeful that travel will open up again this spring/summer.
Speaking with Travelweek via email, Jennifer Hendry, Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Tourism Research Institute says the U-shaped recovery curve is expected to be drawn out.
“The return of transborder activity will be dependent on how the pandemic is managed in the U.S., but outbound travel is not expected to resume until July at least,” she says. “We don’t expect transborder and other overseas activity to operate at/above the level experienced prior to the outbreak until later in 2021.”
Hendry also notes that domestic travel will be the first activity to regain ground once physical distancing measures are eased. Short-haul and, potentially, transborder drive trips would be next, followed by transborder air. International air travel will be the last segment to recover.
“The recovery will be boosted by price incentives and pent-up demand, as well as travel credits issued when trips were cancelled,” she adds.
With 55% of respondents saying their household income has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, travel deals will be an essential incentive for travellers moving forward. According to survey results, 32% of respondents said a discount of 50% or more would entice them to book travel for summer and fall 2020, while 12% said slashing prices by 25%-49% would suffice. Only 8% said they wouldn’t need a discount at all to entice them to travel once the pandemic is contained.
The majority of respondents, 47%, said they aren’t willing to travel at all this summer/fall, no matter how big of a travel discount is being offered.
Despite the immediate benefit travel deals will have on restarting the industry, Hendry is quick to warn companies of its long-term impact.
“Consumers will be more price conscious, but tourism businesses will have to be careful about cutting their prices too much as a severe drop will result in a longer return to pre-COVID-19 pricing,” she says.
When navigating through ‘the new normal’, Hendry says that the biggest hurdles facing the travel industry in terms of getting people to book trips again are concerns over health and safety, and the lack of discretionary income.
“Destinations, tour operators and other tourism businesses can’t control economics and household finances,” she says. “The can, however, be transparent and communicate public health conditions, sanitization procedures and other measures being taken to help protect the health of both community members and visitors.”
As for destinations, Hendry says they will “have to put an emphasis on their openness to receiving visitors again and work with the local community to ensure a welcoming environment.”
To read more results from Travelweek’s COVID-19 Consumer Survey, click here and here.
The Mexican Caribbean, which started its gradual reopening to tourists on June 8, has approximately 30% of hotel rooms now open and anticipates seeing this increase to 45% by June 15.
In its first ever virtual conference yesterday, the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, which represents 12 destinations including Cancun, Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen, detailed its reopening plans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its newly launched Clean & Safe Check Certification program.
The region’s gradual reopening is being regulated according to a “traffic light system,” says Dario Flota, Director of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board. Featuring four stages, or colours, the system is reassessed every Thursday and monitors the readiness of various sectors as they transition to a full reopening.
Currently, the northern region of Quintana Roo is in the Orange phase, meaning that most sectors are operating at 30%. These include hotel rooms, restaurants, amusement and water parks, transportation, golf courses, car rentals, tour guides and water activities. Sectors are expected to operate at 45% capacity by next week ahead of their transition to the Yellow phase, at which point they will reach 60%.
By July 1, 75% of all hotels in the Mexican Caribbean are expected to reopen.
According to Flota, the southern region of Quintana Roo is still lagging behind and is currently in the Red phase, where sectors are operating at just 15% capacity.
Beaches, nightlife/casinos and groups & conventions all remain closed for now.
In light of the gradual reopening, the region is also seeing the return of airlines, including Air Canada, which announced Cancun as part of its June schedule. Flota adds that more Canadian airlines are expected to resume service in July.
Both the Cancun and Cozumel International Airports have introduced safety protocols, including permanent temperature checks for all passengers, monitoring of social distancing measures, the installation of protective screens on counters, sanitization and deep cleaning of areas, and a traveller questionnaire to help identify risk factors.
When asked whether airports in the region will enforce mandatory quarantines for visitors like other destinations, Flota said: “No, not by the Mexican government. This will only be for people who present symptoms and test positive. If they do, they must stay at the same hotel with their family. And if they need a hospital, several options are available locally.”
According to government officials, Quintana Roo was one of the first regions in Mexico to see a decline in COVID-19 cases, which prompted the start of its reopening. From the start of the pandemic in March, the region has seen a total of 2,329 cases.
To help mitigate the spread of the virus and ensure the health and safety of returning visitors, the Clean & Safe Check Certification program, which launched May 18, “covers all links in the chain for tourists,” says Flota. It’s already seen great success, he adds, with over 5,000 companies applying to be certified.
With health protocols in place, Cancun also has the distinction of being one of the first five destinations to be recognized with WTTC’s Global Safety Stamp.
A new campaign has been launched to entice travellers to book their next vacation. Titled ‘Mexican Caribbean, The Best of Two Worlds,’ the campaign showcases the authenticity of the region and its various experiences, and positions all 12 Mexican Caribbean destinations under one brand umbrella. A new landing page, launched in October 2019 and now fully operational, can be viewed at www.mexicancaribbean.travel.
By Linda Fox | June 8, 2020
As governments across Europe shape their tourism recovery plans, some see reducing the power of the large online booking platforms as a way forward.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought the commissions earned by players such as Booking.com and Expedia into the spotlight as well as the feeling that suppliers need to regain their relationship with customers.
In addition, there has been a backlash from many hoteliers for the lack of help that has come from intermediaries.
In Italy, for example, hoteliers are angry that Booking.com refunded guests for forthcoming stays even though some guests had been prepared to accept a credit.
Expedia recently announced a $275 million partner recovery program, and Airbnb has allocated $250 million to help its hosts who have lost out during the COVID-19 crisis.
At the hotel association and even government level, many are now thinking there may be a better way going forward.
France was the first to declare its hand a few weeks ago with talk of a massive data platform containing all tourism information about restaurants, attractions and more for visitors to the country.
Press reports quote Eric Lombard, chief executive of the French government’s financial institution Caisse des Depots, as saying it’s time for the industry to take back the relationship with the customer.
Lombard cites the level of disintermediation of the industry from U.S. platforms including Airbnb and Booking.com.
The project is still very much in its infancy, and a decision about whether it will actually take on existing online giants in terms of providing a booking engine has not been decided.
More recently, the association that represents all the hotel associations in Italy said something similar could be created in the country.
It’s not the first time such initiatives have been proposed.
Peter O’Connor, Phocuswright's analyst for online travel in Europe, recalls many initiatives across the U.K. and Europe that never really fulfilled their ambition.
He puts this down to a number of factors including that tourist boards are not allowed to use public funds to compete with private entities.
But, says O’Connor, the challenges are greater in that there is a “fundamental misunderstanding as to what online distribution systems do.”
He says it’s not only about the demand collection side of these businesses, but also the huge cost of customer acquisition.
Booking Holdings and Expedia Group invested some $11 billion on marketing in 2019.
O’Connor says that the large U.S. platforms spend significant proportions of their revenue on sales, marketing and loyalty, but their margins are relatively small.
He adds that there’s also the cost of getting the hotels signed up and the technology.
“When governments or even startup online travel agencies say the technology is cheap, that is not the only cost you have. You have to be known, the consumer does not know you exist and they are not going to use you.
Alex Bainbridge, founder and CEO of autonomous sightseeing startup Autoura, says four pillars are required for a booking service: product data, customer service, contracts and money handling.
Bainbridge, who set up B2B tours and activities platform TourCMS before selling it in 2015, says that most of these projects fail because they think there is only the product data side to consider.
O’Connor adds that while governments may think they can do something cheaper, it becomes a bit of a “vicious circle” because if they get hotels and others suppliers to sign up, they have to produce the bookings, and to do that comes the necessary investment in customer acquisition.
Put like that, it’s hardly surprising that any government-funded initiatives are going to find it hard to gain real traction for a nationwide portal.
The French initiative is unlikely to be realized any time soon, while the Italian suggestion of something similar is just that.
Italian hotelier Giancarlo Carniani, who manages ToFlorence Hotels and is president of the local hotel association, also talks of many attempts at taking on the online travel platforms.
He says different regions in Italy have tried to have their own websites as well as some national efforts with none ever really gaining serious traction.
“In my opinion, the problem is always the same. They are doing something that is not their job.”
Carniani does not believe the current crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic changes anything in terms of the likelihood for these types of national initiatives to work.
Carniani hopes the rules of engagement between OTAs and hoteliers might be reshaped, but that there isn’t much appetite for putting money into another national tourism website.
O’Connor is less sure that much will change in the hotel distribution relationship going forward.
Expedia announced a $275 million partner recovery program recently, mostly to be paid in marketing credits and a reduction in commission, but experts agree that hoteliers need to be aware of the potential pitfalls.
Like others, O’Connor believes it’s about capturing as much of the developing supply as possible.
He also sees the OTAs as “consolidating their hold over the market” further going forward.
“In the short term, less OTAs, more direct booking up until Q1 2021 and after that, as international travel starts to come back, OTAs will be better positioned to consolidate.”
There are millions of people just itching for a vacation right now, and Cancun wants to welcome visitors with open arms. However, there’s a huge problem with their plan. Most of the country is still in a severe phase of the pandemic – with all 32 states reporting daily increases in confirmed Covid-19 cases.
In cities such as Guadalajara and Mexico City, even locals aren’t allowed to venture far from their homes and restrictions on shopping, dining, and exercising are still in full force.
However, the country’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has resumed his cross-country travels and is trying to portray a ‘new normal’ – the problem is little has changed to prevent further outbreaks.
Cancun is aiming to open its doors to tourists from June 10 – but it makes zero sense given the actual situation on the ground.
Quintana Roo, home to the famed beaches of Cancun and Tulum, will resume activities next week – according to the governor, Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez. The state, which depends heavily on tourism, has lost over 83,000 jobs in the last few months due to the pandemic, and with reopening the state could see an economic rebound. However, that entirely depends on the success and implementation of safety measures.
In a press conference, the governor said that tourists could start arriving in the Caribbean destination as soon as June 8th. He added that tourism is an essential activity and that there is no other of greater importance in Quintana Roo “and we are going to fight for it to be considered that way.”
He stressed during the public address that for the opening to happen by June 10th, protocols and hygiene measures must be followed to protect workers and tourists from Covid-19.
And he has good reason to reopen. According to a new survey by Expedia, ‘Cancun flights’ is one of the top 5 searches on the platform. In the same survey, Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Isla Mujeres (all located in Quintana Roo) were announced as three of the most internationally sought after destinations.
Meanwhile, AMLO has launched a cross-country tour touting the lifting of Coronavirus restrictions. President AMLO also held his daily press conference from the state of Quintana Roo to mark the beginning of Mexico’s economic reopening and resume his tours across the country.
But this too makes zero sense. Yes, the government has mandated that states can begin lifting restrictions – if they’re no longer declared ‘red zones.’ However, every state in the country is still in the red, with many seeing peak infection numbers.
It’s just the most recent example of confusing messaging from the president.
While AMLO is eager to get the country reopened and put Mexicans back to work, Coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country. Mexico has now recorded the seventh-highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker, with nearly 10,000 virus-related fatalities and almost 100,000 confirmed cases. Testing in the country is low and health officials acknowledge that the numbers are likely much higher.
The federal government unveiled a red-light/green-light system to implement reopening procedures state by state. But currently every state is still in ‘red-light’ phase – meaning stay-at-home orders are still in full effect – making AMLO’s messaging extremely confusing.
Time and time again, the president has downplayed the virus outbreak and has criticized stay-at-home orders for harming the economy.
Keep in mind, however, that non-essential travel between the U.S. and Mexico is still largely banned.
Since March, all non-essential travel has been banned between the U.S. and Mexico. However, that ban is currently set to expire on June 22. It’s possible both sides could extend the travel ban, but given AMLO’s rhetoric it isn’t likely he’ll keep the country closed to tourists for much longer.
However, it’s important to point that out even if you technically can travel – right now you really shouldn’t. In much of Mexico, confirmed Covid-19 cases are on the rise with many cities across the country just now entering its worst phase.
The summer travel season is upon the Northern Hemisphere, and while many consumers would normally be setting their sights on visiting new lands, international travel seems to be by and large on hold for summer 2020. Too many people fear contracting coronavirus while traveling abroad.
Are “travel bubbles” the answer?
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania started the idea of “travel bubbles,” allowing residents of the three nations to move between them but keeping out all other international travelers who could contaminate the “bubble.” Islands like Fiji and Bali, which rely heavily on tourism and boast low infection rates so far, have also been clamoring to create travel bubbles to attract tourists from Asian nations where infections are low thanks to tracking-and-tracing efforts.
Meanwhile, Denmark and Norway are opening to each other on June 15, but have excluded nearby Sweden because that nation’s loose lockdown rules have led to COVID-19’s wider proliferation.
Australia and New Zealand are likewise reportedly planning to create a two-nation travel bubble and receive incoming flights from each other without restriction. Fiji, Israel and Costa Rica have expressed interest in joining as well.
“We’ll all get back to moving again, but in a different way,” said Scott Tasker, general manager at New Zealand’s Auckland Airport, told The New York Times. “This is a global shock to the aviation and tourism industry the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
Such moves come as the travel industry and government officials struggle with how to not only keep tourists safe from COVID-19, but convince them to book trips on the first place. PYMNTS’ recent consumer surveys found that only 2.8 percent of Americans see international travel as a top priority that would get them out of their homes. And the question about how to reinstate global travel has been superseded in many locales by a debate about whether international visitors are desirable at all.
Some countries are allowing foreign visitors, but requiring long quarantine periods (typically 14 days). Australia and New Zealand are developing a proposal to let some international travelers skirt a 14-day quarantine now in place. They hope to have the system up and running by the time their austral-summer travel season starts in September.
Travel providers are also looking at requiring masks and temperature checks at every new point of contact, as well as using contact-tracing apps and even testing potential travelers with coronavirus throat swabs.
Whether any of this will appeal to would-be tourists remains to be seen. Many travel executives believe interest in going abroad will simply remain markedly depressed for some time, likely until a COVID-10 vaccine becomes widely available.
“It’s just not going to be as free-flowing and spontaneous as it once was,” said Margy Osmond, chief executive of Australia’s largest tourism association and co-chair of the group working on travel between Australia and New Zealand, told the Times. “I don’t know that it will be more expensive — the jury is still out on that — but it will mean the average traveler has to take more responsibility.”
The number of tourist arrivals to Florida fell 10.7 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from the same period a year earlier, and the estimate may be optimistic.
The final month of the quarter, March, was impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic which essentially shut down the hospitality industry statewide. A report posted online by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, said “data previously used to estimate Florida visitation may not paint the full picture during COVID-19.”
The report estimates that 31.95 million people visited the state during the first three months of the year. That compares to 35.79 million visitors during the first quarter in 2019.
Visit Florida also has pointed to potentially long-term effects of the coronavirus on the tourism industry, saying people are expected to initially prefer short drives rather than long flights as they look to travel. Also, the report said the virus is expected to have a major impact on people flying in and out of the state, which provides key data for quarterly tourism estimates.
“In many ways, COVID-19 has the potential to impact consumer behavior for years to come,” the report, dated May 15, said.
“We know that this rebound is going to take a while, and we have to make sure that Florida continues to be a top travel destination,” Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman told members of the agency’s Executive Committee in a May 7 conference call.
Passengers getting on board planes at 19 Florida airports in the quarter decreased 11.6 percent compared to 2019, the report said. And hotels, despite strong performance in January and February, ended the quarter with the number of hotel rooms sold down 13.2 percent.
The second quarter is expected to be worse for the numbers, as unemployment ballooned nationwide, and many businesses were closed or scaled back throughout April and May.
But Florida’s hospitality industry, including hotels and restaurants, last month began easing back into operations. Beaches have opened, along with vacation rentals in most counties. Also, major tourist destinations, which closed in mid-March, are slowly reopening with new physical-distancing rules in place for workers and guests.
Universal Orlando is opening certain hotels Tuesday June 2nd, with its theme parks welcoming guests on Friday.
SeaWorld is expected to reopen on June 11. Disney is set to open the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11 and reopen Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15, according to DisneyParks.com. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground will begin to reopen on June 22.
A checkpoint intended to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting access to the Florida Keys was lifted after two months on Monday. The Key West Chamber of Commerce said on its website that lodging will be limited to 50 percent of standard occupancy for the beginning stages of reopening.
Meanwhile, Visit Florida staff put current marketing plans on hold as it has worked on a “rebound plan” that will initially focus on Floridians taking in-state trips. The multi-step plan must still go before the organization’s Board of Directors, which is next scheduled to meet June 24.
In 2019, Florida attracted a record 131.4 million travelers, making it the ninth consecutive year of increased tourism numbers.
Domestic travelers, accounting for 28.5 million of this year’s first quarter visits, were down 9.7 percent from last year. Overseas travelers dropped 20.6 percent and the number of Canadian visitors dropped by 14.4 percent in the same quarter to quarter comparison.
Passengers getting on board planes at Orlando International Airport were down 10.8 percent for the quarter and 13.1 percent at Miami International Airport.
Only three airports posted gains for the quarter: Key West, up 3 percent; Punta Gorda, up 4.3 percent, and Sarasota, up 26 percent.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to resume professional sports, even in empty stadiums, could have benefits for some Central Florida hotels.
Major League Soccer and the National Basketball Association are working on completing their seasons at empty stadiums in Orlando. The MLS plan would be for a tournament beginning in July, the start of the third quarter.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.