David Jessop – Caribbean Council
The timing of Caribbean tourism’s return to normality remains uncertain. David Jessop suggests that the pandemic has validated the case for transforming the Caribbean model so that the industry is better integrated, and more socially relevant.
Despite the understandable desire by some in tourism to talk up a ‘return to normal’, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the industry’s recovery from the pandemic will be slow and uncertain, largely because infection rates in the region’s principal overseas markets continue to rise.
This suggests that the timing of any return to pre-pandemic tourism buoyancy now depends on factors far beyond the region’s control and full recovery is unlikely to occur this or year or even in 2021.
Unfortunately, the spread of COVID-19 is evolving in the region and its key visitor source markets in different ways and over dissimilar time scales, implying that finding a viable basis for the full return of air and sea lift to the region will likely be complicated and slow until a vaccine is found. To make matters worse, economic uncertainty now faces many mid-market travellers in North America and Europe.
The hiatus in arrivals helps make the case that it is time for a long overdue discussion about how tourism related economy might be transformed, future proofed, and the industry’s longer term vitality be better harnessed to encourage broader economic growth.
Unlike most Caribbean industries, tourism has grown in a haphazard unintegrated manner, powering its way from the 1990s on to dominate much of the Caribbean economy. This happened as preferential arrangements for agriculture and commodities were attenuating, disposable income was growing rapidly in North America and Europe, and governments were happy to regard the industry as an alternative, seemingly limitless way to rapidly generate economic growth and revenues.
What the pandemic has proved is that the critical role the industry now plays requires greater strategic consideration so that the economic demand it creates encourages not only linkages with the wider economy but also catalyses development, grows transferable skills and supports newer industries in ways that better balance the national economy.
While everything possible should be done by governments and the industry to facilitate tourism’s short term recovery, the industry’s economic dominance suggests that this should be coupled with a thorough going long-term analysis that explores how the pandemic may structurally change travel and tourism, and how a more strategic approach might reposition the industry so that it facilitates domestic growth.
The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to assess how a region with billions of dollars invested in fixed hospitality infrastructure, in a region unlikely to ever go out of tourism, might establish linkages that go far beyond the obvious such as agriculture and fisheries, and for example, be incentivised to link with and stimulate the growth of new services-based industries.
A few days ago Barbados’ Minister of Tourism and International Transport, Lisa Cummins, explained how the Barbados Government is hoping to turn the present crisis into an opportunity, and has developed plans that it hopes will make it the southern tourism hub of the Caribbean.
Speaking to the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), she said that as a part of Government’s tourism restructuring plans it was negotiating with the cruise lines to make the island the homeport for cruise traffic in the southern Caribbean. When the lines resume service, she said, this would see them developing itineraries that begin and end in Barbados.
She went on to link the initiative to helping the island’s hotel sector by negotiating with the cruise lines integrated pre-and post-cruise stays which when finalised, would be incorporated into the new tourism products and marketing programmes government is developing.
Senator Cummins also explained that Government intends positioning the island as the southern regional hub for air travel, and as its deepens and expand its industry relationships will have as a part of its negotiating objective the inclusion of pre- or post-stay stopovers on the island for travellers passing through Barbados to other destinations.
The Minister also plans to develop hanger services for private planes; a new business strategy for Grantley Adams International Airport that would increase air traffic; placing emphasis on the resilient high-end luxury segment of the travel market; better forecasting of international air traffic and industry trends using big data available from regional and international sources; redesigning the private-public sector partnership approach to marketing; and developing the possibility of a PCR test before travellers board, based on a project developed by Heathrow airport.
In addition, the Barbados Government has said that it will create a much stronger training component for those who work in the sector and will develop a comprehensive approach that involves new green investment plans intended to make tourism fully renewable and conservation oriented.
Senator Cummins said that the overall objective will be to re-emerge from the COVID experience “with a tourism product that has been transformed, but also with a tourism worker that has been upskilled, retooled, retrained and repositioned, to be the frontline worker in a new tourism economy” to make Barbados “far more effective, efficient and competitive” than before.
By recognising the extraordinary range of onshore services and support which cruise ships require, by thinking long term (the island provided safe haven for cruise ships and helped repatriate crew), by taking advantage of the island’s geographic location, by trying to find a practical way to lessen the enmity between the cruise lines and the hotels, and by supporting workers, it is attempting to deepen holistically its engagement with tourism’s future.
Put another way what Barbados and Jamaica before it has been doing is thinking laterally about how tourism can bring wider benefits that are transformative.
By illustrating the critical economic importance of tourism, the pandemic has validated the case for a better integrated, and more socially relevant industry. It is indicating that with thought and sensitive direction, tourism can come to be seen by all as a sustainable, beneficial, ecologically sound, socio-economic development tool.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com
Covid-19 And Tourism: Assessing the Economic Consequences: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
27 page report published July 2020
Table of Contents
How the Covid-19 crisis hits tourism p.7
Tourism in the CGE model GTAP p.10
Implications and Conclusions p.17
For full report click below
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated local economies in Japan, pushing a number of businesses in rural areas to the brink of insolvency, if not outright bankruptcy.
Hot-spring towns and ski resorts such as Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture, which are reliant on inbound tourism, have been hit hardest, and there simply aren’t enough local customers to sustain operating facilities deep in the mountains.
The immediate problem these local economies face is the polar opposite of overtourism, and, for as long as the pandemic lingers, there’s never been a better time for rural destinations to consider developing more sustainable forms of tourism.
For consumers, sustainable travel tends to evoke notions of lowering their environmental impact, whether that be by minimizing one’s carbon footprint, avoiding single-use plastics or staying at eco-friendly lodgings.
Sustainability itself is a complex issue, and yet, as far as tourism is concerned, a unifying factor appears to lie at the heart of any initiative’s success: the local community.
One might argue that such communities lie at the cornerstone of tourism: For why do people visit places if not to experience local flavor, and who suffers the adverse consequences of tourism but those who live there?
Indeed, people close to the tourism industry often speak of the need to balance commercial interests with the needs of the local residents in those communities.
It’s hard to overemphasize the economic impact tourism has on local communities. The money tourists spend during their stay tends to have a positive effect in the wider economy; remove this revenue from the equation and the entire supply chain is disrupted.
Derek Yamashita, co-founder of travel website The Hidden Japan, says seafood prices in Yamagata Prefecture’s Shonai region dropped significantly once local hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and restaurants reduced their orders after bookings dried up, leaving fishermen in the region with excess, unsold catches.
Without an influx of cash coming into these communities from the outside, it’s tough for local businesses to survive.
Walk Japan is a company that prides itself on its efforts to incorporate local communities into its walking tours. It is also committed to employing local staff, an approach reflected in its ongoing community project in two neighboring valleys on the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture.
“We use local family-run accommodations, local taxi and bus firms, restaurants, and the like,” Walk Japan CEO Paul Christie says. “The money we spend in the area tends to stay in the area. … We usually come to know local people in the business, and, if there’s an issue, we can talk to them. It’s about getting under the skin of Japan in an efficient fashion.”
Walk Japan places restrictions on the number of participants that can join a tour group, which generally results in low-impact travel. It is perhaps worth noting, though, that the company tries to attract more affluent clients, which typically means fewer customers to begin with.
Yamagata-based The Hidden Japan and Hokkaido-based Adventure Hokkaido also seek to incorporate the same community ethos into their operations. Yamashita and Kazuhiro Arai, director of Adventure Hokkaido, are committed to employing local guides and experts, with Arai noting that his guides have all been born and bred in Hokkaido.
“We don’t use translators from Tokyo or people outside the community,” Yamashita says. “We’re not going to employ some random guy. It’s going to be a local guide who has passion for a topic.”
It isn’t uncommon for large group tours in rural Japan to be led by non-local guides, underscoring Yamashita’s commitment to delivering an “authentic” experience by working only with people living in Yamagata Prefecture.
Before the pandemic, most first-time travelers to Japan would likely have planned their trip along the country’s so-called Golden Route, planning their itinerary based on stays in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
According to the most recent statistics published by the Japan National Tourism Organization, the regional distribution of inbound travelers has clearly been skewed, with just under half visiting Tokyo, followed by Osaka, Chiba and Kyoto, respectively.
Many businesses in these cities were already handling an increasing number of tourists even before the coronavirus emerged in China at the end of last year.
Now, however, densely populated urban areas have never looked less appealing than they do at present. Tokyo and Osaka evoke a particular horror for residents in rural parts of the country due to comparatively high COVID-19 infection rates in both cities.
Conversely, tourism to rural areas has seen a worldwide surge in interest over the course of 2020, and the interest in outdoor activities such as camping and hiking has never been higher.
The appeal is obvious: It’s easier to maintain social distancing in rural areas, with the added bonus of being in or closer to beautiful, natural surroundings. Even without the specter of travel restrictions, rural destinations were already experiencing higher visitor volumes across the board, and nature-based tourism in rural areas is slated to be a key part of the country’s official inbound tourism strategy going forward.
The pandemic has accelerated these trends. Prior to 2020, the government had already poured trillions of yen into promoting lesser-visited parts of Japan as tourist destinations.
Although sustainability rarely factored into official tourism strategy within Japan, the effects of the climate crisis and overtourism appear to have finally made some impact.
Government white papers in recent years have highlighted the importance of redirecting tourist traffic away from larger cities mitigate the effects of overtourism, as well as to spread the economic benefits of tourism more equally.
The Japan Tourism Agency launched a Sustainable Tourism Promotion office in 2018, joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in late 2019 and recently issued Japan-specific GSTC criteria by which industry operators can seek certification as being “sustainable” to an international standard.
Some see domestic tourism as a stopgap solution to the current situation.
Yamashita has written about the fragility of the hotel and ryokan industry in Yamagata, arguing that “an immediate influx of tourists (is needed) to support them and get them back on their feet.”
Some companies, including Walk Japan and Adventure Hokkaido, are offering tours in the countryside, and people are still traveling to and from rural areas. That said, the existing volume is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the numbers that had previously passed through year after year.
COVID-19 is the obvious hurdle. The recent Go To Travel promotional tourism campaign has incited an equal mix of wrath and fear from many residents of rural areas.
Anna Shimeki, a Gunma resident who runs a small family business specializing in construction and renovation, highlights the frustration her community has for Tokyo residents at present.
“The main thinking is that it’s irresponsible and selfish for (Tokyo people) to be traveling,” Shimeki says. “Local businesses know they need them to survive, but normal people on the street don’t want anything to do with them.”
The resentment is perhaps understandable.
One of the main concerns regarding travel during a pandemic is that hospitals in rural areas have little capacity to accommodate even a slight increase in cases.
Laura Kurotobi, a university lecturer and education researcher based in Mihara, Hiroshima Prefecture, says that “if we got hit with many serious cases, we would struggle to handle it all.”
Without clear and reliable government directives, many in the travel and hospitality sectors are turning to their respective communities when making business decisions. Obtaining local approval has become paramount.
Tetsuo Nakahara, who resides in the tiny hamlet of Sakuraden on the Kunisaki Peninsula, Oita Prefecture, consulted everyone in the neighborhood prior to opening a new guesthouse earlier this year, and again when it came to the question of accepting guests from Tokyo.
“My daughter is the first baby in this community in 15 years,” Nakahara says. “She’s like a princess here. I love this area. I don’t want to make trouble for neighbors and the community.”
As with other business owners nationwide, he is monitoring the situation, stocking up on hand sanitiser and welcoming guests on a case-by-case basis.
Without the usual tourist volumes, it’s a good time for rural destinations to consider more sustainable practices going forward, but also to explore alternative opportunities and solutions. Outside of tourism, Christie sees the current moment as a tremendous opportunity to attract remote workers to the countryside.
“The idea of working away from an office has become less an idea and more of a practical thing,” Christie says. “The pandemic has actually boosted the attractiveness of the countryside.”
Indeed, an increase in remote work is likely to bring an infusion of much-needed cash from those fleeing cities and some ryokan are already advertising rooms as ideal satellite offices.
Takashi Yamada, director of sales and marketing for the Kiso Ontake Tourism Office in Nagano Prefecture, suggests that areas like the Kiso Valley could look into converting existing akiya (empty houses) into remote work-friendly spaces — with, of course, consensus from local stakeholders.
The way forward for rural destinations is not to eliminate tourism altogether. Healthy, sustainable tourism must be based on deep respect for people and the land they live on in order for a place to avoid being destroyed by tourism. Such a concept is only possible if we adopt a “locals first” mind-set in rebuilding tourism.
Harriet Richardson, who works at nonprofit destination management organization Hill Town Biei, understands the outsider-local tensions all too well.
Although Biei, a picturesque town in Hokkaido, has a population of just 10,000 residents or so, it used to attract 10 times more visitors each year, resulting in frustration and hostility from locals. Nevertheless, the pandemic has also shown many businesses in Biei that they will not survive on local patronage alone, so some are slowly reconciling to the benefits of tourism.
“Because of coronavirus we’ve learned a lot about why it’s quite good to manage the numbers of visitors,” Richardson says, describing the town’s ongoing efforts to educate both tourists and locals about each other. “But it’s very important to our town’s economy that we have tourists coming in. The challenge for our region is, how do we balance the numbers? Our primary goal is finding a way to reconcile locals with tourists.”
In the case of Hokkaido, respecting indigenous Ainu values is likely to be another key to sustainable tourism. For Arai of Adventure Hokkaido, who also heads the Hokkaido Adventure Travel Association, sustainable tourism is about managing the environment, culture and socioeconomics of a given area, which means working together with the original stewards of the land.
“As a Hokkaido person,” he says, “we need to recognize our Ainu culture.”
Going forward, businesses that can demonstrate a tangible commitment to their communities will be more likely to survive the pandemic and meet with long-term success.
“Something that seems to be increasingly important (to customers) is a sense of how worthy a company is,” Christie says. “Walk Japan has its Community Project. We work very hard at that, and that hasn’t come to a stop at all.”
The downturn in tourist numbers this year has allowed those involved in the industry to reevaluate their priorities. At some point, tourists will return and it is important to recalibrate the industry so that the needs of local communities are prioritized.
“This is a good opportunity to get back to the basics of tourism,” Nakahara says. “Locals must be happy, especially the elderly. It has to be something locals can be proud of. If we can achieve that, it’s something sustainable for me.”
Published September 22 2020
Table of Contents
Executive Summary (page 7)
1 | Travel Sectors: Health , Risks, And Strengths (page 11)
Click here for full 92 page report.
The Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) announced the unanimous approval of its Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism 2020-2025 (PMTS for its acronym in Spanish) by the National Tourism Council, the main public-private body for the management of the tourism sector in Panama.
The five-year plan outlines ATP’s strategy for the relaunch of the country as a tourism destination, following its post-pandemic reopening on October 12.
“The Sustainable Tourism Master Plan is a differentiation strategy, through innovation and sustainability, highlighting the natural and cultural heritage of Panama,” said Panama’s Minister of Tourism Ivan Eskildsen.
“Our heritage offerings lead as an invaluable asset in the midst of an uncertain global environment, proving to be a competitive edge with strong authenticity that our country can confidently stand by.”
The plan reactivates Panama’s Tourism, Conservation and Research (TCR) strategy applied in Panama over 20 years ago by the prestigious ecologist Dr. Hana Ayala. The TCR Strategy positions the country's conservation and sustainability efforts at the forefront, along with its unique nature, culture and historic offerings, capitalizing in the overall safety that Panama offers.
The updated TCR Heritage Routes strategy now features three focus areas: Cultural Heritage, Green Heritage and Blue Heritage. Comprised of 19 circuits that tell the stories of Panama, the plan was developed through thorough analysis and research conducted in multiple workshops with the help of local and international consultants, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the academic team of the Biomuseo (Biodiversity Museum), the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Culture, the Panamanian travel industry, and other key organizations.
The Heritage Routes are distinct in their offerings:
Cultural Heritage: Narrates the history of Panama as the Bridge of the World, connecting world class attractions such as Casco Antiguo (UNESCO World Heritage), the world-famous Panama Canal, the first interoceanic railway, among others. Also, the cultural circuits showcase Panama’s multicultural diversity, offering experiences across Panama’s three main cultures: its 7 living indigenous groups, its Afro-Panamanian heritage including the Congo culture (UNESCO Intangible Heritage), and its colorful Spanish colonial culture. Panama’s cultural diversity is also experienced in its gastronomy, where UNESCO has recognized Panama City as a creative city in gastronomy.
Green Heritage: Ever since the Panama isthmus was formed 3 million years ago, it produced a great exchange of species between North and South America, providing the country with an extraordinary biodiversity: it holds more species of birds, reptiles, mammals and trees than the US and Canada together. The Green Heritage routes take the visitor across National Parks, protected areas and private reserves in Panama’s neotropical rainforest (one third of the country is protected), including experiences through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s visitor centers, one of which is the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in the Panama Canal watershed, considered the most intensively studied tropical forest in the world.
Blue Heritage: Three million years ago, with the creation of the land bridge of the Panama Isthmus, the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans were separated, becoming two different oceans in terms of tides, climate, and marine fauna. The experiences offered across the various ecosystems in the Blue Heritage Routes, include whale-watching surrounding Coiba National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and admiring turtle conservation projects in the Pacific Ocean, as well as exploring the Caribbean turquoise waters of Bocas del Toro, recognized as a Hope Spot by Mission Blue, the initiative led by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle.
Panama’s PMTS renews the country's tourism strategy and hope for the industry’s progressive reactivation post-pandemic. The destination’s first international push for the relaunch of tourism is the Experience Panama Expo, a virtual fair taking place September 25-27, featuring local exhibitors and international buyers, which also coincides with a virtual meeting of ministers from the region.
The Tourism Master Plan also includes an important component of community-based tourism, which connects with a flagship project of Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo’s administration, the Colmena (“Beehive”) Plan, which seeks to improve the development of the 300 townships with the greatest socioeconomic vulnerability in the country. Paradoxically, some of these communities have a rich natural and cultural heritage, mainly Indigenous and Afro-Panamanian communities, that can offer discerning travelers the experience of authentic living cultures, surrounded by pristine ecosystems, included within the Heritage Routes.
The five-year plan focused on the reactivation of the country’s tourism industry represents an estimated investment of $301.9 million including investments made through the Tourism Promotion Fund (PROMTUR) and financed by an approved loan with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
International tourist arrivals plunged 93% in June when compared to 2019, with the latest data from the World Tourism Organization showing the severe impact COVID-19 has had on the sector.
According to the new issue of the World Tourism Barometer from the United Nations specialized agency, international tourist arrivals dropped by 65% during the first half of the year. This represents an unprecedented decrease, as countries around the world closed their borders and introduced travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.
Over recent weeks, a growing number of destinations have started to open up again to international tourists. UNWTO reports that, as of early September, 53% of destinations had eased travel restrictions. Nevertheless, many governments remain cautious, and this latest report shows that the lock downs introduced during the first half of the year have had a massive impact on international tourism. The sharp and sudden fall in arrivals has placed millions of jobs and businesses at risk.
Counting the economic cost
According to UNWTO, the massive drop in international travel demand over the period January-June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about US$ 460 billion in export revenues from international tourism. This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The latest World Tourism Barometer shows the deep impact this pandemic is having on tourism, a sector upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods. However, safe and responsible international travel is now possible in many parts of the world, and it is imperative that governments work closely with the private sector to get global tourism moving again. Coordinated action is key.”
All global regions hit hard
Despite the gradual reopening of many destinations since the second half of May, the anticipated improvement in international tourism numbers during the peak summer season in the Northern Hemisphere did not materialize.
Europe was the second-hardest hit of all global regions, with a 66% decline in tourist arrivals in the first half of 2020. The Americas (-55%), Africa and the Middle East (both -57%) also suffered. However, Asia and the Pacific, the first region to feel the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, was the hardest hit, with a 72% fall in tourists for the six-month period.
At the sub-regional level, North-East Asia (-83%) and Southern Mediterranean Europe (-72%) suffered the largest declines. All world regions and sub-regions recorded declines of more than 50% in arrivals in January-June 2020. The contraction of international demand is also reflected in double-digit declines in international tourism expenditure among large markets. Major outbound markets such as the United States and China continue to be at a standstill, though some markets such as France and Germany have shown some improvement in June.
Looking ahead, it seems likely that reduced travel demand and consumer confidence will continue to impact results for the rest of the year. In May, UNWTO outlined three possible scenarios, pointing to declines of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals in 2020. Current trends through August point to a drop in demand closer to 70% (Scenario 2), especially now as some destinations re-introduce restrictions on travel.
The extension of the scenarios to 2021 point to a change in trend next year, based on the assumptions of a gradual and linear lifting of travel restrictions, the availability of a vaccine or treatment and a return of traveler confidence. Nonetheless, despite this, the return to 2019 levels in terms of tourist arrivals would take between 2½ to 4 years.
“What activities are open to do next week? Zip-lining? Jet ski? Anyone have recommendations on things still open?” a Facebook user asks.
“Stay home!” another user replies.
The Facebook group called “What’s Going on St. Thomas?” has been flooded with pointed, exasperated comments urging travelers to stay away. This is a marked change. Before the pandemic, the exchanges between vacationers and island residents resonated with promises of excitement and fun. Now, tour operators from the mainland who administer the Facebook page quickly try to delete any expressions of anger.
In nearby Puerto Rico, the friction has spilled into real life. Media reports have detailed multiple episodes in which tourists, having escaped pandemic restrictions back home, became violent and destroyed store merchandise after being asked to wear a mask.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pitted economic interests against public health guidance all across the United States. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands feel this tension acutely, as both U.S. territories rely on tourism to generate revenue and provide jobs. Increasingly, locals have begun to wonder now if welcoming visitors to these islands is worth the risk.
Tourism represents more than half of the Virgin Islands’ gross domestic product. In Puerto Rico, the industry accounts for 80,000 jobs and about 6.5% of the island’s total economy.
But islanders are not only vulnerable to COVID-19’s economic disruptions. Residents of both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are diagnosed with chronic health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular illness at higher rates than in most U.S. states, which puts them at higher risk for the virus’s complications.
In short, the very industry that represents an economic lifeline for islanders threatens their ability to protect their health.
When COVID-19 triggered alarms in late winter, Puerto Rico and the USVI adopted strong COVID prevention strategies before most U.S. states did.
In Puerto Rico, Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an executive order March 15, effectively locking down the island by imposing a curfew, a stay-at-home order and business closures. The first coronavirus cases on the island were reported March 13.
Similarly, Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. issued executive orders prohibiting hotels, villas and other accommodations from accepting leisure guests between March 25 and June 1. The area remained open to business travelers, flight crews, health officials, emergency personnel, government guests and residents. According to a March 20 Department of Health update, the territory had — at that time — six confirmed COVID cases and 43 pending test results.
Neither territory, however, was able to close its airports. Local officials do not have the authority to do so because the federal government regulates aviation.
“Part of the challenge of being a U.S. colony, in particular, is that, you know, we don’t have control over our borders,” said Hadiya Sewer, president and co-founder of St. JanCo: the St John Heritage Collective, a cultural heritage preservation and land rights organization on the small island of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Still, the aggressive measures — while effective — came at a price for residents like Melina Aguilar.
Before the lockdown, the 31-year-old entrepreneur worked as a tour guide for Isla Caribe, a company she founded that offers historical walking tours of Ponce, Puerto Rico. The stay-at-home order in March shut down Aguilar’s business for three months and sequestered her in her house.
Aguilar said the sacrifice would have been worth it if the island could have maintained control of the spread by closing the border and enforcing the 14-day quarantine for travelers. It didn’t work out that way. According to data from The New York Times, the seven-day average for cases on May 1 — while Puerto Rico was still in lockdown — was 42 cases per day. On July 1, the seven-day average was 102 cases. By July 15, the average was 233.
“We could’ve basically had the fruits of being locked up for three months,” Aguilar said. “But now we’re stuck.”
Reopening the Gateway
By summer, both territories were itching to get back to business. With many overseas vacation destinations banning U.S. travelers, it seemed like the nearby mainland would be full of beachgoers, who, after living under stay-at-home orders for months, would be ready to travel — no passport required — to the sun and sand.
The U.S. Virgin Islands formally welcomed tourists back to its shores on June 1 — with caveats. Travelers from coronavirus hot spots needed to submit COVID-19 test information through an online portal to receive a negative result “certification code.” Those who didn’t were required to quarantine for 14 days or until they had documentation of a negative test result.
But locals and tourists alike said COVID enforcement measures haven’t been consistent. Capt. Matthias Bitterwolf, owner of Antillean Yacht Charters on St. Thomas, said he delivered a boat to Puerto Rico and was not allowed off the vessel until local police could verify his COVID paperwork. His COVID status was not checked upon returning to St. Thomas.
The Virgin Islands’ case counts soon began ticking up. Between June and mid-July, the case count increased by more than 3,500%, according to one NBC news report.
Gov. Bryan responded by issuing other executive orders to regain control of the outbreak, including prohibiting beach visits after 4 p.m. and not allowing patrons to stand or eat at bars located in restaurants. As of Aug. 24, the USVI had a total of 984 positive COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths.
Puerto Rico formally welcomed tourists on July 15 while still imposing some COVID-related restrictions. As in the Virgin Islands, officials required travelers to present documentation of a negative COVID test result upon arrival.
Dr. Victor Ramos, president of the island’s medical association who is involved with the island’s medical task force, said these decisions tended to expose the rift “between the medical task force that favors closing things and the economic task force that wants to leave everything open.”
By July, the local economy was in shambles. The Department of Labor reported over 21% of the island’s workforce was receiving unemployment assistance related to the pandemic in the week ending Aug. 1.
But rising case counts attributed to travel prompted local officials to encourage that only essential travel be allowed. As of Aug. 24, the island had recorded over 30,700 COVID cases and at least 395 deaths, according to the New York Times database.
Government data, though, indicated Puerto Rico’s climbing case numbers were not being triggered by tourists. They are not the culprits, insisted Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer of Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s official tourism website. Rather, the spread was linked to island residents coming home after visiting COVID hot spots like Texas and Florida.
Life on the Ground
Despite the global pandemic and the restrictions, both territories have experienced no shortage of vacationers. “We would have expected this to be a slow moment for us in terms of tourism,” said Sewer. “It’s very busy.”
Still, the trend lines for COVID case counts weren’t moving in the right direction for either territory, so it was no surprise when Puerto Rico closed days after reopening and the USVI followed suit on Aug. 19.
The underlying socioeconomic and health issues put residents in both places at high risk. It’s not just the prevalence of chronic health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The high number of multigenerational households in both areas complicates a family’s ability to socially distance from its most vulnerable members. Roughly a quarter of the population in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is age 65 or older, and poverty is widespread.
At the same time, both territories have limited health care infrastructure — making it difficult to envision that they can care for their own populations in an emergency let alone visitors who could become ill and island-bound if the virus were to surge.
Currently, the USVI has two main hospitals — one in St. Thomas and one in St. Croix — and a health clinic in St. John. The territory has 20 intensive care unit beds and about 100 one-time-use ventilators for its 106,235 residents, said Justa Encarnacion, the USVI’s health commissioner. Each island has about 30 full-capacity ventilators.
In Puerto Rico, about 60% of the island’s ventilators for adults were available as of Aug. 24. However, ICU beds are harder to come by, said Ramos. They are filled with COVID patients and those whose conditions worsened after avoiding care out of fear of catching the virus, he said.
The string of problems that have besieged these islands magnifies the effects of the pandemic. That includes debt crises and infrastructure damage from hurricanes and earthquakes. Island residents also fear the possibility of battling a hurricane and a coronavirus outbreak at the same time — a reality that they’ve already confronted when COVID hampered the USVI’s emergency management agency’s ability to distribute sandbags ahead of a storm in late July.
Colorado State University hurricane researchers predict an “extremely active” 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
“At this point, we literally have disasters layered on top of disasters,” said Sewer, of the St. John’s Collective.
Still, Joseph Boschulte, tourism commissioner for the Virgin Islands, is cautiously optimistic about finding a balance between health and economic interests.
“We appreciate the concerns of our tourism partners and stakeholders,” he said. But with the spike in cases, he said, “we must reset, take stock, safeguard human life and prepare for restarting our tourism economy at a later date.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.