Recently published visitor arrival figures indicate that Caribbean tourism has started down the long road to recovery. Following a disastrous 2020, during which governments closed borders to try to halt the spread of COVID-19 and months when the sector all but ceased operations, visitor numbers are now slowly increasing.
According to Tourism Analytics, the Aruba-based consultancy that publishes tourism arrivals figures on a rolling basis, stopover visitors to the island Caribbean, excluding Haiti, declined by 66.1 per cent from 23 million in 2019, to 7.8 million last year.
When it comes to this year, however, its website indicates that a gradual turnaround is now under way. When available stopover figures for the first three months of this year are compared to January, February, and March of 2020, the pre-lockdown period when tourism was still booming, its statistics indicate that visitor arrivals are slowly beginning to recover.
What Tourism Analytics figures evidence is that led by the Dominican Republic, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, the worst may now be past for some of the independent Caribbean’s largest tourism markets.
Speaking about this recently, Andrés Marranzini, the executive vice-president of the Dominican Republic’s National Hotel & Tourism Association, Asonahores, told local television that he expects this year to see four million visitor arrivals, the same as in 2019. As the proportion of those vaccinated in the country’s main source markets proceeds and vaccine roll-out accelerates locally, he said, the next 18 months “could see one single high season”.
Mr. Marranzini warned, however, that this would require the Canadian, the European Union and British governments to allow a resumption of travel to ‘safe’ destinations.
His optimism coincided with equally positive but more conservative comments by Héctor Valdez, the country’s respected central bank governor. He told an IMF meeting of Western Hemisphere central bankers that the favourable outlook for the country’s economic recovery in agriculture and manufacturing was “supported by the positive signs that are being observed in tourism”.
In his remarks, Governor Valdez observed that the country’s 5.5 per cent to 6.0 per cent forecast growth rate for this year was supported by the bank’s projections that the country would receive 3.5 million visitors and that its recovery would boost construction, manufacturing, and commerce.
In a similar vein, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, said last month that Jamaica is projecting long-stay and cruise-visitor arrivals this year at 1.6 million and related earnings at US$1.8 billion. Although the figure, which is predicated on a recovery in the United States market, is well short of the 4.3 million visitors and US$3.64 billion the country received in 2019, it would represent a significant turnaround.
The view that better times are ahead for tourism are shared by Adam Stewart, the Chairman and CEO of Sandals Resorts International, who says the company is already expecting a 65 per cent to 80 per cent occupancy rate in the coming months in its hotels across the region.
Mr Stewart said at a Mayberry Investors Forum this month: “I think for sure, the worst is behind us. Once the first vaccination was approved, we’re seeing a huge correlation between people being vaccinated and consumer confidence.” He suggested that from May onwards, aggressive vaccination programmes being undertaken in key markets such as the United States and United Kingdom and high levels of pent-up demand would drive tourists to the region.
Encouragingly, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) is forecasting a 20 per cent increase in arrivals this year over 2020, and a similar uplift in visitor expenditure, which it estimates to have fallen between 60 to 80 per cent in its member countries last year.
CTO cautions, however, that Caribbean performance in 2021 will depend largely on the success of the authorities in the region’s key markets and the Caribbean in controlling the virus. It believes that international travel confidence may not begin to pick up until this summer and may be modified by citizens in key markets being required to vaccinate before travelling abroad.
In contrast, the outlook remains bleak for the return at scale of cruise tourism, which remains subject to a ‘no sail’ order by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Speaking recently, Cuba’s Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero, said about tourism’s return that “people want to travel the same or more than before, but things will never be as they were. Now, the most successful destinations will be those that have known how to take advantage of this time of paralysis to innovate, to do things differently”.
Mr Marrero, a former minister of tourism, told the country’s tourism executives that future success will depend on their understanding that the sector is a locomotive for the economy and that they must significantly redesign tourism. This would involve, he said, ensuring COVID-safe conditions, offering service and cuisine of quality, providing universal internet connectivity, adapting marketing to be social-media oriented, and further diversifying the country’s tourism offering away from the beach.
“We are seen as a sun and beach destination, but the strength of our culture makes us different” as does the “varied nature” of the Cuban tourism product. We have to guarantee the highest quality in all tourism products that we offer in the country, both to the international and domestic markets,” he said.
What 2020 confirmed is that tourism, if well integrated economically and sustainably, is central to regional prosperity and growth. The first three months of this year have additionally begun to demonstrate how, if treated thoughtfully, land-based tourism has a greater capacity than any other economic sector in the region to support post pandemic recovery because it is able to deliver rapidly an externally led financial stimulus to the economy as a whole.
Measures that ensure the safe recovery of Caribbean tourism this year are therefore vital. However, just as important will be governments and the industry giving greater consideration to measures that will make the Caribbean product sustainable, diverse, more socially relevant, and globally competitive far beyond the sector’s predicted full return by the end of 2022.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council.
To access previous columns, visit: www.caribbean-council.org/research-analysis
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.