Over the past few months, pelicans and seagulls have been the only ones using Coco Reef’s private beach resort in Tobago, in Barbados the flying fish are the only ones throwing beach parties. Over in Jamaica the Kingfish is living up to its name as they have the place all to themselves, save for a few police officers surveying the empty beach, usually abuzz with families. Above, the bright blue stares blankly back at us as it is devoid of airplanes flying back and forth with such regularity they are used to tell the time.
The absence of activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic is keenly felt on this side of the world, in particular the Caribbean for which, like many of its counterparts, tourism has long been its breadbasket.
The Caribbean, which has been dubbed as the "most tourism-dependent region in the world", attracted more than 31 million visitors last year. We can count that out for this year as we are nowhere close to that, and with the cruise ship industry suffering from the COVID-19 dealt blows, this does not help the sector. Many Caribbean islands were forced to close their borders to commercial flights in late March in an effort to contain the coronavirus.
With the closure of the borders it ultimately means, no tourism and this now impacts other industries simultaneously. Analysts say that the social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be significant, stemming from an increase in unemployment as we have seen, and loss of income and livelihoods, as well as substantial disruptions of social services, with women, female heads of households and children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and migrants as the most vulnerable groups.
It was recently announced that on June 4th the first commercial flight in 10 weeks will land in Antigua when American Airlines touches down from Miami. British Airways is set to follow suit in July. On July 1st Bahamas is also hoping to open its borders. As for Trinidad and Tobago, that would not happen anytime soon, maybe in September, who knows?
Earlier in May the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) made available emergency loans to seven Caribbean countries, in the first instance, to finance the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bank’s Board of Directors has approved a total of US$66.7 million for Antigua and Barbuda (US$13 million), Belize (US$15 million), Dominica (US$2.5 million), Grenada (US$5.9 million), Saint Lucia (US$10.8 million), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (US$11.3 million), and Suriname (US$8.2 million).
CDB President Dr. Warren Smith said, “The provision of support to the seven countries to respond to COVID-19 and keep critical government services and operations running is urgent to halt the economic decline and minimise social hardship, while giving focused attention to the most vulnerable people.”
Director of Economics at the CDB, Dr Justin Ram recently stated the possible ripple effects on other sectors linked to tourism. “In some of our countries the agriculture sector provides significant inputs to the tourism industry. And if tourism is impacted, there’s a reduced demand, there’s going to be knock-on reduced demand for agriculture products; a knock-on reduced demand for the services provided by taxi drivers for example, and so this is a multiplier effect when things are good. Think about it if our arrivals come down and the reverse happens here.” He also flagged potential negative impacts on regional healthcare as well as the oil industry, particularly for countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname.
Back at home, Central Bank governor Dr Alvin Hilaire, who represented Trinidad and Tobago at the G-24 Ministers and Governors’ Virtual Meeting dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the Caribbean, is expecting the Caribbean region’s tourism-dependent countries to take a greater hit than initially forecasted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The spinoff effect of this could be a hit on T&T’s manufacturing sector. According to him, “Preliminary projections suggest that these economies which were previously expected to expand by 1.1 per cent in 2020 are now set to contract by 7.5 per cent.”
So, where are we? Perhaps we have to play the waiting game or maybe it’s time to look at new initiatives for an industry that needs all it can as we continue with the reopening of the economy.