COMMENTARY: Urgent Work Needed To Restore Caribbean Tourism In COVID-19 Era


By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own)


To be among the first beneficiaries of a restarted global tourism industry, the present enforced downtime should be used by all actors to position Caribbean countries to compete immediately.

Hoteliers, restaurant owners, shops catering for tourists, should now be considering the protocols they need to institute to make themselves ready for the opening of borders.  For instance, will face masks and gloves be part of the uniforms of everyone who interacts with visitors from the time they land and until they depart?  In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, and for some time after one is developed, visitors and locals will want to be confident that contact will not lead to infection.

Airports and airlines in the region should now be considering how they will cope with even longer check-in times, physical distancing and the necessary health checks that will have to be conducted before passengers are allowed on airplanes.  At least basic protocols should be formulated, and training for airport and airline personnel should be undertaken now.  The countries that are ahead of this curve will give the greatest incentives to airlines to favour transporting passengers into and out of their airports.

Eventually, no doubt, international agencies will establish rules and procedures for air travel as they did in 2001 after 9/11 and during the SARS outbreak in 2003.  But, Caribbean countries need not await international rules before building confidence in their own airports by putting sensible preparatory measures in place, rehearsing their execution and training staff.

Many questions arise from what will be an entirely new situation, and Caribbean governments should be considering them now.  Among them are: will governments be willing to accept visitors cleared of COVID-19 by sending countries or will they want to conduct checks themselves?  Should it be the latter, clearing passengers for entry after landing, particularly if two or more large aircraft arrive in a cluster, would be a very long and tiresome process unless airports are reconfigured to deal with hundreds of passengers at the same time.  Staff for clearing passengers will also have to be significantly increased and trained.

If Caribbean countries will have to ensure that passengers have been tested and cleared for COVID-19 on departure and arrival, work on addressing the enormous challenges should be addressed now.  One consideration should be to re-deploy existing public servants from less urgent jobs to these necessary tasks.

Hotels should also be working to make themselves ready for visitors by preparing an environment that would give them comfort that they will not be threatened by COVID-19.  This would include mandatory use of masks and gloves by all staff at all times.  Physical distancing will also have to be implemented in hotel restaurants and bars; crowded spaces will only return when an effective COVID-19 vaccine has been found and distributed in enough quantities world-wide to restore health security.

The treatment of cruise ship passengers will also pose new and huge demands. Since a significant part of their experience is to wander through capital cities, shopping from vendors, big and small, going to beaches and using local transport, how are they to be checked and cleared for COVID-19?  In the season, cruise ship passengers number thousands.  If Caribbean health authorities want to ensure that these passengers pose no threat to the local population, measures must be put in place to cope with the issue.

Further, the cruise passengers and the cruise companies will want to be assured that the countries at which they are calling have significantly reduced COVID-19 infections and that they have in operation continuous safeguards against the spread of the disease.   Undoubtedly, they will also want to be confident that the health facilities in the country are adequate for treating tourists who may contract the disease.

Therefore, this downtime should not be treated as a period of paralysis. It should be an interval to galvanize action by all in the industry, in each country, to institute measures that will give cruise ship companies, tour operators and airlines comfort that they are ready to protect the health of their visitors.  They also need to communicate such actions to the global tourism community.   When tourism authorities and hotels claim they are open for business, that claim should be supported by evidence of their readiness to provide an environment of health safety.

Cruise ship companies want to get their ships cruising.  They have lost more than US$750 million in the first quarter of this year.  Shares in Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian have dropped by 60 to 70%.  They, too, have to restore passenger confidence that their ships will be safe.  But, however safe they may make their ships, they will want to be assured that the ports at which they call are also safe.

Airlines have also taken a huge beating.  Virgin Airlines is seeking a bailout, or it might never fly again; Airlines for America report that American, Jet Blue and others are already on track to lose US$87 billion in revenue this year;  British Airways has had to lay-off 12,000 staff, and is faced with closing down its operations at London Gatwick Airport from which Caribbean flights are served.  Global air travel could lose more than US$252 billion this year.

Airlines, too, need to get their planes in the air.   They will fly to the countries best prepared to deal with COVID-19.  So, the players in the Caribbean tourism industry at local and regional levels should be taking action now.

They will be doing so in an atmosphere of concern about flying and cruising.   Any pent-up demand for tourism will be tempered by fear and by cost.  Configuring airplanes for safe physical distancing will reduce the number of passengers and consequently increase the cost of travel.

Both North America and Europe are now facing huge job losses and millions of people are forced to spend their savings.  Only the well-off will easily be able to afford leisure travel in the immediate future.   COVID-19 is forecast to cause a fall in tourism receipts globally of 20-30% (or US$450 billion) this year.  By comparison, during the global recession of 2008 international tourist arrivals declined by only 4%, while the 2003 SARS outbreak resulted in a decline of a mere 0.4%.

The problem is real and alarming.  Building confidence in tourism capacity must start now, if the Caribbean will be ready to take advantage of borders opening.

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  1. To be frank I did not read this article however I will make a comment based on the title….

    The Caribbean should be focused on reforming the tourism product not restoring it at this time.

    The Caribbean need to improve on the following:
    1 Ownership of cruise vessels.
    2 Ownership of hotels.
    3 Ownership of a single Caribbean airline.
    4 Ownership of a television network.
    5 Ownership of a Caribbean internet platform.
    6 Marketing should be about the all the Caribbean islands.
    1 Equivalent head tax charge at all Caribbean ports for cruise vessels.
    2 Equivalent docking service fees at all Caribbean ports.
    3 Caribbean Islands need to be the home port for cruise vessels sailing the Caribbean.
    4 60% of food and beverage must be purchased from Caribbean wholesalers.
    5 At least 20% guaranteed labour for the Caribbean.
    Restore? according to Mr Pompey “no sah” more like reform. he Caribbean need to wake up and understand its value and strength in unity.

    Stop the exploitation and start earning…..

    • @Melchisedec

      A few observations.

      We already have a Caribbean airline LIAT. We just do not have the capacity to efficiently manage it. Too many aviation expert ministers of government.
      All great points except 1. ownership of cruise lines – unless you mean by purchasing shares – we can’t even manage LIAT after 50 years
      2. TV Network will spiral into a fight to see who get the most airtime and Jamaica will eventually pull out like she is prone to do.
      3. We import 90% of our food so u less we grow here which will be less competitive than subsidized farmers in the US and South America then we will simply be resellers.

      Great ideas, now all you need to do is give the list to a white man (preferably one with a briefcase) and have him present it to the Cabinet.

  2. We have missed the mark.

    The Caribbean need to diversify from tourism. Remember the days when your mothers, fathers, and grandparents had ground (farms). They would trade and barter. No one was hungry. Now everyone is fighting for mango from a single tree.

    1. As CARICOM each nation needs to asses their strengths and resources. If Dominica can produce and excessive amount of vegetables. Everyone buy from them. In the same manner Cuba has sugar buy from them. Keep the money circulate locally.

    2. Create a local banking institution. The EU have a general fund. The US have the FEDS. CARICOM seek the IMF.. why? With all the countries which are part of CARICOM have each country to put in a certain amount of money. The money will be returned, but now the region has a lending institution which can server their needs.

    3. Diversity is the key to success. No country and based 75% or more of its economy on tourism. Need I say more?

    Food for thought

  3. This letter by Sir Sanders seems incredibly vague and not very helpful. Basically he’s saying if you want tourism to come back you have to work and prepare. Great. How about some helpful ideas to prepare?

    Here’s an idea: all the corporations that make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off the tourism industry on the island of Antigua should all kick in private funds to improve the health care infrastructure on the island, including funding for coronavirus testing and contact tracing for those who test positive, not only to help insure the health and safety of tourists but to insure that the average Antiguan has health care and is protect from the coronavirus as well. It won’t help the tourism industry on the island if the Antiguans who work in it are spreading the virus. So the corporations have a vested industry in improving the health care infrastructure on the island.

    This isn’t difficult for anyone with eyes to see. Why are many Antiguans struggling when wealthy international tourists spend big $$ and international tourism companies make big profits? At least pay for the average Antiguan to get protection from the coronavirus!

  4. Before reopening the tourism industry, what is the government doing to ensure that airline, immigration, customs, taxi drivers and red caps are routinely tested for COVID-19 and trained in new procedures to conduct business in a post COVID era. Hopefully other stakeholders like the hotels, tour operators, restaurants etc. have given thought to how their staff will be retrained and routinely tested.

  5. Since tourism in Antigua relies on tourists coming from USA, UK, Canada and Europe (not China) I would strongly suggest that the, what can only be described as an eyesore blotch on the landscape, claimed embassy/hospital/village is definitely not an appealing sight for the tourists we hope for coming from the above named. China is responsible for inflicting illness, death and severe financial hardship on the outside world some of which are filing lawsuits and demanding an investigation into the real reasons the corona virus began in Wuhan and the likelihood that China knew precisely what the outcome would be when they allowed the five million to leave their highly infected areas and go out into the world carrying a very contagious virus with them.
    Common sense should be saying to the powers that be that this horrible building site should be stopped forthwith and done so for the common good of we, the people who call Antigua and Barbuda our home. China does not give Antigua anything and if they claim something is a “gift” there is ALWAYS a payback by way of land etc. Their building sites do not provide employment and they bring in their food and everything else they might need. Their loans are overpriced debt traps and it obviously appears they have their sights set on acquiring the DWH. Chinese are very racist against black people and it is interesting to see that the Nigerians are fighting back by destroying Chinese factories and businesses and also filing a lawsuit against China for $200billion. WAKE UP ANTIGUA…do you want communist China to decimate the islands and control your future? The free world will make travel very difficult in that scenario!

  6. How can you restore something that has to do with HUMANS.If humans do not come to the dance there is no restoring.You are dealing with people no products.What the islands need to do is to go into a recovery mode.Make your services and products better.

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