A View into the Future of Caribbean Tourism
Wow! What a world we live in now where we are all locked down in our homes not able to socialize in the ways we normally would with our friends and family. However, because of technology, we are fortunately still able to connect. In fact, due to this pandemic I have not done this much reconnecting with friends in a very long time.
Among those I reconnected with was my old friend from UWI Mona days, “Jiggy” Gordon. Jiggy and I met as opponents on the sporting field. He represented Taylor Hall and I, Irvine Hall. Although we played for opposing teams we found common ground in that we were always trying to get on the field of play in various sports but were many times not good enough to earn more than a few minutes play.
Today, Jiggy and I have another similar issue, far greater than making the football or cricket team. This time we are playing for the same team, in a new battle called the Caribbean Tourism Industry vs the Corona virus. My old friend has done well in tourism in Jamaica. He is an operations manager at one of Jamaica’s large hotels. His wife also works in tourism, and is the housekeeping supervisor at an even higher rated hotel and his first son just bought his second car and now has a two car taxi fleet. Jiggy tells me, “my son has my personality and hotel guests love to travel with him as he keeps them entertained with jokes, they love him.” However, this conversation was far more serious in tone than our chats of the past. Not that my comrade has lost his sense of humor; but our conversation was instead filled with discussing our common enemy and the strategy we have to employ to defeat this one if we are to come out as winners. From living comfortably and never having to worry about money, my friend now finds himself with no income. Both hotels which he and his wife depend on for a monthly salary are now closed and he has just put his entire savings into the construction of a two bedroom apartment attached to his house which had just started to get decent rentals as an AIR-BNB. Those plans are all gone now, even his son’s cars sit idle with no tourists and little possibility of any real business.
Jiggy’s story is one which can be replicated all over the region. And the experts have predicted massive declines for Caribbean tourism. According to the United Nations Council on Trade and Development, (UNCTAD), “On average, the tourism sector accounts for almost 30% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Small Island Developing States , according to WTTC data. This share is over 50% for the Maldives, Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis and Grenada. Overall, travel and tourism in the SIDS generates approximately $30 billion per year. A decline in tourism receipts by 25% will result in a $7.4 billion or 7.3% fall in GDP. The drop could be significantly greater in some of the SIDS, reaching 16% in the Maldives and Seychelles. And between 9 and 15 percent in Jamaica , Dominica, Grenada, Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines. It is expected that for many SIDS, the COVID-19 pandemic will directly result in record amounts of revenue losses without the alternative sources of foreign exchange revenues necessary to service external debt and pay for imports.”
These devastating figures only get worse as time passes on as many countries in the region have at most 3 month reserves. This puts a huge economic burden on Governments to restart their economies as pressure grows from increasing unemployment, dwindling government and private sector revenue. But how do we restart this? Jiggy will tell you there is no whistle you can blow to get the players back on the field after the first half. In fact, trying to do this may be the biggest mistake Governments could make. The first half of play will not match the second and may have little relevance on the eventual outcome of this game. Psychologist Dr. Rudi Webster says, “one of the most common mistakes people make in a crisis, is trying to start back where they left off before.” As he puts it “the past usually has little to no relevance to the future but instead of focusing and putting energy in designing and determining what the future will look like, too many people focus their attention on mistakes of the past which may or may not have relevance in the future.’
In the future Caribbean Tourism may look very different and may be captured in the concept of a bubble.
Creating A regional Travel Bubble. With hotel occupancy at an all time low one of the answers may come from regional tourism. If Caribbean islands continue to keep numbers low, the region could be established as a bubble. Since we have no control on when international borders may be open again, regional tourism could be a short to medium term strategy. Of course our Governments will need to remove all taxes on LIAT and in turn the LIAT management team will have to cap fares. This is do-able and should be explored. What a great time and opportunity to revive inter-regional tourism. I cannot wait to book a $100 USD flight again!
Creating AIR BnB and Boutique high end luxury bubbles. This decreases the risk of contact in the community but brings wealthy tourists in a closed looped bubble. There is an opportunity here for all to offer #valueforstay. This allows for incentives and add-ons to the vacation experience. The value of this type of offering is immense as visitors will be able to travel to low risk destinations in the region and have high quality, carefully managed experiences to eliminate risks of exposure. For larger hotels, especially larger all inclusive hotels they can create a closely and carefully managed operations bubble. This will mean every aspect of the visitor experience is managed by the hotel to ensure that the guest experience is as safe as possible. From the airport pick up, to any off resort tours, hotels can rightly control and monitor anyone guests come into contact with and therefore reduce risk
Creating a one space destination bubble. Following on from a cheaper more accessible LIAT, the countries of the region especially the OECS, have the opportunity to market themselves as one destination. One flight to any Participating OECS country can unlock many others in the same trip. This makes the countries of the region enormously more competitive in a market that may be competing for fewer customers.
Bubble wrapping our hotel teams. COVID 19 has shown employers just how important their workers are. The new hotel concept will focus very much of its attention on workers health and well-being. Regular health checks and even free medical attention for employees and family, will be part of the post COVID service world.
A Clean Bubble. A new regime of super clean hotel facilities will be the thing of the future. UV, electrostatic sprayers and easy wipe clean surfaces are in. Carpets, buffets and cloth napkins are out! Restaurant menus will be displayed through an app on your phones and you will likely to either be dining outdoors or ushered to a table surrounded by a plexi-glass. Private Dining has a whole new attraction and people will actually now "pay" for it.
Creating a Virtual Bubble. Virtual tourism offerings should be explored now more than ever before. Every island of the region should invest heavily now in high quality Virtual Reality image banks with a view to creating true to life video adventures. This will not only help to raise the marketing profile of the region internationally but will also serve as a separate revenue stream.
Power up an Energy Bubble. Governments will have to focus on reducing energy costs for Caribbean hotels. Unlike many other destinations where energy costs make up under 10 percent of the room rate, Caribbean hotel energy costs can be as high as 25 to 30% of the room rate. Nearly a third of Caribbean room rates can be attributed to energy costs. This makes them not competitive when compared to destinations like Mexico where energy costs are around 7%. Governments have a tremendous opportunity now to liberalize energy sectors and allow hotels to use green energy options or to use administrative powers to give hotels a special compensated rate. This of course would have to come with a commitment by hoteliers not to increase their rates.
This "Tourism Bubble" concept may just be what we need to re-launch our tourism in the quickest possible time. The Caribbean and other small island states have the opportunity now to make changes which they have either procrastinated on before or lacked the will to do. However if Governments and private sector are bold enough and innovative enough we will emerge a better tourism destination. Hopefully out of COVID 19 we will finally become one brand!