Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, says for the first quarter of this year, international tourism has recorded 67 million fewer arrivals and a loss of US$80 billion in exports.

Bartlett, who was chairing a virtual edition of the 65th meeting of the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Commission for the Americas (CAM), said the Americas, including the Caribbean, is the third hardest hit region, with international arrivals down by 15.2 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

Jamaica is one of the four English-speaking Caribbean member states of the UNWTO and currently chairs the CAM for the biennium 2019-2021.

Bartlett said the region has also registered the slowest recovery of lost arrivals post-crisis, using the September 2011 terrorist attacks in the United States as a case study, where it took 42 months to return to previous figures.

Bartlett blamed the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for the situation facing the tourism sector, noting that the virus plunged the world economy into uncertainty, with travel and tourism highlighted as one of the most affected sectors.

“This represents the worst showing for international tourism since 1950 and puts an abrupt end to a 10-year period of sustained growth since the 2009 financial crisis,” he said, noting that governments “stand at this most critical juncture to stop, look, listen and pivot; that is, assess the situation; craft strategic policies and responses; monitor the effective implementation of these policies; and prepare ourselves to further adjust and creatively manage vital developments vis-à-vis COVID-19”.

WEAKER POSITION

Bartlett said that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has indicated that the region is facing the pandemic from a weaker position than the rest of the world.

He said before the pandemic, ECLAC had projected that the region would grow by a maximum of 1.3 percent in 2020.

“However, this forecast has been revised in light of the effects of the crisis, with GDP (gross domestic product) now predicted to fall by at least 1.8 percent. Nevertheless, as the pandemic evolves, forecasts of economic contractions of between three and four percent, or even more, cannot be ruled out.”

He said that small island developing states, “like some of us in this region, face particular challenges to our sustainable development, including small populations, limited resources, vulnerability to natural disasters and external shocks, and strong dependence on international trade.

“A heavy and deepening reliance on tourism as a priority contributor to the gross domestic product of our countries, accounting for over 50 percent of GDP in some cases, could further exacerbate the region’s vulnerability in this present crisis. This is even as we recognise the immense potential of travel and tourism to right our economies on the road to recovery and development,” Bartlett warned.

He said in the case of Jamaica, external debt is 94 percent of GDP as at March 2019, and for March 2020, it is estimated to be slightly lower at 91 percent.

“The estimated contraction in GDP from COVID-19 for the fiscal year 2020-2021 is 5.1 percent. Our projections have estimated an annual loss of J$108 billion (One Jamaica dollar=US$0.008 cents) to the tourism sector for the fiscal year April 2020-March 2021 and a fallout of J$38.4 billion to the Government from direct revenue from the sector.”

Bartlett said it is clear that this is not business as usual, noting “therefore, our policy responses demand innovative thinking to match the dynamism of this current threat to sustainable development.

“Effective recovery and the ‘new normal’ will be characterized by greater flexibility for the viability of businesses, particularly micro, small and medium-sized tourism enterprises; a new and united generation (GenC) with strategies tailored to this emerging market; increased application of technology for digital transformation; new modes of work and measurements for productivity; as well as enhanced resilience.”

Bartlett said that border reopenings and re-engagement with the international community are necessary to advance national and global recovery.

He told the conference that these measures include the establishment of a resilient corridor for controlled tourism travel; design of detailed operating protocols for each segment of the industry, for which Jamaica has received global recognition and endorsement; certification of businesses for compliance; and consolidation of the Tourism Product Development Company as a driver for destination assurance management.

He said the promotion of diversity and inclusion within the sector provides employment and opportunities for the most vulnerable populations.

“The sustainable development slogan of leaving no one behind applies just as much to inequalities among countries as it does to those that exist within countries – developing and developed. The systems and tools created to confront COVID-19 are useful guides for revising policies and procedures to take account of these social and economic realities,” he said.

Bartlett said that member countries are indeed resilient in the face of crises and that he is amazed at how quickly individuals and businesses have adapted to the Zoom and Microsoft Meets culture.

Bartlett warned that the region “simply cannot return to the situation that existed pre COVID-19,” adding, “in this regard, we recall the UNWTO slogan during this period, ‘Stronger Together’.”