A Bob Marley tune played as the scent of jerk chicken wafted through a half-empty market in this normally bustling port town.
A few dozen tourists milled about – far less than normal, but still more than last week, when new health and safety measures imposed by the government led two massive cruise ships to turn away.
“It affects us real bad,” said Norma Wilson, proprietor of the Dandy Family Restaurant. “We never got no customers. I’m too worried because I have bills I have to pay.
The economic fallout of the novel coronavirus, declared a pandemic on Wednesday by the World Health Organisation, is slamming the infection epicentres of Asia and Europe. But from oil producers in the Middle East to hotels and restaurateurs here in the Caribbean, a fast-spreading ripple effect is engulfing even those far-flung corners of the globe that have yet to confirm many cases of Covid-19 of their own.
The cruise-heavy, visitor-dependent Caribbean is faring significantly better than other tourism hotspots. Cruise passenger traffic on some islands is down by the tens of thousands. But guests at hotels and resorts, who are far larger generators of local revenue, are seeing smaller dips or holding steady – albeit with serious warning signs of trouble ahead. The islands are in the final weeks of high season, and counting their blessings that the virus did not strike earlier.
Yet even on these coconut-laden shores, far from Wuhan or Milan, tourism in a sudden era of social distancing has become an escalating challenge – with the impact of a global epidemic threatening to derail the recovery of a region hammered in recent years by a run of earthquakes and killer storms.
“Real GDP growth for the Caribbean was supposed to be 3.7 per cent this year, but I think you need to kiss those growth projections goodbye,” said Scott MacDonald, chief economist for the Caribbean at Smith’s Research and Gradings.
“Maybe 2 per cent, maybe lower,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify this yet. If you get hermetically sealed countries, then that’s going to be a really big blow for the Caribbean.
Rob Barrett, chairman of Elite Island Resorts with eight properties and 2,000 hotel rooms on Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua and Panama, said the dip in March arrivals thus far has been minor – about 2 or 3 per cent. But those declines could steepen sharply. Advance reservations for the next four months, he said, have fallen by 50 per cent.
Cancellations and postponements are largely coming from guests aged 45 and up. Millennial travellers apparently are far more willing to travel.
“Overall arrivals could be hit by 15 per cent this year,” Mr Barrett said, “and that’s catastrophic for our business, given our low margins. We’re in a much more fragile situation in the Caribbean because we don’t have the safety nets you have in the US, where the government can lower payroll taxes or offer low interest loans in bad times.”
One silver lining: the steepest drops so far have been in cruise passengers, the day visitors who are far less economically important to Caribbean economies than destination travellers who spend at least one night in a hotel. Cruise passengers account for 75 per cent of foreign visitors to The Bahamas, for example, but only 11 per cent of overall tourist spending.
Fewer cruise ship passengers have been arriving at Nassau, the capital, in recent weeks. Yet for local merchants, those losses have been offset to some extent by guests at hotels such as the Baha Mar Resort – one of the biggest in the Bahamas. It has seen only “a slight” decrease in its upcoming bookings, and is still anticipating brisk business during spring break and Easter, according to Robert Sands, the resort’s senior vice president of government and external affairs.
Nevertheless, Bahamian officials, who are still trying to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian ripped through the northern Abacos and Grand Bahama islands last year, are warning of a virus-related hit to tourism, and have asked Bahamians to vacation domestically this year to limit the predicted losses.
“Given the fact that 5.4 million foreign visitors came to The Bahamas by cruise last year, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that this is going to have some impact,” Bahamian tourism minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said.
Barbuda, one of the islands that makes up the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Now officials are bracing for another blow from coronavirus. Like many islands in the Caribbean, the island nation is facing a delicate balance between economics and public health.
Officials have turned away three cruise ships because passengers had flu-like symptoms. “The cruise ships don’t have tests and it’s going to be a week or so before our first tests arrive,” tourism minister Charles Fernandez said. “We are very concerned about people arriving to Antigua from affected areas.”
The nation’s economy is the second most dependent on cruise passengers in the Caribbean, at 4.1 per cent of GDP, according to the industry publication Skift. But Mr Fernandez worries more about bigger-spending destination travellers. A weekly charter flight from Italy has been suspended. Hotels have developed plans to move any sick guests to distant rooms.
But cancellations are starting to trickle in.
“Undoubtedly it’s going to get even more serious and acute,” Mr Fernandez said. “The hotels and airlines are waving the change fees and our hope is that people will reschedule and come back when this whole situation normalises.”
In Jamaica, Mr Bartlett has told parliament the tourism sector will lose an estimated $564m (£444m) as a direct result of the virus. Tourism accounts for 11 per cent of Jamaica’s GDP.
Jamaica this week confirmed its first case of coronavirus – a British national who arrived on 4 March. The government has banned travel to and from China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Singapore, and suspended flights from Spain and Germany.
The Dominican Republic has confirmed five cases, bringing the Caribbean total to six.
The Canadian government this week said a passenger on the MS Braemar, which docked in Port Royal near the Jaimacan capital of Kingston, had tested positive for the virus. It is not known if she disembarked. Thirty-two people were being quarantined after travel to affected regions, health officials said.
The economic fallout has hit Jamaica’s jungle-themed Mystic Mountain. Managing director Mike Drakulich said 35 per cent of its business is cruise related. He estimates he has lost up to 1,000 customers to date.
“Attractions like myself are looking at staffing, expenses, payables, receivables,” he said.
Prem Mahtani, chief operating officer of the cruise port duty-free shop Jewels and Time, says 60 per cent of its business comes from cruise ships. Sales at one location dropped by half last week. The other was shuttered.
“My first feeling was that government is probably not as sensitive to our concerns with the cruise ships,” he said. “But they have a lot to protect with the virus, so it’s delicate.
“I don’t see how this is not going to be devastating.”
The Washington Post