By David Jessop
Sometime in the next 12 months, when the pandemic is fully brought under control in North America and Europe, visitors will return to the Caribbean in significant numbers. Once that begins to happen, governments, conscious of tourism’s ability to drive rapid GDP growth, will encourage the fastest possible restoration of pre-pandemic arrival levels.
This is understandable, but begs two seemingly perverse questions: Is the basic Caribbean tourism product of sun, sand, and sea, sustainable, and can the region remain competitive once present pent-up global demand is sated?
Unlike most Caribbean industries, tourism has grown in a haphazard unintegrated manner, powering its way from the 1990s on, to dominate much of the Caribbean economy. This happened as arrangements for agriculture and commodities were attenuating, disposable income was growing rapidly in North America and Europe, and governments were happy to regard tourism as an alternative, seemingly limitless way to rapidly generate economic growth and new revenues.
The pandemic has proved conclusively the critical role the industry now plays in the wider Caribbean economy.
This suggests there is now the need to consider strategically how in future a wider product offering might encourage not only linkages with multiple sectors, but also catalyze rural development, grow transferable skills, and support newer industries in ways that better balance national economies.
Some nations like Jamaica and Barbados already understand this, but others that are also tourism-dependent have not.
Helpfully, a recent report published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) makes a start in identifying some of the post-pandemic responses required if the industry is to innovate and adapt its product to meet changing global demand and retain greater value.
Launching the 20-page report, ‘Imagining a Post-COVID Tourism Recovery: A Regional Overview’, Olga Gómez, the IDB’s lead tourism specialist, makes the important point that it is no longer enough to depend on what she describes as “the lure of beaches”.
“Tourism destinations”, she says, “need to invest in improving their competitiveness, aligning their tourism products to the broader local and global economic trends, and exploring new and traditional emerging market segments”.
The report outlines both a short- and longer-term agenda for recovery and change in the areas of safety, market intelligence, product adaptation, and easier regional access for visitors from the region’s main markets.
On safety strategies it proposes a common approach, intra-regional coordination, and a common brand for safe Caribbean destinations. To better understand the changing market, it suggests that sectoral analysis requires more than the use of traditional statistics, and should additionally consider real-time travel bookings, tourism expenditure data, and consumer sentiment surveys.
IDB’s short report also suggests that public and private sector policy and investment agendas should give greater priority to meeting the changing preference of travellers for nature-based tourism and experience related travel. This, it observes, makes it more important that the region protects its natural assets, environmental sustainability, and adapts to climate change.
When it comes to adjusting the tourism product to new consumer preferences, IDB’s tourism team argue for the development in the medium to long-term of new tourism products to match evolving global tourism demand; including a greater emphasis on eco-tourism, cultural tourism, remote working tourism, educational tourism, and retirement tourism, in the latter case linked to well-being and medical tourism.
With this in mind, it proposes the sector should place greater emphasis on the preservation of natural, cultural, and heritage attractions as ‘an essential element to improve tourism competitiveness’.
IDB also places stress on other changes it believes are necessary to ensure that Caribbean tourism fully recovers and remains competitive, including improved supply chain efficiencies, better destination management, and the recognition that the adoption of communication and information technologies are not optional, but ‘an immediate necessity’.
Unusually, the report looks at business travel. It observes in relation to The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad that this represents a surprising 19 percent of all travel there, compared to the global average of 22 percent. The bank’s tourism analysts are however uncertain about which business travel segments will be permanently affected, as many companies are expected to continue with teleworking. More positively, the report notes that the pandemic has created a new niche demand for temporary longer-term Caribbean stays enabling remote working by professionals.
Helpfully, IDB updates its Comprehensive Tourism Dependency Index to show that of the world’s 15 most tourism-dependent economies, eight are in the Caribbean. They are led by Aruba (ranked first in the world) with The Bahamas (6th), Barbados (11th), and Jamaica (13th) now joining their list. The others are Grenada (4th); Antigua (5th); Saint Lucia (7th); and Dominica (9th); with Belize in 15th position.
There is much that IDB does not address, particularly in relation to how a longer-term demand-led approach to tourism might see supply-side adaptations retain the economic and social benefits a more holistic approach to tourism development could enable.
As previously noted by this column, the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to assess how a region with billions of dollars invested in fixed tourism infrastructure might establish new linkages that go far beyond agriculture and fisheries, able to stimulate, for example, new services-based industries located away from urban centres.
What is now needed is a thorough going analysis that explores how the pandemic may have structurally changed travel and tourism, and how a more strategic Caribbean approach might adapt and reposition the industry so that it better facilitates long-term domestic growth.
IDB believes that volatility will persist in the Caribbean’s path to full tourism recovery, and could take between 2.5 to 4 years, requiring firms and workers to be offered continuing support.
Common sense suggests that while everything possible should be done by governments and the industry to facilitate tourism’s short-term recovery, its economic dominance requires a detailed analysis of the existing model’s sustainability, and the sector’s ability to drive more broadly based prosperity.