Tourism is one of the biggest economic engines of the Caribbean. The region’s beautiful beaches, lush greenery, amazing weather, delicious food, and friendly people make it a favorite vacation spot for almost 32 million visitors in 2019. According to statista.com, tourism contributed 24.5 percent or roughly $24 billion to the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Despite those numbers of visitor arrivals for last year nosedived from its peak to a paltry 11 million, a drop of 65.5 percent.
The covid pandemic has hit the industry very hard and the Caribbean is feeling it. Up to August 2021, only four of the 24 destinations have recorded growth, based on figures from the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). Most destinations have now opened their doors and rolled out the red carpet, eagerly awaiting the arrivals of visitors. And while growth is expected, it will be a long and slow journey to the record numbers of 2019.
The pandemic has brought out the creative forces of some Caribbean islands. In July last year, Barbados created the ‘Welcome Stamp Programme’ that allowed visitors to stay and work in the island for up to one year. Essentially, giving visitors the best of both worlds; working safely from the pandemic and enjoying an extended vacation. By the end of August, the government reported that it made eight million dollars from 1,987 approved applicants.
In Jamaica, the government benefitted tremendously from its ‘Resilient Corridor.’ This is a stretch of tourism real estate that is designed to encourage safe tourism. It afforded visitors the opportunity to enjoy their vacation free of covid while protecting workers as well.
Data from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association showed that 25 percent of the more than 250 Caribbean tourism companies surveyed, were not expecting full recovery until at least mid-2023. What is even more dreadful is that more than 50 percent of those businesses were unsure they could stay afloat.
On September 27 the World Tourism Organization (WTO) celebrated World Tourism Day 2021, under the theme, “Tourism for Inclusive Growth.” In recognizing the day, the WTO asks its members to see this as “an opportunity to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that, behind every number, there is a person.” This is especially germane to the Caribbean nations where there is a high dependency on tourism.
For its part, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) used the day to “highlight and address the challenges faced in forging a sustainable tourism sector and identifying the opportunities to build a more socially inclusive, sustainable and smart sector.” In doing so, the CTO said there is “a clear sign of the importance we all place on collaboration and inclusion.”
The organization said it “recognized that to achieve its goals, it’s imperative that we forge alliances and partnerships with organizations and institutions that play a meaningful role in contributing to the social and economic development of the region.”
It is inconceivable and rather disheartening, that it took the CTO 32 years to conclude that for tourism to be sustainable and beneficial to its members, it must include its communities. It is estimated that more than two-third of the accommodations in the Caribbean are foreign-owned. This means that most of the money earned by these companies never reach the people and places that make the countries what they are, for tourism. For example, Craft vendors and other creators of ‘tourism products’ hardly benefit from their business ventures, which affects their ability provide for their families.
We have seen too often where the tourism dollar goes mostly to the ‘big players’ while the ‘small man’ gets nothing or just mere crumbs. This must stop if fairness and economic prosperity is the goal of Caribbean leaders. We are happy that the major stakeholders have seen the light, but sorry that it has taken so long, and a pandemic to focus on this very important area that is so vital to Caribbean people. In fact, it was just last month that the CTO launched the Caribbean Community Tourism Network (CCTN). This according to them, will “provide a platform to support the continued development of [Community-based Tourism] CBT in the Caribbean.
Nearly 18 million people depend on the tourism dollars in the Caribbean. It cannot be that that only a few at the top benefit. We therefore hold the CTO to its word when it says: “By providing opportunities such as these to vulnerable groups, we enhance the capacity of Caribbean people to play a leading role in their own development.” They also assert that in addition to being a primary economic revenue earner for the Caribbean, tourism can be inclusive and by extension promote growth in all our communities.