As we reflect on the year that was 2020, we cannot deny that the year has been one of trials and tests for international tourism, perhaps more so than any other single year in recent history. No segment of the global economy has been spared from the rehabilitating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. International tourism has undoubtedly been on the frontline of the onslaught. Over 120 million jobs have been affected with GDP losses estimated at 3.4 trillion dollars globally. Here in Jamaica, we have also witnessed a precipitous decline in tourist arrivals and earnings for 2020.
Following a record-breaking year in 2019, tourism receipts for January and February indicated that the sector was growing at a rate of 5.2% in 2020 as the country recorded over 227,00 stopover arrivals in January, representing a 4.9% increase or 10,691 additional arrivals over the 216,509 for the corresponding period in 2019.
If that trend had held, we would have welcomed more than 5 million visitors and earned a historic US $ 5 billion by year end. This was obviously before the global lockdown of tourism began in March 2020 as the novel coronavirus quickly became a pandemic. The lockdown ushered in a new paradigm filled with unparalleled uncertainty and disruptions. The tourism sector, Jamaica’s second-largest earner of foreign exchange, is expected to hemorrhage approximately J$76 billion by year-end as the country welcomed just over 1.1 million visitors in the first ten months of 2020, which was considerably less than the 3.4 million visitors over the same period in 2019.
The impact of tourism decline in Jamaica has been made worse by the fact that other key sources of incomes/revenues, foreign direct investments and remittances, are also at risk, given that primary suppliers – the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada – are also facing economic shock. Undiversified economies like ours also mean more pronounced impact for our people, economy and future from prolonged tourism decline. Amid its disruptive effect, however, this crisis has presented us with a unique opportunity to craft a new vision for the future of the sector – one which will be built around inclusiveness, safety, security and seamlessness as its defining features.
Indeed, the crisis has reinforced the urgency at which we must act to reimagine tourism in order to boost sector earnings, diversify the tourism product, create opportunities for local entrepreneurs and ensure a sustainable and inclusive sector. Over the past several months, we had adopted a very strategic posture by using the downturn to build out, diversify and transform the sector to ensure its recovery in the shortest period possible as well as its adjustment to the new demands of the post-COVID-19 era. We have since pursued several initiatives that are consistent with this vision for the sector.
To adapt to the sharp decline in international tourist arrivals, we partnered with over 100 tourism entities island-wide in July to offer lower-priced staycation packages to encourage more locals to taste, see, feel and enjoy the country’s tourism products through our Rediscover Jamaica Campaign. This has allowed some hotels to make up the shortfall in international visitors especially during some of the usual peak periods. We anticipate that this strategy will not be short-lived but will be incorporated into the business models of most local hotels in the future, considering the expectation that the post-COVID-19 tourism sector is likely to become more inward-looking.
Throughout the year the Tourism Linkages Network continued to fulfil its mandate to strengthen linkages between tourism and other segments of the economy. The entity played a critical role in forging vital linkages between agriculture and tourism through its Agri-Linkages Exchange Project (ALEX) which helped to identify new distribution channels for hundreds of farmers who would have lost their traditional markets following the closure and downsizing of hotel operations in main resort areas.
In spite of the downturn, Jamaica also still continued to be an attractive option for foreign investors who no doubt recognize that the crisis is temporary and that the country is still ripe for lucrative investments that offer very attractive returns in the long run. During the period, we negotiated five new properties and we expect grounds to be broken in 2021. The refurbishing of Sandals Overwater Bungalow was completed, so too was the refurbishing of Riu Montego Bay. Several other attractions were also upgraded during the period.
We have long recognized that one of the country’s greatest assets is its people. Tourism of all sectors embodies the spirit of service with its most valuable resource being human resource. The human input cannot be substituted by any other factor in the hospitality sector. Unfortunately, the pandemic has produced job insecurity for hundreds of thousands of tourism workers most of whom were retrenched when the industry was closed in April. An estimated 30 % of tourism workers have since returned to work under conditions of drastically reduced working hours and salaries.
We have been prioritizing the human side of the pandemic by providing economic relief through various cash transfer schemes to displaced workers, but we have also been ensuring that tourism workers are using this time to develop competencies for the post-COVID-19 tourism sector. Since April, we have been providing 11 free online courses for tourism workers as part of the Government’s thrust to ensure the continued development of employees in the sector. The courses are offered in areas such as laundry attendant, gift room attendant, kitchen steward/porter, public area sanitation, hospitality team leader, certified banquet server, certified restaurant server, Servsafe training in food safety, certified hospitality supervisor, introduction to Spanish, and disc jock (DJ) certification.
Throughout the period, Jamaica also emerged as a world leader in developing innovative responses, solutions and systems that successfully guided the reopening of the sector locally and also represent the future direction of the tourism sector globally. Our COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols have gained the endorsement of the World Travel and Tourism Council and when fully adhered to will make Jamaica one of the most COVID-19-resilient destinations globally. The Tourism Industry Post-COVID-19 Protocols were designed to ensure the safety of industry workers as well as to build confidence among travelers as they seek to adapt to the “the new normal” of additional health and hygiene practices. The protocols, which are contained in an 88-page document, cover all segments of the industry including –Airports; Cruise Ports; Accommodations; Attractions; Tourism Transportation Operators; Craft Traders; Water Sports Operators; General Security and Public Safety; and Mega Events.
The establishment of several tourism-resilient corridors has also been another innovation that has helped to promote Jamaica as a safe destination for both visitors and locals. We introduced the concept of resilient corridors to boost the country’s ability to manage and trace the movement of tourists along controlled corridors of the island. We strategically planned the reopening stages, first requiring travelers to stay on the resort grounds and then giving them freedom to visit attractions within the Resilient Corridors using transportation approved under the Tourist Board. The Resilient Corridors, which encompass the majority of the island’s main resort areas, provide the opportunity for visitors to enjoy more of the country’s unique offerings as many coronavirus (COVID-19)-compliant attractions, located along the Corridors, are authorized for visits by the health authorities. The Resilient Corridors will play a key role as the sector continues on its path to recovery.
Two recovery teams have also been activated – one for general tourism and another for cruise tourism – and a Secretariat. These specially -assigned teams will promote a realistic view of the sector’s baseline or starting position; develop scenarios for multiple versions of the future; establish the strategic posture for the sector as well as a broad direction of the journey back to growth; establish actions and strategic imperatives that will be reflected across various scenarios; and establish trigger points to tackle action, which includes a planned vision in a world that is learning to evolve rapidly.
As we look to the future, we are pleased that a vaccine has been developed and is currently being administered to thousands of health care workers in the US. We intend to make the case for tourism workers globally to be considered for early vaccination so that the sector can quickly recover to continue to fulfil its vital role as a significant catalyst of global economic recovery and restore employment for over 120 million persons globally. While we originally anticipated that industry would fully bounce back by 2023 or 2024 (based on the return of all airlift and cruise passengers.) we are now cautiously optimistic that we may be able to see an early significant boost in 2021 if the vaccine is highly successful and becomes readily available.