How Caribbean Tourism Is Handling COVID-19

(andresr/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images) Photo by andresr/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Tourism means everything to the Caribbean. “It’s our bread and butter,” Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), tells us in a video interview as part of our sister publication Hospitality Insights’ “In Focus” series. “For virtually every destination, every jurisdiction in the Caribbean, it’s a substantially part of their GDP.”

That is to say: The region took a hit (as did many others) when COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread and became a global pandemic. The good news, however, is the Caribbean is well-equipped for handling crises and, while the recovery is expected to be slow and steady, plenty of infrastructure is in place to facilitate a safe return to travel.

“From an infection point of view, we’re probably positioned better than most areas in the world,” Comito says. “We contained the virus early on, we closed our borders.” While there are some outliers, many islands were able to curb the spread of the virus locally, which allowed them to begin planning their reopening in a safe and deliberate manner.

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To note, Comito says the CHTA and upwards of 30-plus regional tourism departments worked on creating health and safety protocols for the return of visitors. He adds that the CHTA has trained tens of thousands of people on-island regarding the new protocols in partnership with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (a partnership that dates back about five years). The first webinar on COVID-19 was hosted on February 14 and they have done about 16 sessions in total, in addition to online training sessions. “We’re doing everything we can to [get] ready and to provide some measure of assurances,” says Comito.

Roughly 400 hotels in Caribbean are part of the Tourism Health information System, an online monitoring system for health issues. The system has been in place for about four years and it allows hotels to alert local health authorities should a problem arise with a guest. Comito says the infrastructure has helped the region handle dengue fever and the Zika virus.

While there were plenty of cancellations, hotels in the region were able to rebook about 40 percent of their business—double the rate in the U.S., according to Comito.

On hotel development: Prior to COVID-19, according to STR, there was lots of healthy development, especially on luxury end. Roughly 30,000 rooms were under some stage of development—half of which were already under construction; one-third of those, Comito says, would have come online this year. Following up with destinations, he says most are still on track to open by the end of the year through 2022.

With that said, Comito adds the region “will see some attrition.” As a result of the temporary closures, some hotels may permanently close or be sold, and some of those 30,000 rooms originally in the pipeline may never come to fruition.

When it comes to recovery, a return to travel will happen fastest in the luxury and boutique end, predicts Comito. “I think those kinds of properties are going to do well, particularly those that have villas within their network.” At the same time, he expects to see a return in budget travel—which will be made up of expats, intra-Caribbean travel and business travel. Some of this business is already resuming.

Comito also expects a full return to travel sooner than it has rebounded in the past. Where it would take five to eight years for a full recovery, the Caribbean was on pace to reach pre-2017 hurricane levels within two-and-a-half years, with just a few exceptions. About 80 percent of that business had returned by the end of 2019. So, while Comito expects this rebound to look more like a Nike curve than a “V” curve, he does anticipate a faster recovery. After the hurricanes, islands, hotels, airports and others had to rebuild. This time around, they’re sporting brand-new infrastructure and no rebuilding is required. It all comes down to the traveler and their perception of safety/their willingness to take a “risk.”

Comito believes we will get there. “It’s just a matter of when.”

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