As we look forward to the New Year, 2021, it is very timely that we pause and reflect on the year to which we bid farewell.
Certainly, 2020 was a year which highlighted many of our vulnerabilities, but more importantly, it taught us many lessons about our abilities to adapt in the face of crisis; abilities which I am sure many of us did not even know existed.
The COVID-19 pandemic crippled the economies of several countries, with the most serious effects being felt in small economies and specifically those reliant on travel and the movement of people. Indeed, these two characteristics essentially describe all the countries of the Caribbean, and consequently, from an economic standpoint, the Caribbean has been one of the hardest hit regions in the world.
Fortunately, for the most part, as a region we have been able to control the spread of the virus within our local populations. This has been achieved by the implementation of very stringent control mechanisms which have varied from state to state, and included in most instances, temporary closure of international borders.
By the last quarter of 2020, most of the countries in the Caribbean had reopened their borders and the vast majority of reopened countries had also started accepting commercial travel and visitors to their shores. In all cases, this process has been done within the parameters of protocols designed to complement the health infrastructure of the country.
The stories which depict this process of infection control and reopening of borders in the face of second and third waves of viral spread in our main source markets, speak volumes about the adaptability of our people and specifically about the travel and tourism sector in the Caribbean which has been given no choice, other than to quickly identify, learn and adapt to the changing environment we have experienced over the past 12 months.
We therefore move into 2021 armed with a new set of lessons learnt and with the proof that the Caribbean tourism sector along with its counterpart in public health has the collaborative power to restart, reenergize and rebuild tourism in the Caribbean stronger and more resilient, and ready to face the next challenge.
Experts have indicated, that based on the results of past pandemics in our history, a two-year period of recovery to return to ‘normalcy’ can be expected. Based on that prediction, we can expect ‘normal’ conditions beyond December 2021. Indeed, our concept of ‘normal’ is compounded by the view that the measures we have implemented to control the spread of the virus may stay with us for an indefinite period.
While the pandemic has threatened the Caribbean tourism sector, it has also created the opportunity for us to assess the sector and implement actions which have been difficult during the last twenty to thirty years of mass tourism. The pandemic has identified one critical common factor – the need for change, the need to think outside of the box and identify different ways of doing things. Since the falloff in tourism activity in March 2020, all tourism policy makers, destination management organizations and other tourism stakeholders have spent time critically analyzing and rethinking the way they manage tourism in their individual destinations. This has led to a spirit of greater cooperation and collaboration which was needed in the sector but which has now been clearly shown to be critical to the sector’s future and its success.
All of this has also been mirrored at the regional level, where regional stakeholders in tourism, health and general government have collaborated to create standards for the reopening of the sector and continued to collaborate in the face of an ever-changing regional and extra-regional environment.
During 2021, the programmes of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) will continue the work started in 2020 on research, product development – including heritage and community-based tourism – and human resources development – including a regional tourism sector human resources audit and training. In addition, our collaborative efforts will continue to ensure that the tourism sector works with other sectors such as health to enhance the prospects of the region as we transition to a new paradigm of normalcy.
Our collective efforts to date have positioned the Caribbean, from a global standpoint, in this pandemic, as a region which is healthy and safe for travel. It is a position which we must defend, while we make every effort to improve on the other facets of the visitor experience.
In the New Year message for 2020, we were lauding ourselves for recovering in 2019, after the 2017 hurricanes and for exceeding the world average for tourism growth. While those traditional metrics may paint a different picture this year, we in the Caribbean can still be pleased with our efforts. This time we have proven ourselves leaders, via the collaboration of tourism and public health to create protocols for the reopening of the sector.
We still cannot rest on our laurels, but continue to use the momentum created by our efforts in 2020 and the resilience of our people to rebuild the tourism sector like all other sectors to full functionality again, and buttress it against all future challenges which, although we pray otherwise, are sure to come.
On behalf of the CTO Council of Ministers and Commissioners of Tourism, Board of Directors and the staff of the CTO, I want to say thank you to all of our partners and stakeholders, both regionally and internationally, for your collaborative efforts in 2020, and we look forward to further collaboration in 2021. I wish for us all a year filled with health, blessings, growth, and prosperity for this region we love.