The Caribbean dilemma
By Nina Burleigh
Last year, more than 31 million people visited the Caribbean, more than half of them from the United States. I was one of them. Together, we contributed $59 billion to the region’s 2019 gross domestic product — accounting for a whopping 50% to 90% of the GDP for most of the countries, according to the International Monetary Fund.
I admit that in moments of pandemic weariness I have been one of those people eyeing cheap tickets to the Caribbean, wondering when I might feel ready to jump on a flight.
Now, though, our business comes with a mortal threat — that for the sake of a vacation we will bring the coronavirus to islands that are ill prepared to handle a major outbreak. But staying home could be equally ruinous. The COVID-19 lockdown — and the severity of the epidemic in the United States — has been a disaster beyond any hurricane for the Caribbean economy. The pandemic has closed airports and cruise ship docks, shut down restaurants and dive shops and deprived the Caribbean of tens of billions of dollars.
“To not have visitors arriving for any period of time, but particularly for an extended period of time, has brought immense hardship to a number of people throughout the Caribbean,” said Hugh Riley, the former head of the Caribbean Tourism Office, and a partner with Portfolio Marketing Group, which represents some islands. “Caribbean countries face an important dilemma: Try to hermetically seal their borders from visitors until there’s an effective vaccine, or tackle the risks of restarting tourism now. It is the classic risk/reward decision,” he said.
As of Aug. 3, 22 islands in the region have reopened to tourism, with 14 allowing visitors from the United States — with negative COVID-19 tests and, usually, periods of quarantine. It has not always gone smoothly: The Bahamas allowed Americans to visit beginning in July, slammed the door shut as coronavirus cases surged in that nation, reopened and then this week shut down again, indicative of the efforts to manage a moving crisis. Puerto Rico opened to Americans from the mainland on July 15, but pushed that date back to Aug. 15 after a weekend of widely viewed videos showing incoming visitors ignoring mask and social distancing rules. On the other end of the spectrum, Barbados is offering a 12-month visa to any American interested in moving a work-from-home office to the island.
Tourists looking to escape to a coronavirus-free tropical island have a responsibility to weigh the risks and take precautions.
So does the airline industry, says Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of St. Lucia and a former airline executive nominated by CARICOM, the 20-nation Caribbean consortium, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to develop recommendations for reopening the region. Chastanet has been urging the airlines to push for the development and implementation of rapid preboarding airport testing for all passengers.
“You have to have testing sites, the way you have a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk in every airport,” he said. “The airlines in many ways acted like they had ostrich syndrome, and said it is somebody else’s problem, but ultimately it is their problem. They have to use their advocacy strength to make it happen.”
Tourism has always been a two-edged sword for the region. It brought money for some, but also brought corruption, environmental degradation and unchecked development. No tourist who steps outside an “inclusive” resort can fail to notice the incredible disparity of wealth on the islands: palatial walled estates are often a stone’s throw from cement block shacks. Crime is such a problem on some Caribbean islands that websites are devoted to statistics to help worried travelers shop for the safest destinations. (I can attest to this problem, having been burglarized in Tobago and Vieques.) The BBC once called Jamaica “the murder capital of the world,” to howls of outrage from the Jamaicans.
As Caribbean tourism exploded and got cheaper, local tour operators raked in money, but faced unexpected problems. Tropical infrastructure, local police and medical systems were overwhelmed on some islands even before the virus. One island friend, a divemaster at a major site, who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job, told me he has seen increasingly obese, relatively unhealthy American tourists who feel entitled to be squished into neoprene suits and taken to the depths as cruise lines and cheap tours market scuba diving — once reserved for scientists, Navy SEALs and the ultrawealthy and sporty — to all.
The Caribbean is the biggest source of business for the global cruise industry, which is notoriously callous about the environment. Cruise lines were the first global heralds of the coronavirus disaster and will likely be the last travel industry to come back once the virus is under control.
The cruise industry always had the upper hand on the islands. When a cruise ship docks and thousands of people are disgorged, the impression of prosperity is illusory. Most of the islands pay a per head fee to the cruise lines for each passenger who disembarks, the cruise ships are notoriously bad for reefs, and they have a stranglehold on the discretionary dollars their passengers are spending.
“Everything that can be sold on board is already sold, and anyplace on the island that could benefit has already made arrangements with the cruise company,” said Noel Mignott, a former deputy director of tourism for Jamaica and a founding partner of Portfolio Marketing Group. “If one good thing could come of COVID, I would be encouraged to see governments take this opportunity to renegotiate the relationship with the cruise lines. And if I was a cruise line, I would wave that green flag and try to be as good as I can to the environment — if only to say we are not dumping our garbage in the ocean two miles off Ocho Rios.”
The pandemic has already changed life by necessity. The Caribbean has a “ridiculously high” food import bill because of an assumption that tourists don’t want to eat local food, Riley said. The pandemic may change that. “We have been laboring under the misconception that tourists want something other than what we have. We think people want hamburgers and hot dogs. Now that we are consuming what we have, I think this will lead to an increased variety in what we produce locally,” he said.
Sven Olof Lindblad, the chief executive of Lindblad Expeditions, which offers high-end, small-ship, environmentally conscious cruises around the world, sees the pandemic as a moment in which destinations can seize control of the downside of overtourism and demand changes. “This clearly is a time to rethink — but it won’t be led by businesses who are, by and large, too fat and happy with the way it is. Create working groups to totally rethink the relationship of tourism focused on value — and not just financial value.”
Selling ‘sun, sand and sea’
The tourist industry itself trained Americans to think of the Caribbean as “sun, sand and sea,” and to think of the diverse islands as interchangeable, Mignott said. Other than the sea they share, the islands are different, each with a unique geological and human history. The older islands to the west, including Cuba, are formed of limestone and billions of shells and skeletons of ancient marine life, while the black cliffs and crags of the younger islands along the eastern edge — where the Caribbean and the Atlantic tectonic plates grind against each other — are relics of violent prehistoric volcanic events.
In my years exploring the Caribbean, I’ve visited Guadeloupe, Bonaire, St. John, Vieques, Jamaica and Tobago, and met people who have in common that they were born with the sound of the sea in their ears, but otherwise possess unique traditions, history, language and culture, that reward visitors with a little curiosity.
The Caribbean tourism industry could take this opportunity to differentiate the islands, and maybe even put responsibility on travelers to go beyond the resort walls or cruise ship all-inclusives and explore local food and culture.
Can it happen? As airlines and cruise ships reduce capacity, and the tourist industry consolidates, the islands need to act deliberately, Riley said. “Are we going to leave it to happenstance or are we going to plan for more socially responsible tourism and put policies in place that redress and undo damage to the environment?” he asked.
The premier of the island of Nevis, Mark Brantley, said the pandemic has taught the Caribbean that overreliance on tourism is not the best model and that COVID-19 could mark the end of the era of cheap tourism and mega-cruises. “Jurisdictions are going to pivot to more tourism pitched at the luxury market, with smaller numbers of people and arguably a better yield,” he said. Additionally, he predicted that local industries, especially agriculture and agri-processing, will become more important sectors of the Caribbean economies. “Countries will be trying to diversify, where tourism continues to be important, but not the only game in town anymore.”
Chastanet said that when the pandemic struck, St. Lucia was already midway into a national program to promote what he called “village tourism,” sprucing up hamlets with new infrastructure and training and providing seed money for resort workers and hotel chefs to open up their own small-scale, boutique operations. “The things we were doing just got reinforced by COVID,” he said.
“We really hope if one good thing happens from the pandemic, it will be that travel is more thoughtful, and travelers are more conscious about the environment,” said Mignott, the former deputy tourism director for Jamaica. “We don’t think people are just going to go back like Covid never happened. We really think it will be different.”
A different kind of tourism
I will regret the end of cheap, mass Caribbean tourism, if it comes, but I understood its downside long before the coronavirus. I have also been another kind of island traveler — a temporary resident. I spent most of my seventh month of one pregnancy floating like a turtle in the sea outside an old-time resort called Arnos Vale in Tobago, traditionally known as a destination for birders. We couldn’t afford to lodge there, but we swam on the beach and spent time under the slow flapping porch fan where a talking parrot held court.
A year later, we moved our family into a Tobago rental for six weeks. We lived simply on peanut butter sandwiches, the daily fish catch and Betty Crocker box cakes. Every day I rode my bike past a ruined pink plantation and through a hilltop hamlet impossibly named “Whim.”
In Whim, Tobagoans lived in simple wood shacks perched on cliffs overlooking crashing surf, poor in money, but the owners of stupendous, million-dollar views.
When we returned to the island a few years later we found newly paved roads, traffic jams, and a new mood — the hum and honk of progress drowning out the hummingbirds and the cackle of the national bird, the cocrico, at dawn. I know Whim is still on the map, but I wonder who owns those little shacks.