The region’s tourism challenges have not been created by COVID-19, but have simply been exposed and amplified believes Professor Andrew Spencer, who was recently the first person to be promoted to the position of Professor of Tourism at University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.
In an interview with the Sunday Business Guardian, Spencer who was appointed on October 13, explained that the problems before the pandemic are the problems today: climate change, social exclusion and high leakage rates.
These, he advised will continue without real structural changes.
“The dominance of sun, sea and sand, multinational corporation exploitation and an accommodations preoccupation must make space for the emergence of forms of organic and socially inclusive offerings and experiences,” Spencer, currently the Deputy Executive Director at the Mona School of Business and Management, said.
Most recently, Spencer served for four years as the executive director of the Tourism Product Development Company Ltd, the agency responsible for the maintenance, development and enhancement of the tourism product in Jamaica, and the largest agency in that country’s Ministry of Tourism.
Zeroing in on T&T, he said this country’s decision not to open its borders for tourism was prudent given its lower dependence on the industry.
He advised that a slow and methodical reopening for this country is best and will allow for proper monitoring of the “stories of success and failure.”
According to Spencer, response rates are improved in such an environment where tourism numbers are not large, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
“The strengths of Tobago ought to be highlighted with a clear differentiation in what is being offered in Trinidad outside of festival and events. There are community tourism options available in abundance and these must be unearthed,” Spencer further recommended.
Additionally, he noted that countries which have been leading the charge in the region in post-COVID efforts appear to be Barbados and a few Eastern Caribbean states in terms of managing infection rates and opening up of borders.
Jamaica, he also said, has done well with uptick in arrival numbers but not as well with the management of infection rates.
“There is a clear difference, however, with those rates outside of the resilient corridors and inside these managed spaces,” Spencer said.
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) recently noted that while the Caribbean is recovering faster than other regions, this is still below its performance in 2019; a record year for the sector where travel and tourism represented more than 14 per cent of the region’s GDP contributing more than US$ 58 billion to its economy.
Jamaica’s recovery initiatives
In sharing Jamaica’s recovery plan, Spencer said the impact of the pandemic on that country’s tourism sector has been significant and has given rise to the Jamaican Government implementing a comprehensive multi-phased approach to cushioning the impact and re-opening that country’s borders to visitors.
As the CEO of the Tourism Product Development Agency from 2017 to 2020, Spencer led this process.
He outlined that the agency ensured the industry had access to enhanced health and safety standards required to reopen tourism, develop COVID-19 tourism health and safety protocols based on benchmarks of nearly 20 markets in the Caribbean and globally.
Jamaica was one of the first three countries to receive the WTTC Safe travel stamp for its measures based on its comprehensiveness.
Further, Spencer said Jamaica’s protocols are being guided by a five-point recovery strategy including robust measures that will withstand local and international scrutiny, training all sectors to manage protocols and new behavioural patterns moving forward, strategies around COVID security infrastructure (PPEs, masks, infrared machines, etc), communication with the local and international markets about reopening and a staggered approach to reopening/managing risk in a structured way.
Further, Spencer said as a part of the Jamaican Government’s risk management strategy to reduce the likelihood of transmission of the virus between visitors and Jamaicans, that country’s Ministry of Tourism instituted “Resilient Corridors.”
Within these “corridors” all interactions are subject to the enhanced health and safety standards directed by Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness and as set out in the COVID-19 tourism health and safety protocols.
“All tourism entities in operation within the corridors are required have a COVID-19 resilient certificate. These corridors will protect visitors with robust protocols and will enable more visitors to safely experience more of the tourism product than would be available in their hotels while enabling tourism businesses and workers to restart operations in a safe environment,” Spencer explained.
Additionally, he said the number of corridors, their geographic reach, and scope of operations will be expanded or contracted depending on the level of risk to both visitors and Jamaicans.
Noting that a collaborative approach is required to ensure the safe management of the “corridors” Spencer said key pillars include controlled visits, adherence to Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Local Government and Community Development protocols and controlled group activities.
Are Caribbean countries on
the right path to recovery?
To Spencer, the paths are quite varied yet the similarity is striking.
“The development paths of destinations in the region took on an identity of their own, while many of the challenges were the same over many decades,” he explained.
In much the same way, he noted, the challenges surrounding balancing lives versus livelihoods in tourism dependent states, with very weak healthcare systems are not dissimilar, however approaches have been varied.
He cited that Grenada for example, remained closed with very few cases, but eventually had to respond to economic challenges.
Meanwhile, Jamaica and the Bahamas opened their borders relatively quickly but dealt with spikes which in turn, made it challenging to sell tourism because of CDC classifications, Spencer added.
Barbados, on the other hand, he said, took a measured approach to a slow opening with systems of tracking, which had periods of success
“In the final analysis, no Caribbean destination is in a position that it wishes to be in. Resources are scarce and priorities do not necessarily favour tourism, Spencer added, noting that the overall trend in the region is a decrease in cases.
Once again, however, Spencer said most countries have dedicated larger portions of their budgets to marketing than to product development, which may provide a “band-aid and a short-term high, but which will continue to “promote exclusion and resentment which are antithetical to sustainability.”
Holistic tourism approach
Spencer started off at UWI as a Literature in English.
He then transferred after one year to the Faculty of Social Sciences before venturing into tourism.
A holder in a Masters in Tourism and Hospitality and a PhD in Tourism Strategy, Spencer’s personal desire for Caribbean tourism development entails an “attractions-driven model” that allows for real community involvement with the accommodations sector being a key support arm.
Further, he hopes there be a region that embraces a sector that is “environmentally sensitive, socially inclusive, authentic and owned by its local people.”
According to Spencer, tourism at its best, should provide dignified work to people who would have made some trade-offs for its development.
“Being the first full Professor in the field at UWI makes my future role exciting and daunting all at once,” Spencer acknowledged.
He added that his job is therefore, to champion all these causes through thought leadership, advocacy and impactful research projects that will lead to significant improvement to lives and livelihoods.