Tourism’s Fragility Exposed

February 29th, 2020

I am not an economist (and I may well be corrected by my friend and fellow blogger Dennis Jones, who is!) but recent developments have given me the sense that Jamaica depends too heavily on two areas: Tourism and Bauxite Mining (an unsustainable activity – how much longer do we plan to go on mining? Indefinitely?) So, here goes and please, feel free to correct me if I’m off the mark!

My thoughts arose from the dreaded coronavirus (COVID-19), which lies on the horizon like a storm cloud over the sea. You can even see the lightning flashing occasionally, and rain falls from the cloud. It appears that the economic damage this storm could cause may be considerable. I am surprised that the Prime Minister and Finance Minister have not specifically addressed this, yet – while ridiculous rumors and conspiracy theories continue to circulate on WhatsApp. It is all left up to our diligent Minister of Health and Wellness and the Chief Medical Officer; the latter has a calm demeanor, which is helpful.

Let's step up environmental education...

Let’s step up environmental education…This is in St. Martin, on the other side of the Caribbean.

There is no doubt that, with people afraid to travel (and in many cases, more or less banned from doing so) the tourism sector is suffering. And that is one of our two foreign exchange baskets. How much did the turning away of a huge cruise ship this week affect the cruise ship line, in terms of costs, reputation, etc? How much were Jamaican businesses, tourist attractions and individuals seeking to make a few dollars on the ground put out of pocket by this very necessary, but costly action? Minister Tufton is taking a hard line with the cruise ship line, which I support. Our health must come before business, no matter how painful the economic fallout may be. As Alanis Obomsawin said:

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

One government minister who is uncompromisingly upbeat is our Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett. Even his ability to put an optimistic spin on things is becoming strained. He conceded that COVID-19 was damaging the sector in a radio interview this week. Fear is a very strong emotion. Empty airline seats and hotel cancellations are signs of the times. The Minister described this glibly as “skittishness” and “softening in the market.” He asserts that growth in the market continues, however, at around 2.7 percent.

The potential of eco-tourism: Jamaican birders on World Wetlands Day earlier this month. (Photo: BirdLife Jamaica)

The potential of eco-tourism: Jamaican birders on World Wetlands Day earlier this month. (Photo: BirdLife Jamaica)

The ever-present threat of climate change has not gone away, either. I think people are learning to live with its dangers, somehow. Our political leaders shake their heads solemnly, talk about it – and then try to source funds to deal with the consequences that are already manifest. Yet, surely they must know that, as with COVID-19, it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” the next hurricane hits us. This will, of course, be a blow to tourism. It may take a long time to repair that basket. Meanwhile, we are still breaking ground for new mega-hotels, encouraging mining, cutting down trees to facilitate wider roads and “development,” and so on, while wagging our fingers at the developed countries that are responsible.

And solutions? Well, foreign exchange can be earned from exports (other than our precious soil), I would suggest; I am glad to see State Minister Floyd Green noFw heading a task force on this. Agricultural exports could be at the top of the list. I would like to see more climate-smart agriculture, organic agriculture, and focus on renewables – large-scale, not bits and pieces here and there.

Jamaican medical staff receive COVID-19 training, courtesy of the Pan American Health Organization, recently. (Photo: PAHO)

Jamaican medical staff receive COVID-19 training, courtesy of the Pan American Health Organization, recently. (Photo: PAHO)

I would also like to see a huge, stepped-up focus on science and technology. Give the Scientific Research Council and the Natural History Museum a raise! On a smaller scale, how about eco-tourism, Minister Bartlett? It’s more valuable per head. Perhaps mass market tourism has had its day? That involves mass travel by polluting, carbon-emitting airplanes and cruise ships.

What happened to our Green Economy Scoping Study launched almost four years ago? Is it gathering dust on a shelf somewhere? We should try to get an update from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

I am sorry if this article is a tad depressing. It is better to prepare for the worst, rather than rambling, à la President Trump, “It might never happen…Let’s wait and see…Everything’s fine – maybe…”

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Jamaican political campaign circuses continue. Will elections be affected, and if so, how? This is indeed a tricky time to be seeking political office.

P.S. I would really recommend Dennis’ blog. The Grasshopper is currently in the UK, pondering the immediate aftermath of Brexit and its various complications. That may be another storm waiting to break.

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One Response to “Tourism’s Fragility Exposed”

  1. […] according to David Wan, President of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation. As I mentioned in a Gleaner blog post a few days ago, the mass market tourism industry we have created is a very fragile […]

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