The Future of Tourism in Dominica
One Man’s Hope
Most of us in the tourism industry here in Dominica are wondering what the future holds for us, our staff, and all those affected by this global pandemic. In the last four years we have survived TS Erika and Hurricane Maria, both serious blows to our industry. Now, two years later, we are in an exponentially more severe situation with no idea of how this is going to end. We have learned to adapt and adopt the “new normal” after Maria, but now we simply do not want to hear the term “new normal” ever again. Enough already. Unfortunately we do not get to choose, so here we go again.
So many questions… How can we market in this world? When will people be willing to fly? When will Governments open up their borders? What can we do? Will we ever get back to normal? How can we prevent the virus from running rampant in our communities?
Let me start by saying this in one small man’s opinion in a world of opinions. It is a long read because it comes from weeks of reading, thinking and adapting to ever-changing news. It is not about politics, it is not a policy paper. I simply wanted to put my thoughts to paper to create a conversation. Anyone who reads this to the end is entitled to add their own opinion.
Please, however, if you want to say “tourism is a dead horse,” move on. If you want to say agriculture, fisheries, or tap-dancing are more important, move on. If you want to say this will not work in Antigua, Barbados, St Lucia etc., move on. This is about Dominica and tourism and one man’s hope for both.
Cruise Ships. Vacation or Incubator?
Before we even think about our marketing we need to look at the severe challenges that tourism sectors will be facing in every market. Let’s start with cruise ship tourism. The cruise ship industry is going to have a massive challenge in rebuilding their clientele. According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal, the Cruise Industry continued to fill their ships even after they knew the ships were incubators for the virus. This endangered those aboard and spread COVID19 around the world. They will have a hard time building back credibility in their client base after putting profit before passengers.
However, I would never bet against the cruise industry. They have deep pockets and have beaten back many challenges over the years. Look how they have managed to pit our sister Caribbean islands against each other for the betterment of their own bottom line. Their first step will be to market themselves as the most sanitized and safest environment of any destination.
The second goal of the cruise ships will be to fill their cabins and get back to high-priced drinks, casino profits and one-stop entertainment. Letting people get off the ship for tours will be a secondary challenge that could present insurmountable problems for at least the 20/21 season. Even if they do sell tours, will passengers want to get off the ship and enter foreign lands? The demographic profile of cruisers arriving in Dominica is those who are at an advanced age — the very people who are most vulnerable to severe reactions to COVID-19.
I will not be surprised if the ships use this opportunity to ensure a higher profit margin by only allowing passengers to disembark on “COVID-19 Free Tours.” They will ask those Tour Operators to adhere to strict hygienic cleaning and social distancing practices. In the public’s mind this comes across as a cautious and careful approach. It also conveniently boosts the Cruise Ships’ profit margin.
Without both a vaccine and extremely efficient testing, I cannot see a cruise ship season for 2020/2021 that will bring any profits to our shores. Most recent information coming from the cruise industry is that they will start some cruises from a few US ports in August; it will be interesting to see how this works out for them. Meanwhile Norwegian Cruise Lines is announcing it might not even survive. Tough times indeed if these massively high-profit businesses cannot find a way forward.
Should I stay or should I go now?
Evaluating Dominica’s stay-over clientele is more difficult, because each target market will be dealing with their own realities before they can think about the luxury of traveling. Right now people simply want to get out of their houses and go to the park, the beach or visit Grandma without worrying. This is starting to happen in many countries and individual US states, but we are going to see many failures with their approaches. Hopefully some of the more cautious EU countries will give us hope. How this all plays out will be the most crucial development for tourism in general. There will be many small steps forward and backward before the international routes are full of travelers again.
The Romance of Flying
Everyone who spends a lot of time in planes knows that they are petri dishes. How many of us get sick after long flights? The COVID-19 scenario will force airlines to take extreme precautions in starting up their new business plans.
Recently we have all suffered over-crowded flights and ever more cramped seats that, while miserable for us, has led to many years of record profits for major air carriers. American Airlines made a profit of $7.6 billion in 2016 and spent most of it on stock buybacks. Not on customer service, not on rainy day funds or improved services. After five MORE years of record-high profits, they were in debt to the tune of $30 billion. Despite this shocking mismanagement, they will partake in the U.S. bailout package of $50 billion for U.S. airlines.
The reality is that many of these airlines will not even be in business in 2021, so don’t think they are worried about coming to the aid of small developing islands like Dominica.
Airlines will be forced to reimagine their experience. They will have to rely on high-profit routes with low costs, neither of which describes Dominica. Airlines might even have to re-engineer their interiors to accommodate fewer people and to avoid hauling around a lot of empty, heavy seats. Decisions will be made on routes, prices/profits, demand and new carrying capacities. There is nothing rosy about the future of air travel.
What can we do?
The private sector can do little to affect the decision of international and regional airlines; this will fall on the Caribbean Governments. Our regional airline LIAT, which many of us have historically disparaged, has, dare I say, been doing an excellent job these last few years. However they will need the financial aid of their shareholder Governments now more than ever. Let us hope for the best for Seaborne/Silver Airways to find a way out of this crisis. Once again we will see that islands with their own airlines will have a much easier time in rebuilding airlift.
Both the private and public sectors will have to look at ways to remain competitive, so now is an opportune time to examine the structure of regional taxes, charges and fees for air travel. A 2016 study by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank found that taxes and charges added 54% to the cost of an average one-way ticket. Let’s reconsider this approach, which has choked regional travel for years. Without a large international airport in Dominica, our reliance on inter-regional travel is much greater than for many of our neighbors; the high cost of flights affects us more. Is it time for the region to liberalize and open its air policies?
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), for ten years between 2008 and 2018, only five of 22 Caribbean countries did NOT see an increase in GLOBAL connectivity: Dominica is one of them. When it comes to inter-regional connectivity, 19 countries have not seen any increase. This was the reality BEFORE COVI-19.
What about borders? Who is allowed to travel?
Like contraband, it’s not what you take out of the country, it’s what you might bring in. How do we ensure that we are minimizing the possibility of importing the virus? Taking temperatures is of limited use since asymptotic people can have COVID-19 and show NO symptoms for 15 days or more, all the while spreading it to everyone they meet. Wearing masks will be mandatory for all travelers, not as a barrier to importation of the virus, but to isolate healthy passengers from anyone who might be sick. None of these steps is the hard barrier we need at our borders. It is very obvious that quarantine and tourism cannot coexist. Your average US vacation is 7 days, Europeans have quite a bit longer, but NO ONE will travel for holidays if it means 14 days quarantine. This is the first hurdle to get over.
We need testing. Testing at the airport of embarkation and testing on arrival. However at this time we do not have a very rapid, highly accurate test for COVID-19, although there is some hope of a saliva test being released.
I can see a new normal where all travelers will have to go through security at the airport AND have a COVID-19 scan/test. Enter the test area, donate your saliva, go through normal security. By the time you are through with immigration and bag search, your test results are final and you get some proof of health. This will mean mass production of extremely fast and accurate tests, something that is not currently possible. Upon entering your destination you might have to go through the same procedure.
This might lead to massive protests about invasion of privacy and rights, but if you want to travel this might be the new cost. Until we have a rapid test with a reliability of 99%, all flights will have an element of risk.
Here in Dominica we will soon be virus free, for now. However there is no way to have partially open borders and stay fully protected. Our region has porous borders at the best of times: We have the yacht industry, fishermen, hucksters, tourism and illegal travelers. Dominica has done a great job protecting its borders so far, but at some point borders will have to be opened and we will become vulnerable. We cannot market ourselves as “COVID-19” free because the chances are we will have more cases. This is NOT a statement about our immigration controls, it is the reality of this extremely unpredictable virus.
What happens when the second wave comes? Does a country shut down its borders again? Reinstate curfew? These are sensible precautions that the Government has to take, but continued lockdown and border closing will kill travel to that destination. It is a fine line to walk between safety and rebuilding the economy. We have to find the sensible path where the risk is in balance with the rewards to the economy and psychology of our people.
Vaccines. Vaccines. Vaccines.
The best timeline for the creation of a vaccine, in the opinion of most experts, is one year to 18 months. Then you have to manufacture and distribute it. The fastest vaccine ever delivered in human history was four years!
Due to the sheer demand for this product a vaccine might come a bit faster. However there is no guarantee that a vaccine will even work since there is currently no known effective vaccine for ANY coronavirus. If we wait for a vaccine to solve this pandemic, many tourist and non-tourist businesses will have long shuttered their doors.
Luckily for Dominica we are a niche tourism destination: hiking, culture, diving, off the beaten path travel, and seekers of experience-based tourism and meeting new people. The smaller islands like Dominica, Grenada, and St Vincent might be able to capitalize on our clientele’s preference for smaller, more intimate and genuine experiences. Our clients have shown they are willing to spend more money to reach us, and we have seen how much they love our islands, even after we have been hit by hurricanes.
The desire to travel will not go away. In a recent survey, one-third of Americans said they hope to travel within three months after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. In another survey by Destination Analysts, more than half of American travelers say they plan to avoid crowded destinations when they resume traveling. Well one thing we have NEVER had in Dominica is crowds!
Destinations catering to the “sun, sea and sand” crowd will have a harder time competing in this new world because they will all be desperate to bring back their guests. I predict a price war ahead as destinations try to offset the high cost of flights. Here in Dominica we need to avoid getting into heavy discounting. The costs of doing business here are too high and we cannot survive on the low-margin, high-volume business models of other islands.
Right now we have to implement and market all the steps we are taking to keep clients safe. Most hotels here do not have a lot of public areas, elevators and other common areas known to be transmitters of the virus, so this is an advantage for us. Private villas might be more in demand, and spacious restaurants with outdoor seating are proven to be less risky. Dive shops and snorkeling tours might have to give each guest a personal one-time use mouthpiece and sterilize all their equipment after each use. We have industry accepted protocols for this.
These will become standard protocols region-wide, so Dominica will not have a huge advantage for long.
The relevant tourism authorities should continue to promote our balance with nature, highlighting our reliance on the land and sea to survive. Show off our resilience in the face of every disaster, show off our friendly faces and vibrant culture. We CAN stand out among the crowd. Slowly, as the world sees the complete imbalance of how it lives, we will see more and more value in our small countries and communities living in balance.
James Thornton, the CEO of Intrepid Travel, said recently, “2021 will be about getting outdoors and getting active, with tours centered around things like cycling, trekking and mindfulness.”
We do not have to package this lifestyle, we live it every day.
How many of us are spending all our time farming now so we can feed our families and staff? Costa Rica has already pushed this idea out: “Although we do not know when the social confinement will end, we can assure you that once the Pandemic passes, this beautiful country will welcome you with open arms and the warmth and kindness of our people.”
For the tourism industry to move forward, the region will need an international ID card that shows you have been tested by an approved testing system within the last two days. All tourists will have to declare their accommodation on island, promise to report any sickness, and follow full social distancing rules and regulations. Tourists might be asked to keep a logbook of their tours on island, so in the event of sickness their movements could be traced. At the end of their holiday it is either a beautiful souvenir or a trace contact manual!
With the massive challenges ahead in 2020 in the United States and European markets, I think the best solution is to open up regional travel first, especially those connected by ferry: St Lucia, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Maybe by the end of June 2020 we will all have been case-free for 30 days. Could we then travel among islands without the 14 days of quarantine? What happens when any one of those islands opens up its borders to international travel? Then we all become vulnerable again. Unless we have the testing in place for entry into all COVID-free islands. Are we capable of such cooperation?
The second step will be to open up to EU flights depending on how each country is faring in their battle against COVID-19. Some EU countries are taking a very cautious approach and some like Sweden have taken a different approach. This will affect how their citizens will be accepted in overseas territories. This does not bode well for the US market given the very haphazard approach and rapid reopening currently in practice.
The rate of change is stunning and it is impossible to keep up. Dominica will have to be nimble and adaptable in its approaches. It will not be easy. It is time for free-thinkers and outside-the-box planners. Many will say “keep the borders closed.” This is not planning, it is fear. Good planning and sensible regulations could put us on a path to place Dominica out front.
“Tourism is a dead horse!” No it is not.
Agriculture is essential now, fisheries is essential now, and tourism will be an essential element of our economy again. Hurricanes threaten agriculture; climate change threatens fisheries; we are surrounded by threats. But if we want to be resilient we must come out the other side stronger and smarter.
During this pandemic I have lost all income for the foreseeable future, I have had to stop rebuilding our house after Maria, and I have debts to pay. This is true for half the world right now. But also during this pandemic I have been diving, I have been trail running, I have watched sunsets and sunrises, I have been freediving into the peace and quiet of the Caribbean Sea. I have toiled hard every day in the soil, picked guavas, soursop, mangoes and more.
This is what many are dreaming of. People want to come here and feel the expanse of nature, the freedom of open air without the hordes of other human beings. So while we concentrate on farming and fishing and arts and culture and social development and community resiliency, we need to be thinking of welcoming tourism back whenever it might be possible. What we have in Dominica is becoming more and more valued in this crazy world.
How to Survive
Not many businesses can financially survive very long with zero income and continuing expenses.The Government will have to support many, many tourism enterprises and tough decisions will have to be made. All of us in the private sector also have hard decisions to make. I will try to do right by my team: no lay-offs, but salary reductions will be necessary. Since Hurricane Maria, we have worked endlessly to rebuild. We have shared in profits when times were good, and now we will suffer together through this.
My only answer is to turn to the land and the sea. We shall eat. Our Nature Island Dive team are now farming to grow food for ourselves, and we will live off the invasive lionfish from the sea. Meanwhile we keep the business open, We have NO business but we will continue to market, to interact with the international dive community, and we will hope.
No matter what we do in Dominica there is a chance that we will not see significant income until 2021. I dream of some regional business in July and August before the dreaded hurricane season starts, but it’s probably just a dream. Whenever it happens, let’s make sure we are ready for it, better than ever.
See you outdoors. See you in Dominica where living in nature is a way of life. Let’s welcome our guests to step outside the confines of 2020 and reconnect with Nature. Dive into our underwater world. Plunge into the Nature Island.
May 3, 2020