How one Caribbean country is navigating the virus crisis was the subject of a virtual press conference with Kerrie Symmonds, minister of tourism and international transport in Barbados.
The country was coming off a record year in 2019 in terms of arrivals, up 10.4% from the U.K., our biggest source market, followed by the U.S., Symmonds said. Visitor spend was up 7.5%. Tourism makes up 40% of the island's gross domestic product and accounts for 30% of the work force, he said.
"Tourism keeps this country afloat, but Covid-19 has derailed that trajectory with closed ports, hotels, attractions and small businesses, canceled festivals and no work for vendors," he said.
Unemployment grew 25% in the last three weeks alone, he said during the press conference, which was held April 28.
Barbados has established a task force to deal with the crisis, with initiatives that included shifting some government funds into the health care sector for a new 200-bed hospital and essential medical supplies. Other funds were shifted into the tourism sector to enable smaller hotels to refurbish during the closure "and to bounce back as competitive when this is behind us," he said.
Other measures taken include training sessions for hotel workers as well as debt relief for businesses and households to defer payments due and loans for three to six months.
The cruise impact has been substantial, according to Symmonds.
"Barbados serves as the home port for ships from several cruise lines, and we treat the cruise sector as our partner," he said. "We took the position to offer all ships a safe harbor when they were denied entry to other ports, and we allowed passengers and crew to repatriate back to their home countries."
As of late April there were 16 ships off the coast, awaiting the green light to resume operations. "We have to wait and see what happens, but this demonstrates how we build and maintain partnerships in crucial times, because that is what the tourism industry is all about," Symmonds said.
The villa market may play a key factor in Barbados' emergence from the crisis, according to the minister.
"It's a luxury sector and most villa travelers do not rely on commercial flights but fly private aircraft, and I think that market may recover first," he said.
"We have to prepare for our return to business, but it will be a slow return as the wheels of tourism begin to turn. We will walk with caution on re-openings. This is an opportunity to build out standards and protocols in hotels and restaurants."
The summer season will be a challenge, according to Symmonds, "but beyond summer, I think we will see a more robust recovery. It's more realistic to look ahead to the winter season."