It was one helluva year, but we have finally said farewell and good riddance to 2020, a year that took its toll on millions of individuals, families and industries in hundreds of countries.
The pandemic continues to slam all of us across the board and borders: exhausted healthcare workers; struggling business and restaurant owners; travel advisors who are juggling cancellations and ever-changing entry regulations; housekeeping staff furloughed with no hotel rooms to clean; and beach vendors with no wares to sell or tourists to buy their coconut bowls and hand-woven straw hats.
One of my memories of the terrible 2020 is personal and probably very selfish, also very minor compared to the real suffering and losses of so many others. A trip to the Caribbean was finally in the offing late in October but I was told that where I live (Virginia) was a high-risk state and that I was a high-risk traveler and therefore not welcome on that island at that time.
For thoughts and insights on the year that's been and the year we're now in, I turned to three industry leaders: Frank Comito, director general and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA); Karolin Troubetzkoy, executive director, marketing and operations of Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain Resorts in St. Lucia and immediate past president of the CHTA, and Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.
I interrupted their much-needed holiday breaks with my questions, but they broke from their R 'n R to share their responses with me -- and you.
Q: How would you best describe the year 2020?
Comito: Without question, it's been the most challenging year globally, and specifically for the Caribbean given the significant role that tourism plays in the region's economies. It was a year that tested the mettle of our people and by and large, we passed the test, often excelling.
We saw a level of commitment and collaboration locally and regionally by government and tourism industry leaders and health authorities unlike we'd ever seen before: to safeguard our industry, minimize the pandemic threat on visitors and residents and move towards our recovery.
Troubetzkoy: The never-ending and exhausting pandemic pandemonium tested our sanity and our optimism. My motto became: "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." (John Wooden).
Dean: 2020 was tumultuous, arduous and unpredictable -- the year travel stopped.
Q: What's your forecast/prediction/hope/forecast for 2021?
Comito: We anticipate a very slow recovery continuing through the first and second quarters. We expect business to steadily improve as we approach summer, as consumer confidence returns with more people getting vaccinated and testing technology, availability and costs improve as well.
Forecasts vary, and we are in a continually shifting environment. Even with that, nearly half the traveling public anticipates they will be ready to travel sometime this year.
Average occupancies for the region this past fall ran 20% to 40%. We hope to see an improvement in Q1 building up to an average 40% to 60% as we approach summer.
Room rates have been running close to that which we experienced pre-pandemic and are expected to hold, perhaps with a small decline.
Troubetzkoy: Cautiously optimistic. Cautious because the situation is still so very fluid and it is too soon to understand how quickly the vaccine can reach a broad spectrum of the population. Optimistic because Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain are two small boutique resorts on our own 600-acre estate with two beaches and lots of on-site activities, the sort of environment that travelers are looking for nowadays.
Dean: 2021 will launch the Great Recovery of travel and tourism. While the year begins deep in the midst of the pandemic, there's a heightened sense of optimism as vaccinations have begun. The first few months will continue to present challenges for our industry, but the outlook for the remainder of the year is encouraging, with pent-up demand for travel growing.
Q: What trends are you seeing that will carry forward into 2021?
Comito: People desperately want and need to escape. That's an overriding motivating factor, which will drive demand across most travel sectors, except for any sizable groups. Travelers want destinations that allow them to enjoy the outdoors. They will cherish places that allow them to heal their body, mind and spirit, which the Caribbean does so well and tops it off with some of the best spa and wellness experiences anywhere.
Travelers want someplace close to home, familiar but which offer new travel experiences.
I challenge anybody to think of any place that fits that bill better than the Caribbean, for a long weekend escape, a week's getaway or an extended work and play experience.
Troubetzkoy: Health protocols and tourism will continue to be closely connected. Travelers and their travel advisors want to be confident that both their destination of choice and resort of choice keep everyone safe. There will be new focus on responsible tourism and travel.
Responsible tourism must, more than ever, embrace the full spectrum of operating sustainably, beginning with the protection and preservation of the environment to allow maximum economic benefit to stay in the host country and facilitate the traveler's exposure to the history, art and culture of the host community.
Travelers will make an effort to choose their vacation destination responsibly and thoroughly understand the places they visit.
Dean: The nonstop changes in safety protocols and related health measures have kept travelers on edge and compressed the already-short booking window even more. This will continue this year until a vaccine is widely available. At the destination level, we've been widely challenged to manage the intersection of travel and public health throughout the entire travel continuum like never before. That's not changing this year. Enhanced standards of sanitation, cleanliness and customer service are the price of admission.
For tourism marketers, 2021 is another challenging year, although the emerging recovery should bring about improved results.
Depleted budgets, expanded digitalization and the immense challenge of balancing value propositions, inspirational content and health-related messaging will demand adaptive innovation.
Q: What is your message for travel advisors and tour operators regarding travel in 2021?
Comito: We are ready for you. We have some of the most effective health safety protocols in the world. Thousands of employees in the industry have undergone health and safety training since last June, and this is ongoing. The tourism industry in the Caribbean has had a unique partnership between tourism and health for years, which prepared us for these difficult times between the Caribbean Public Health Agency, CHTA and the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Since last spring, Caribbean hoteliers put in place flexible cancellation policies, and many offer travel protection that provides coverage for Covid-19 related circumstances.
Don't just listen to us; listen to what thousands of travelers who visited our shores since last June said in online reviews about their experiences: overwhelmingly positive and grateful for the opportunity to safely escape.
Troubetzkoy: We need to support each other more than ever to build back confidence in travel. Information sharing and quick access to that information are critical for all parties. As hoteliers, we understand the importance to upkeep maximum flexibility with our reservation terms and policies.
Dean: Every crisis brings opportunity, and this year is no exception. With so much pent-up demand for travel and optimism spurred by vaccines, those who are agile and responsive to the consumers' needs and desires will gain an upper hand.
We are likely facing a multiyear recovery, but considering what we all have been through, 2021 will ignite an amazing comeback story for our industry.