Posted: Wednesday, May 27, 2020. 7:01 pm CST.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
By John Saldivar MSc (Econ): Since March 2020, the Belize economy has come to almost a grinding halt as a consequence of the worldwide pandemic COVID-19. Tourism, the mainstay of the economy, collapsed immediately after the closing of the international airport and with it has gone over fifteen thousand jobs and millions in foreign exchange. A revival of tourism is therefore critical to Belize’s Economic Recovery Plan.
There are conflicting views among tourism stakeholders on the way forward for the industry. There are some who believe that much of the talked about losses in the industry thus far can still be mitigated by a July reopening of international travel. This being because many hotels were able to rebook clients to the period starting this JuIy. Opening later than this some believe would result in irrecoverable losses. Others believe that already the industry has suffered catastrophic loss which will require new financing and major government intervention. Whatever the true situation, we must not allow tourism to die. Hundreds of millions have already been invested in thousands of hotel rooms. We need to fill them back as quickly as possible.
As with all sectors that are part of the recovery effort, tourism will need an injection of cash. The commercial banking system may be a bit more amenable to this industry than it is to agriculture and others. Central Bank policy may also be used to direct lending in this direction. Government may also consider soft loans to the industry or floating a Tourism Bond to be taken up by private liquidity. These special bond offerings can actually prove useful while a capital market develops. Top priority should be given by government oversight agencies to ongoing hotel expansion projects to remove impediments and expedite construction.
Jobs will come back once the tourists come. Our tourism sector knows what to do, they have been doing this a long time. So, we may be able to turn lemons into lemonade in a shorter than anticipated period if we adjust our market focus. Our Covid-19 setback can be turned into a tourism comeback. Our traditional tourism markets will take some time before they are declared Covid-free. Our tourism sector should not wait especially since there are some tourism destinations that will take longer than Belize to reach covid-free status. Not all countries have the same recovery trajectory. Belize may have an advantage here. At the same time, some countries with huge tourism markets, such as some in Europe, may also achieve Covid-free status faster than our traditional markets. When this happens, it should create unique marketing opportunities for Belize as a Covid-free tourist destination while other rival destinations recover. We need to be ready.
We must therefore work swiftly to establish new market relationships and direct travel routes with emerging Covid-free countries. The destinations that prepare for reopening by identifying new clients in Covid-free countries will get ahead of other destinations struggling to control COVID-19. We must not wait until our traditional tourism markets are declared covid-free. Let’s take our success in controlling this pandemic and turn it into a windfall for Belize tourism by getting ahead of the curve in preparation for the world reopening, one country at a time.
And while we work on strategies for the successful re-emergence of traditional tourism, there is a possible opportunity for a niche tourism market that can prove compatible with quarantine and social distancing restrictions which may stay with us as the new normal. Medical tourism by its very nature requires personal care for patients in a controlled environment which can be managed from the port of departure, to the port of entry, to the medical facility. We should quickly revisit the idea of allowing investments in facilities that combine medical services with tourism services. This industry has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the hospitality and medical field.
And as must be the new way forward, a Tourism Industry Recovery Task Force must be commissioned under the EMC to allow dialogue and exchange of ideas among industry stakeholders to advise government on critical policies to drive the rebound of the tourism sector. Some specific areas to be addressed by the task force include a review of the National Tourism Sector Master Plan, a review of the training and certifications needs of the industry with special emphasis on new practices necessitated by the pandemic in the areas of waitering, bartending, and food preparation, a review of the status of the integration of cultural and environment tourism into the tourism product, and a review of safety and security standards and protocols for the industry.
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