By Kate Chappell
KINGSTON (Reuters) – Just as tourism was beginning to show signs of recovery, the Caribbean has been hit by a new wave of coronavirus infections that is causing lockdowns and flight cancellations and overwhelming hospitals.
Countries including Jamaica, Martinique, The Bahamas, Barbados, St. Lucia, and Dominica have seen a rise in cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant and a relaxation of earlier restrictions. Misinformation spread on social media has also contributed to a low vaccine uptake.
The Caribbean is one of the regions most dependent on tourism, with nine countries in the world’s top 20, according to an index compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Many experienced double-digit declines in gross domestic product (GDP) growth when COVID-19 struck, drying up tourism dollars, destroying jobs and hurting their balance of payments.
Since the latest wave of COVID-19 hit Dominica and the government ordered a lockdown – now lifted – business has been slow for Nahgie Laflouf, operations manager for adventure company Extreme Dominica on the island of some 70,000 people.
“Things are gone back a bit quiet,” said Laflouf, who takes tourists hiking and rafting among Dominica’s lush forests and waterfalls. “They had started to pick up before the spike.”
In August, there were four or five tours, when they might have had three times that before the COVID jump, Laflouf said.
The outbreak has prompted governments to impose restrictions including curfews and mandatory vaccinations as they deal with too few hospital beds, low levels of oxygen and exhausted healthcare workers.
Some countries, like the Cayman Islands, shut their borders to tourists, but others like Jamaica continued to welcome them, allowing the country of 3 million people to salvage some earnings.
“We have to double up our efforts to manage,” Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told Reuters. “The region is now on alert to deal with visitor hesitancy.”
Jamaica’s foreign exchange earnings from tourism fell $2.5 billion last year, a 74% drop from 2019, the government says.
The IDB said vaccines are crucial to getting tourism back to normal and forecast that recovery to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity could take up until 2024 in some countries.
Vaccine rollout in the Caribbean has been slow due to vaccine skepticism, logistical hold-ups and inadequate supply.
Jamaica has administered enough doses to give two shots to about 9% of the population, data compiled by Reuters show. Since the start of July, new COVID-19 cases more than tripled and now stand above 69,000, while hospitalizations have risen almost sevenfold.
Total cases in The Bahamas have jumped by almost half since the beginning of July. Active cases in Dominica skyrocketed from five on July 7 to 638 on Aug. 27.
In Martinique, the French government announced a three-week lockdown on Aug. 10 and asked tourists to leave the country.
“Most of the shops are closed down, most of them have to put people on layoff,” 41-year-old Cristal Joseph said by phone from the town of Le Lamentin, Martinique.
In St. Lucia, infections are up eighteen-fold to over 1,900 since July 9, the Pan-American Health Organization said.
Concerns that St. Lucia could end up on Britain’s COVID-19 ‘red list’ – which imposes an expensive quarantine on Britons returning from such nations – are hurting tourism, said Norbert Williams, a spokesman for the opposition United Workers Party.
“There have been a number of cancellations going into the Christmas season,” said Williams.
(Reporting by Kate Chappell; Editing by Dave Graham and Rosalba O’Brien)