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SLHTA Urges Government to Quickly Review COVID-19 Protocols Affecting Tourism

The Saint Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) is calling on Government to urgently review several COVID-19 protocols that the association feels are hindering the island’s tourism industry’s quick-recovery from COVID-19’s deadly effects.

The association feels Saint Lucia is not moving fast enough to catch-up with other Caribbean islands already relaxing on tough protocols and is offering to assist in implementation of its recommendations.

The association has identified the protocols concerned and is urging the government to act quickly, lest Saint Lucia is left behind in the regional efforts to recover in an industry that many other Caribbean countries also depend on.

The call for an urgent review of local protocols was made in the following letter, dated February 2, 2022 from the hotel and tourism industry’s leading representative body, signed by its President and Chief Executive Officer and addressed to the Chair of the COVID-19 Management Centre, as well as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Tourism:

Dear Mr. Springer,

Tourism arrival metrics for Saint Lucia over the fourth quarter of 2021 shows a modest but positive movement towards the recovery of our island’s greatest GDP contributor, our Tourism industry.

This momentum is fueling trade with farmers, fishers, craft producers, entertainers, bus drivers, wholesalers, community-based sites and attractions and agro-processors alike.

For thousands of industry employees and entrepreneurs, this sign of recovery brings hope that our leaders are analytical, discerning, adaptable, engaging, and brave enough to stay the course of recovery and defend the hard-fought gains which the recovery brings.

International discourse on the mutation of the COVID-19 virus suggests that the “bread and butter” issues of our lives are now more impacted by the decisions of our policy makers, than they are, by the pandemic itself.

No doubt the unprecedented socio-economic shocks brought about by the pandemic have triggered significant declines in economic growth for our small island economy, as well as exposed our vulnerabilities in the sectors of health, education, crime and security.

Our increasing debt to GDP ratio further hampers our ability to cauterize these economic wounds with additional loan financing and diversification strategies. Indeed, too many years of neglect and short-term planning now impede the pace of our recovery.

An online publication of the InterAmerican Development Bank titled The Fragile Path to Recovery in the Caribbean notes that, apart from Guyana, “only two other countries are expected to return to pre-crisis per capita income levels by 2022—Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Commenting on the longer-term impact of the pandemic on the public coffers, the authors further noted that “Jamaica is expected to see the largest consolidation—of over 30 percentage points of GDP— while others like Barbados, Dominica, and Grenada are also projected to achieve appreciable improvements.

For several Caribbean economies, prospects for consolidation remain uncertain, while current estimates envision double-digit increases in public debt ratios through 2026 for several economies, including The Bahamas, St. Lucia, Suriname, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.”

Across the globe and closer to our regional home, some leaders of island economies are fighting back.

Sensing the potential of travel and tourism, Jamaica, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, and other regional states are aggressively reviewing their protocols with a view to making them more trade friendly thereby jumpstarting their economic engines.

If Saint Lucia is not more pro-active in this regard, we run the risk of being relegated to mere spectator status.

Regional neighbors are preparing to feast on the growing demand for travel experiences and outbid us for these opportunities by expertly managing a co-existence with COVID-19.

The SLHTA echoes the regional caution put forward by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) in its 31st December 2021 letter to our CARICOM Chairman warning that, “With tourism’s pervasive impact on our economies, employment and tax revenue, the unintended consequences of excessive restrictive policies which deter travel by making destinations less attractive goes well beyond hotels, affecting restaurants, vendors, taxies, attractions, wholesalers and countless other businesses and livelihoods.”

Against this reality of a long, steep economic recovery for Fair Helen, strong competition from regional neighbors and the untapped potential of global travel, the Saint Lucia Hospitality and Tourism Association strongly proposes consideration of the following amendments to existing protocols:

1) Suspend discussions to receive only vaccinated travelers noting that international travel practices are becoming more relaxed and less prohibitive. The UNWTO expresses that “UNWTO welcomes WHO’s new guidance, highlighting the ineffectiveness of blanket travel restrictions, and we also amplify their recommendations against using vaccination status as the sole condition for welcoming tourists back, especially when vaccination rates remain so uneven.”

2) Requiring vaccination of staff at high-risk services, considering the above, is counter intuitive. Global backlash against mandatory vaccination is irrefutable and mandatory vaccination could trigger social discord and unrest. Government should instead consider legally permitting employers to adopt their own in-house mandatory vaccination policies with impunity from current labor law restrictions.

3) Restrictions on social gatherings have accomplished little and currently deprives us from promoting large weddings and events, activities for which we have received global accolades. As infections begin to plateau, hospitalizations and deaths reduced, recovery 3 periods shorten and security personnel needed to address other criminal activities, we propose annulment of restrictions on social gatherings.

4) Restrictions on business operating hours should be repealed. After two years of varying degrees of restrictions, free access to vaccines for those so inclined and the unbearable burden of enforcement placed on police officers, we propose a radical return to normalcy through abolition of shift systems, work from home policies and curfews.

5) The lifting of vaccinated dine-in policy imposed on the independent restaurant sector should also be repealed for the obvious reason as this policy has not stymied the spread of the virus during our fifth wave and is unfair and indefensible as an action to control the spread of the virus.

6) Laundering of staff uniforms by hotel operators should be abolished as it presents an arduous burden on operators and is an unreasonable demand by authorities. Similar demand is not being made of supermarkets, call center operators, manufacturers etc. Given that only 2% of the positive COVID-19 cases are visitors, most of the spread seems to be originating from non-hotel establishments.

7) Antigen tests for Caribbean visitors should be considered as an alternative to PCR tests. Further to the CHTA’s call for Regional Harmonization of Travel Policies, we propose that Caribbean Nationals be permitted entry via a 1-day old antigen test. The current demand for regional nationals to have a 5-day old PCR test upon arrival is a regression of the ideals of regional integration, free movement of people and free trade among CARICOM countries.

Mr. Chairman, according to the COVID-19 and Beyond – Impact Assessments and Responses publication of the OECS, “10 of the top 20 most tourism-dependent countries in the world are in the Caribbean. In Saint Lucia for example, tourism activity directly employs approximately 41.8% of workers.

The benefits from the sector, however, are felt far beyond those directly employed.”

The document also posits that “The economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic has the potential to spiral into an unstable social condition that may prove difficult to control in the absence of aggressive policy measures.

The rapid rise in unemployment threatens to unravel much of the socioeconomic progress made over the past decade.”

Indeed, the post pandemic world may pose a greater challenge to us if we fail to take “aggressive policy measures” to mitigate further damage meted out by the pandemic.

UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili, “Tourism is among the hardest hit of all economic sectors. However, UNWTO underlines tourism’s historic resilience and capacity to create jobs after crisis situations, while also emphasizing the importance of international cooperation and of ensuring the sector is made a central part of recovery efforts.”

The SLHTA remains an unshakable ally to both policy makers and our recovery efforts.

Our recommendations are in the interest of the collective good.

Our obligations to our workers and investors demand that our communities and their environments are paramount in our considerations and are not impaired by our proposed amendments.

We are simply of the conviction that Tourism has the capacity to bridge linkages, connect people and recover our economic strength if given a fair opportunity to do so.

We look forward to the consideration of policy makers on the matters outlined herein and stand ready to support our island’s socioeconomic growth and development through trade facilitation.

Yours sincerely PAUL COLLYMORE NOORANI M AZEEZ President Chief Executive Officer

CC: Honorable Prime Minister, Philip J Pierre

Honorable Minister for Tourism, Investment, Creative Industries, Culture and Information, Dr. Ernest Hilaire

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