Save tourism!

THERE are concerns that Jamaica could be losing out on the tourism market due to a lag in the vaccination of tourism workers behind other Caribbean destinations, where significant take-up in those populations has led to relaxed measures and an influx of visitors.

So far, 5,729 workers in the local tourism sector have got the jab. This is out of the 170,000 who are directly employed in the sector.

When the Ministry of Health and Wellness initiated its second vaccination blitz in April, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) Clifton Reader welcomed the move to include tourism workers in the categories of those eligible for the jab. He estimated at the time that the sector could turn out about 15,000 workers for the blitz.

According to Reader, with North America moving quickly to vaccinate its population, visitors will want to travel again, but were expected to favour destinations which have a high vaccine take-up.

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism Jennifer Griffith emphasised during a sitting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) yesterday that this was not due to lack of interest, but that there was a general supply factor as well. She noted, too, that only about half of the 170,000 workers are currently engaged.

PAAC Chairman Mikael Phillips pointed to relaxed measures that are now in place in jurisdictions such as The Bahamas, where there are higher levels of vaccination.

“We are not a standalone destination. There is competition within the region, where there is a higher take-up than we have now,” he said.

Director of Tourism Donovan White, however, assured that there is more willingness now among the workers to take the vaccine.

“There is an improved sentiment among workers [about] the next opportunity that vaccines become available for them. There is a level of anticipation for when that will be,” he said.

For the months of April and May 2020 there was virtually no activity in the major areas of the tourism sector. This led to a reduction in revenue for tourism operators and entities that supply the industry, and widespread job losses.

With the reopening of borders in June, the country saw more than 1.3 million visitors in total for the year, a 68 per cent reduction compared to 2019. There was also a 64 per cent decline in foreign exchange earnings.

The situation has been improving, White said, with a consistent level of confidence in destination Jamaica by airline partners. He said JetBlue, for example, had opened two new gateways — its only new gateways out of the US for the summer — to Jamaica.

He also advised that 890,000 seats have been confirmed up to August from that market, compared to 945,000 for summer 2019; and 175,000 from the United Kingdom for the summer, and winter seasons, respectively.

White said room occupancy levels are now at about 50 to 60 per cent of 2019 levels, booked through the summer. He added that business was also looking up in the European markets outside of the UK, with up to four new gateways anticipated in 2022 from negotiations which are still at the infancy stage.

The tourism director added that, despite the severe hit to the sector by the novel coronavirus pandemic, instead of buckling, tourism was being sustained through innovation in marketing, such as online family trips, virtual tours of Jamaica, and virtual weddings.

“What we have done in the last year is to truly allow Jamaica to take its rightful place as a leader in the tourism destination marketing by ensuring that we engage early, stay engaged, and continually engage and use technology to ensure that we penetrated at all levels of the trade,” he stated.

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