The Covid-19 pandemic has had a greater impact on tourism and travel than any other disease outbreak in recent history. For the Caribbean, where tourism represents an important share of the region’s GDP, the effects of the pandemic-induced crisis has been particularly significant.
As questions on the future of tourism are raised, Nearshore Americas spoke to Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Edmund Bartlett. The minister spoke on tourism’s sustainability and addressed the calls for Caribbean countries to diversify their economies.
Minister Bartlett is recognized as one of the world’s foremost tourism ministers, with past experience as a policymaker in both Jamaica’s House of Representatives and the Senate.
He currently chairs both the Board of Affiliate Members of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre at the University of the West Indies, Mona. A leader with a track record of building partnership across industries, Minister Bartlett also explained the relevance of other economic activities including BPOS, and the need for the region to take advantage of the ongoing global digital transformation.
NSAM: The Covid-19 pandemic destroyed the global tourism. Jamaica’s tourism industry was not spared. How is Jamaica looking into innovative solutions to attract tourists to return to the island in a safe and monitored manner?
Minister Bartlett: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a literal reorganization and reimagining of so many different processes within the tourism industry. One of these things has to do with protocols such those around social distancing, mask wearing or sanitization.
These issues present a new landscape for tourism in the country. To face this, we have developed a system of accreditation for properties, businesses and stakeholder involved in the tourism industry. Now all properties have to be Covid-certified, which guarantees its compliance with new established protocols. That process includes making investments in infrastructure to facilitate compliance.
We are looking at how best to use technology to avoid physical contact and large gatherings of people. We need to look at touchless equipment and payment systems to avoid the use of paper and to prevent long lines.
We also reviewed the airports and how we engage travellers. An area of focus on borders, where we want to enable the tracking and tracing of everybody who enters the country. Local transportation and population density are other areas we are looking at.
The Covid-19 pandemic created a new configuration and totally new architecture for tourism, and Jamaica is adapting to it.
NSAM: What is the role of ‘vaccine passports’ in the future of Jamaica’s tourism industry?
Minister Bartlett: Vaccine passports could be a major global sanitary tool. So far, the world’s primary prevention mechanism has been vaccines. We believe that the extent to which we’re able to vaccinate our population and the extent to which our source markets are vaccinated will go a long way in enabling travel and the movement of people to our shores. It would be useful to have a globally-aligned system that everyone can understand and subscribe to as a tool to facilitate entry into countries and vaccine passports could be the answer to this.
The link between BPO and tourism is very clear and those countries that have a very strong hospitality and tourism industry tend to be favored for BPO locations
The problem we have now is the availability of the vaccines because their distribution has been very one-sided. Most countries have not yet had a first dose, and so requiring vaccination to enter Jamaica would, at this time, be to discriminate against a large number of people and would reduce the flow of visitors to various destinations.
There is not an immediate plan to implement vaccine passports in Jamaica but we are exploring the global situation. We may take a closer look in the near future. Our largest source market, the U.S., is vaccinating rapidly and could likely become the most vaccinated country in the world before the end of this year. It might be that the requirement of a vaccine passport for US citizens coming to Jamaica might be useful but I don’t think that we could make that a broad requirement for all countries.
NSAM: What is your perspective of ‘digital nomadism’ as a more intimate form of tourism?
Minister Bartlett: The concept of the digital nomad is an exciting one for some but I don’t think it is one that many countries can embrace partly because it presupposes adding large numbers of visitors to a population.
Tourists usually stay for days or weeks; very few for months. Once tourists stay for extended periods, the responsibility of the wellbeing of those individuals, including the security, healthcare, transportation, physical infrastructure and so on, passes to the state. They become the country’s responsibility and then issues related to work permits or double taxation treaties emerge. It’s a complicated matter that needs careful study. I think it has potential and it can work well, though is perhaps better suited to smaller countries where the population density is low but resources are good.
Another matter for digital nomads is broadband availability. For many of the smaller countries where tourism is a big part of their economies, there isn’t that sort of easy availability.
NSAM: Has the pandemic shone a light on Jamaica’s overreliance on tourism and has it been a moment of reckoning in terms of the susceptibility of the industry?
Minister Bartlett: This is a question in the minds of some of the regional leaders at the moment and I understand why. The industry is vulnerable to various exogenous shocks. The pandemic and its financial impact can now be added to other concerns the industry must face, like hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanos. However, tourism is extremely resilient and it has a capacity to bounce back fast.
The concept of the digital nomad is an exciting one for some but I don’t think it is one that many countries can embrace
People will always want to travel so tourism can accommodate and facilitate it through a series of experiences that are developed alongside other industries. My opinion is that the more diversification there is in a country the more tourism there will be. People travel to fulfill their passions, so the more experiences a country has to offer the more people will travel to consume those experiences.
NSAM: What is Jamaica’s approach to facilitate continuity in industries directly impacted by travel restrictions, such as BPO, a major provider of jobs in Jamaica?
Minister Bartlett: Interestingly, the link between BPO and tourism is very clear and those countries that have a very strong hospitality and tourism industry tend to be favored for BPO locations because the infrastructure facilitates transportation and movement. Jamaica has this and is well located, so we think that BPOs have a future. But we would want to see a transition to software development and a situation where the more technical components of the sector are brought to bear here.
The pandemic and its financial impact can now be added to other concerns the tourism industry must face, like hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanos
Certainly, I don’t think the future of Jamaican employment should be predicated on the most basic activities at BPOs. If an industry only provides access to low-level employment and low salary levels then the value added to the economy is minimal. What we’re looking for is innovation and movement to the higher areas where the added value is greater. We want to see higher skill levels being embraced by the BPO sector.
The other issue with BPO is that it is not really foreign direct investment, because it doesn’t generate foreign exchange. What it does, however, is provide jobs. But if the job level is not elevated then the value overtime is low.
NSAM: You have been active in improving education in Jamaica. What is is your vision for the retraining of the workforce as way to stay competitive and secure talent supply after the pandemic?
Minister Bartlett: We are entering an age of knowledge and the economy is going to evolve around the Internet of Things, knowledge and ideas. We are investing in education to incentivize creativity and innovation. Innovation is key because the ability to add value to what we have will make the difference in terms of the development of our economy.
We want to see higher skill levels being embraced by the BPO sector
The government is very interested in developing certain academies that will train and build the capacity of people to think and innovate and to add value. The knowledge economy is with us and all investment in training and upscaling of skills is welcome. One of the concerns we have is arriving at the understanding of how to apply knowledge and how to convert knowledge it into a something material. This is a major part of the training that is really necessary.
NSAM: Low levels of accessibility to the internet limit how much small nations can take advantage of the opportunities that the online world offers during the lockdown. How should a country like Jamaica attract and leverage investment in ICT infrastructure to boost its tourism sector while expanding its knowledge service exports?
Minister Bartlett: I think we need to go back to the discussion of the internet of things and all its implications. In fact, we’re developing new types of digital applications for transacting business, using cryptocurrencies, blockchain and the kind of technologies that enable digital payments.
We are investing in education to incentivize creativity and innovation
We’re also looking into expanding the tourism sectors’ access to markets through digital channels. The virtual platforms that emerged during the pandemic have become very useful and will continue to be so.
Small countries like ours are having trouble developing these systems and are therefore disadvantaged. But the good news is that if we develop the capacity, we’ll have equal access to the equity and transparency that digital platforms provide. They allow you to make business with anyone anywhere in the world, independently of class, race, creed or political orientation.