In 2020, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the rest of the Caribbean region were wary of allowing tourists to enter because they were bringing COVID-19 into the region.
Now, those same tourists, having been vaccinated against the virus, are wary of coming to the region because of the low vaccination rate, says Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves.
“We have been able to argue in the past that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is safe in terms of crime, it’s safe in terms of other types of disease, you can walk at night, you can leave your car open and these sorts of things. But we will not be able to argue honestly, currently, that we are safe in terms of COVID and it is going to be a disadvantage until we address it. It is as simple as that,” Gonsalves said on WE FM on Sunday.
Speaking on Issue at Hand, the finance minister spoke of the protocols that Minister of Tourism Carlos James and his team has put in place so that cruise ships would feel comfortable coming to SVG.
“Because the last thing a cruise ship wants — remember all the bad press that cruise ships got at the beginning of COVID, ‘these floating ships full of COVID passengers’ — is to leave port with all their passengers COVID negative and have one of their passengers pick up COVID on a trip and spread it at the buffet table on the cruise ship. They don’t want that.”
Highlighting the importance of vaccination, the minister spoke of the impact of the pandemic on visitor arrivals to the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union since the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that for the first six months of 2019, the OECS received 3 million visitors and made EC$3.5 billion from these visitors.
In 2020, during the same period, it was 1.6 million visitors.
“And this year, for the first six months of the year, we received 164,000 visitors. That is across the whole Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States… You are going for $3.5 billion to less than $1 billion. It is devastating… the impact of COVID in the region.”
Gonsalves said that the more tourism-dependent countries in the region saw economic decline of 20% and 25% in one year.
“Never in the history of these countries’ existence have they shrunk that far that fast and now, as the world begins to reopen, the thing that stands between us and recovery is COVID.
“A few months ago, we were worried, we in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we in St. Lucia, we in Antigua, we in Grenada, we were worried about welcoming them because they are the ones who had COVID — the foreigner.
“‘Why are we letting them in?’ ‘We have to lock down.’ ‘We have to keep them out.’ ‘We have to test them.’ ‘We have to quarantine them.’ ‘Lock them away for two weeks’ and all these kinds of things because we were worried about them coming to us. ‘What are they bringing?’ The situation is completely reversed now.
“They are worried about coming to us because they are coming from countries that are 70 and 80% vaccinated. They are coming from places where they have received two shots and a booster and they are coming to countries now where the vaccination rate is low and the infection rate is high and the uncertainty is great.”
The minister said that if he as a tourist in England and the United States knows that they were in lockdown when the vaccine rate was 20%, “Why would I leave my country where the vaccine rate is 80% and come to a country where the vaccine rate is 20%?
“So they would begin to differentiate where they go based on how safe that country is.”
He said that countries and hotels will have to be marketing themselves by telling potential visitors that it is safe to visit.
“‘It is safe for you to bring your children here. You will come, you will get a memory, you will get a photograph but you won’t get COVID.’
“That is what we have to tell them. And the fact of the matter is that as of today, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is in one of the worst positions to make that argument because, regionally, we have simply not done as well as our neighbours in getting vaccinated.
“If you look at the top of the chain you have places like the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, the BVI, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados. They have done well in getting people vaccinated. And at the bottom of the chain, you have Haiti, you have Jamaica, you have St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the finance minister said.
He said that when people want to take their children on vacation they are going to make an evaluation about how safe the place is.
The finance minister said that because of the vaccination rate, tourists will visit in bubbles, where everyone is vaccinated.
“… because the tourist is going to be carried in his little vaccinated bubble from the ship to a particular venue, enjoy themselves and be taken back home, they are not going to be encountering the craftsman on the roadside, they’re not going to buy coconut water from a vendor. They’re not going to do any of that because they can’t be sure that people are vaccinated. And we have to, if we are going to have tourism work in this country, we’re going to have to up the vaccination rates because otherwise we are just going to be lagging far behind everybody else.”
He said that other countries that are tourism-dependent such as Antigua, St. Lucia, Grenada, are going to be redoubling and tripling their efforts to make tourism feel comfortable again in their country.
“We are going to be at a significant disadvantage if we can’t say, like they can, that we are approaching herd immunity, that all of our tourism workers are vaccinated, that 50, 60, 70, 80% of our population is vaccinated.
“If we can’t make that argument, we are going to delay the type of recovery that tourism can help us with going forward. And what you’ll notice from those countries, they plummeted when COVID came and they shut down. When they reopen, they will rise back up quickly. We will only rise back up quickly as well after COVID and a volcano if we can get people accounted for. There is simply no other way around that problem.”
He said that while face masks and hand sanitisers are important, the measure that tourists, airlines and cruise ships will look at is the vaccination rate.
“A year ago, they were the problem, they were bringing COVID. Today, we are the problem. They have addressed their problem by getting vaccinated. We have to do the same. It is just that simple and all the other arguments will melt away when you realise that if you want a tourism economy in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, if you want tourism to play a part in the economy, people have to get vaccinated,” Gonsalves said.