Empty Hotels. Idled Tour Buses. The Pandemic Is Devastating Tourism.
MEXICO CITY — There were major hurricanes, and the global financial crisis of 2008. There was 9/11, and an array of regional health scares, from SARS to Zika.
But during the decades that he’s been involved in the tourism business in the Caribbean island nation of Sint Maarten, Emil Lee has never seen anything remotely like the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A switch got flipped,” said Mr. Lee, whose family manages a hotel on Sint Maarten, which shares a 34-square-mile island with the French territory Saint-Martin. “And now there’s no tourism.”
The global travel and tourism industry is in peril.
Layoffs in the sector are mounting at the stunning rate of one million jobs a day, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry group based in London, with as many as 75 million jobs at “immediate risk.” The industry could lose as much as $2.1 trillion in business by the end of the year, the council said.
Borders have been shut, planes idled, cruise ships docked, tour buses parked and hotels, restaurants, bars, theaters and museums shuttered. Tourist sites that only several weeks ago were teeming with visitors are now eerily still.
In the Caribbean, the impact is already being felt particularly deeply. No other region of the world depends so heavily on tourism.
And among the region’s countries and territories, Sint Maarten, a mostly autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, stands out. Tourism accounts for more than 80 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the latest statistics from the World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
At the start of the year, the leaders of the nation’s tourism industry had plenty of reason to be hopeful about the months ahead.
The country, which has a population of about 41,000, had almost regained its balance after being pummeled by Hurricane Irma in 2017. The storm damaged most of the nation’s buildings and crippled the airport, before plowing across the Caribbean and wrecking other islands in its path.
But after two years of energetic rebuilding, Sint Maarten’s tourism sector registered a strong December and January, and officials expected 2020 to be a good year.
Then the pandemic took root and the flow of tourists to the Caribbean and elsewhere dried up.
In mid-March, the government in Sint Maarten started barring visitors from the United States and Europe. A week later, all incoming flights carrying passengers were banned, effectively cutting off the life blood of the local economy.
Hotels on the island now stand empty, save for the odd tourist who decided that remaining in Sint Maarten was preferable to returning home. The once-bustling waterfront is quiet, and the beaches are still.
Restaurants have closed for all but takeout and delivery, nonessential businesses have been ordered shut and there is an overnight curfew.
“We’ve been crunching numbers here, and we’re terrified,” said Lorraine Talmi, board president of the Sint Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association.
Based on a survey of nearly 600 businesses, she said, the group estimates that some 45 percent of the private sector labor force in Sint Maarten will be laid off within three to six months. And that is a best-case scenario.
Many business owners in the tourism industry have few, if any, cash reserves left after burning through savings to pay for rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Irma, Ms. Talmi said.
“It’s a real kick in the teeth,” she said. “We were on the trajectory to get back together, and now that’s not going to be possible.”
Mr. Lee said his family’s 51-unit property, Princess Heights Hotel, which it partly owns, was still open, though mostly dormant. Several state workers from the Netherlands have continued to occupy a handful of units, but the remainder of the hotel’s rooms are dark.
While most hotels in Sint Maarten have been forced to lay off staff, Princess Heights has not. But its workers’ hours have been reduced.
“This is the first time I’ve seen hotels shut down because of lack of business,” said Mr. Lee, a former minister of health, labor and social affairs for Sint Maarten. “Even after Irma we managed to maintain some level of economic activity.”
He thinks the Princess Heights can weather the downturn through the end of the year. “If it goes past Christmas, then you need to look at how you restructure,” he said.
Most businesses in Sint Maarten, however, may not be so fortunate.
“Past four months,” Mr. Lee said, “I don’t know how they’ll survive.”
Similar hardship is sweeping the rest of the Caribbean, and it is made still worse by the unpredictable nature of the crisis.
“With a hurricane, it might damage or destroy a lot of your infrastructure, but it’s an event, and it ends, and you begin the recovery almost immediately,” said Johnson JohnRose, a communications specialist for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, a trade group based in Barbados. “This one — you don’t know when it’s ending.”
Across the region, hotel occupancy has plunged in the past several weeks and is expected to drop nearly to zero by the end of this week, said Frank J. Comito, chief executive and director general of the Miami-based Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.
Some governments are scrambling to help cushion the impact on the tourism sector.
In Jamaica, Edmund Bartlett, the minister of tourism, said the government was planning to support businesses and employees through cash transfers, special grants, loan payment deferrals and new lines of credit.
“We are aware of the challenges and ripple effects of this pandemic as activities grind to a halt and questions surrounding job security arise,” he said.
On Mexico’s Caribbean coast, where scores of hotels have closed and thousands of workers have been laid off, the state government of Quintana Roo has started delivering basic supplies and food baskets to those who recently lost their jobs, said Rafael Ortega Ramírez, president of the chamber of commerce in the resort city of Cancún.
The government and the chamber of commerce are also trying to help workers secure severance packages from their former employers. And Mexico’s federal government is working on its own relief plan, which may provide loans to small businesses in both the formal economy and the informal economy.
“It’s like we had an open faucet from which a massive water stream used to come — and now it has been shut down, and we only have a few drops coming out,” Mr. Ortega said.
In Sint Maarten, some leaders in the tourism sector are floating ideas for securing relief for the community.
Mr. Lee said he hoped the World Bank, which is managing a trust fund for the post-hurricane reconstruction on his island, can speed up disbursements. Others are looking to the government of the Netherlands for a fresh bailout.
But for now, residents are preparing for months of duress and uncertainty.
“You got to hunker down, you got to be fiscally and financially responsible, you got to cut down your expenses to a bare minimum,” said Ricardo Pérez, general manager of the Oyster Bay Beach Resort and the Coral Beach Club.
“Who knows what the industry is going to look like coming out of this?” he said. “Is this a fatal blow? Or is this a blow that will take a long time to come out of?”
Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.