Dyon A. Elliott
Stakeholders worry new CDC rules may slow moderate tourism recovery from last year's 71% decline
As far as tourism sector forecasts go, the United Nations World Tourism Office (UNWTO)’s 2020 outlook estimated three potential scenarios for the fall in international tourism arrivals: a contraction of 58%, 70%, or 78%. The degree of the decline hinged on ‘when’ individual government’s lifted travel-related restrictions; thereby, suggesting that the actual results would vary by jurisdiction.
Preliminary 2020 data from the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) suggests that Belize likely experienced the second scenario (70% decline), as overnight visitors declined by a recorded 71.4% for 2020, a figure that corresponds with the prediction for a fall easing of restrictions.
With COVID-19 testing protocols and other requirements implemented, Belize reopened its airport in October to international travelers, and shortly after the statistics began to demonstrate mild signs of recovery. The tourist arrivals for fourth quarter 2020 inched up from 3,179 to 9,213— representing a 180% increase.
Nevertheless, as promising as the numbers may seem, they only reflect between 12% and 16.5% of the arrivals observed for that same period in 2019.
Therefore, it is not very surprising that the country’s hotel occupancy rate has likewise plummeted, with estimates for November 2020 coming in at 5.4%, a rate noticeably below Caribbean comparators and well below Belize's near 40% average the year before. According to STR, regional occupancy rates—which hovered around 70% in February before plunging to roughly 10% in April—have inched up to just below 25% in October. When viewed by individual jurisdictions, STR data shows that Bahamas and Cayman Islands’ rates were slightly below 14%, while countries like Saint Lucia and Curacao were closer to 40% occupancy.
It is within this context that the United States (US)’s Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s new testing protocols for travelers to their shores have been announced. A release from the US government informs that as of January 26th, the CDC “will require all air passengers entering the United States (including U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents) to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three calendar days of departure, or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days.” The CDC places the duty on the airlines to “confirm the negative test result or proof of recent recovery” for their passengers “prior to boarding,” with passengers potentially being denied boarding should they fail to provide the requested documents.
Given the 72-hour timeframe, it is quite likely that travelers would rely on the more expensive private-sector facilities to administer the tests; thereby, adding additional cost considerations that may influence travel decisions. Clearly, at the time of writing, the measure has not yet come into force; as a result, it is yet to be seen the degree to which it would slow the modest recovery that commenced late 2020.
Clearly in an effort to get ahead of any negative fallout from the announcement, the BTB issued a January 13th release confirming that “testing will be expanded and made available to all passengers departing Belize for the U.S.” At the time of the statement, the BTB was not able to detail the “cost and testing locations across the country” as those are still “being determined”. The communiqué, however, goes on to advise individuals “who plan to visit Belize” to “proceed with their travel plans.”
The CDC measure is a significant cause for concern for local stakeholders as roughly 60% to 70% of tourists to Belize hail from the United States. Since the reopening of the airport, American travelers have accounted for approximately 60%, 71%, and about 82% of total arrivals for the last three months in 2020, respectively.