If the authorities in government had known that six months after we locked down the country we would be in the dire straits we are in now, earning little and slipping deeper into debt every day, they might have approached the pandemic differently.
On March 28, 2020, Mr. Bill Lindo, in the article “The end of an era”, published in the Amandala, wrote: “The tourism section of our economy is finished. No tourists will return to this country for two or more years. This will cause about 25,000 persons to need some income… ask Taiwan for 1% interest loans to buy machinery from them so we can create lots of small businesses to employ those who used to work in tourism.”
At the end of July the government presented an economic recovery strategy which listed all that had been done and was being done to help those thousands of Belizeans who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and outlined a path for the future. The authorities weren’t contemplating that it might be all of two years before we returned to pre-COVID-19 days, for much hinged on a quick return of the tourists.
The countries where many of the people who have the cash to travel live, are not that hopeful about a quick recovery of the tourism industry.
The biggest outbreaks of the disease were on cruise ships, and ships around the world have been on a no-sail order for many months now. Public health officials in the US want to extend the no-sail ban in that country at least into the first quarter of 2021, but the US government is reportedly insisting that the ban isn’t extended beyond October 31. Many see that as wildly hopeful, or political. The base of the cruise tourism industry is in Florida, and many feel the present government is just seeking votes for their upcoming presidential election.
Expert opinion is that tourism will not be robust again until an effective vaccine is found, and the scientists in the developed world are saying that even if such a vaccine is available later this year, it will take at least until the middle of next year for it to begin to have a significant impact on the spread of COVID-19.
Some economists in the developed countries are projecting that their economies won’t be back to normal until 2023. That is not good news for cruise tourism; several in the industry have lost hope that many of these giant floating hotels will be back on the oceans very soon. A recent story on Reuters said that business is booming in the dockyards in Turkey as giant cruise ships from Britain, Italy and the United States are grounded and dismantled for scrap metal.
Twice our government made moves to restart the tourism industry, and had to abort plans, but on October 1, six months after the authorities closed down the country to snuff out the first wave of cases of COVID-19, the country reopened to tourists. In regards to this our third attempt, five days after the reopening, so far so good. We really have to keep our fingers crossed. Living with COVID-19 is day to day; things are bad, and if we are careless or too aggressive, it could quickly get worse.
Our country was free of any new cases of the disease for 53 days, when on June 5 we recorded our 19th case. For the entire month of June our medical authorities, aided by a state of emergency that extended to the end of the month, maintained control of the disease, and then August came and all fell down. The authorities insist that it was border jumpers in the north of the country who were responsible for all falling down in August, but there is widespread belief that it was failure on the part of the government, their corruption and lack of transparency, that led us to the difficult position we are in now.
Mystery surrounds a plane or planes that brought in private visitors to San Pedro around mid-July. In early August there was an explosion of cases on the island, and hundreds of workers on the island were allowed to return to their homes in other parts of the country without getting tested. Ever since then the country has been in the grip of the pandemic, with an average of more than 230 cases per week.
There are things we cannot control, but we can keep COVID-19 cases down. Our efforts to earn our keep exposes us to the disease, so some of us will catch it, but if we all do our best we will keep infections down, and that will be good for our physical health and make us more attractive to tourists.
The October 1 reopening of the PGIA is a big story for us, but nobody really believes that the industry will be a big money-earner any time soon. We are happy about getting a few slices off the loaf, because in these terrible economic times every penny counts.
The other big story for us is what we’re doing while we wait for the tourists to return. Maybe we were expecting too much of a government that was just holding on until the next general election.
In the six months since the pandemic took over our world, there has not been one major initiative aimed at creating new wealth for the country. Instead of us giving more support to small farmers and investing in the machinery to help us process our fruits and vegetables and peanuts and potatoes and fish and livestock, we just doggedly kept on the course we were on before the pandemic, and borrowed money to keep our economy afloat while we waited for the tourists.
The days are dragging out for us, getting tougher in Belize. The pressure is immense. We were under economic stress before the pandemic, mired in a recession, and more and more of us are now falling into poverty. The ruling party is making it as easy as possible for its followers, ensuring that they get their share of whatever the government has, but for most of those lucky ones the times are very tough too.
Belize desperately needs to prepare for the many months ahead during which tourism will be contributing little or, God forbid, nothing to our economy. We need to create lots of small businesses while we wait for the return of the tourists.