Trouble in Paradise: For Battling Caribbean Islands, A Prayer For The Return Of Canadian Tourists

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Glenda’s voice fails as she remembers the day her son was fired from his airline job and her taxi business closed.

“I was shocked, stunned. I didn’t know what to do, ”recalls the woman who lives on the island of Antigua.

Since then, it’s been a struggle for Glenda and her family to survive since March 2020 when COVID-19 restricted tourism to the island paradise. Her son, who worked for the Caribbean airline LIAT, has a newborn baby. And now nobody works in the family.

“We had to limit our food intake and cut down on snacks,” she says. Glenda, who does not want to be identified for privacy reasons, has used up his savings and has been brought to justice by creditors. “I pray a lot every day for grace that will bring me to another day.”

Glenda is also praying for Canadians to return, according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund that showed average incomes in Caribbean countries have fallen by as much as 20 percent. “We miss the Canadians and we long for them to come back.”

Caribbean islands need Canadian tourists to avoid economic devastation. Many, like Antigua, are more than 60 percent dependent on tourism, with Canadians making up 18 percent of foreign visitors.

The tiny islands of St. Lucia, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis were encouraged by the global community to become independent in the 1960s, 1970s and 80s, with economic support assured.

The chairman of the St. Lucia Tourist Office, Thaddeus Antoine, left, and the Minister of Tourism, Dr.  Ernest Hilaire welcomed Air Canada Rouge's first flight in almost a year last month.

Now the land of sun and turquoise water is facing poverty and staggering unemployment rates of more than 25 percent.

“There is a great friendship between Canadians and St. Lucians and we need them to come back,” says David Vigier, a tour guide whose business has dropped to a tenth of his pre-pandemic income. Although Vigier found other sources of income in retail, he still lives “dollar to dollar”.

Saint Lucians celebrated the return of Air Canada Rouge in the first week of October, nine months after the Canadian government canceled all flights to the Caribbean.

“It was a great pleasure to return,” says Priscillus Simeon, owner of Saint Lucia Airport Taxi.

Shamoi Richards, a director of the Antigua and Barbuda Marketing Authority, says the first flight from Canada arrived last month, but things have been a little slow. "Canada is the last country to return."

Air Canada Rouge flights will also help farmers export produce to Canada, says Geraine Georges, PR manager for Saint Lucia Tourism Board. The first return flight brought 1,150 kilograms of fresh produce to Toronto.

Without support, the Caribbean micro-states will lack the critical mass of land, labor and capital they need to survive economically. The average population is between 100,000 and 300,000 inhabitants. Land area and GDP are among the smallest members of the United Nations. The islands’ remoteness also makes them vulnerable. Other small countries, such as Singapore and Liechtenstein, have natural harbors or are strategically located so that they are integrated into larger economic areas.

Vulnerable island governments, including those of Antigua and Barbuda, do not have the funds to support the unemployed during the pandemic, says Shamoi Richards, director of the Antigua and Barbuda marketing agency.

“Many households were completely unemployed” and struggled to support themselves, says Richards. The government distributed food packages and seeds to help Antiguans and Barbudans grow their own food.

The small size of the Caribbean states also means that entire nations are affected by natural disasters.

The force of the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in St. Vincent last April blew up the country’s already fragile economy.

The volcano covered much of the island with heavy ash, damaged buildings, cut off water supplies and displaced nearly 20 percent of the population, according to press releases from the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The few tourists who risked COVID-19 to enjoy the island had to be evacuated.

Alana Bibby Clouden's house is 50 kilometers from La Soufrier volcano, but it was still covered with ten centimeters of ash.

Even though Alana Bibby Clouden’s house is 50 kilometers from the volcano, it was still covered with ten to five inches of ash.

“The ashes burned our eyes and there was dust in the air for four months,” says Bibby Clouden. She raised money and prepared food for people, including school children, who lived in shelters every day for three months.

The volcanic ash from St. Vincent also blew onto neighboring Barbados, devastating an already ailing tourism sector.

“Ashes covered streets and areas for months,” says Jacob Weatherhead, operations manager of the Sugar Cane Club Hotel in Barbados.

The view from Alana Bibby Clouden's house of the explosion of La Soufriere volcano on the island of St. Vincent.  The outbreak last April displaced their economy, already suffering from the pandemic, and displaced nearly 20 percent of the population.

The volcanic ash was a tough turn for Barbados, which had pursued innovative strategies to keep tourism afloat, but ultimately failed. The island introduced tests and quarantines for travelers at the start of the pandemic and has been able to keep COVID-19 cases down. And the Welcome Stamp program, which encouraged foreigners to work remotely from Barbados during the lockdown, made loud noise. more than 700 families Barbados today.

But paradise was shaken on New Years Eve 2020 when lax pandemic controls led to a surge in cases. Many visitors broke the rules – a notorious example, Zara Holland, a former Miss Great Britain and contestant on a reality show Island of love. According to local media reports, Holland and his partner Elliott Love removed the red warning bracelets they received after Love tested positive for COVID-19 and was arrested on a flight back to London. Cases soared in January on the island, and the country returned to a strict lockdown in early February, according to the Barbados Government Information Service.

The ash fallout from a volcanic eruption in St. Vincent only made the life of an already ailing nation worse.  Neighboring Barbados also struggled for months with the cloud shattering an already flagging tourism industry.

Antigua and Barbuda have also learned that COVID-19 bubbles are fragile and have issued a vaccination mandate for private and public sector workers to encourage tourists to return to Antigua on the first flight from Toronto to Antigua, which finally arrives this month.

“The Canadian market has been a little slow (compared to the United States and the UK),” says Richards. “Canada is the last country to return.”

But with fewer than half of Antigua and Barbuda’s residents fully vaccinated, Canadians may not be rushing for tickets to Paradise anytime soon.

Health officials across the islands are struggling to overcome hesitation about vaccines. Full vaccination rates are only 42 percent in Barbados, 21 percent in St. Lucia and 14 percent in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Hotels make their own trips to vaccinate employees in St. Lucia, says Geraine Georges. “Some hotels report 100 percent vaccination rates, others 75 percent, and the journeys continue.”

Glenda only had $ 39 left in her bank account, but now she sees a glimmer of a brighter future. Your taxi starts rolling again. And her son was called back next week to work for the airline. She is confident that Canadians will use their taxi service again.

“Canadians are comfortable. I love dealing with them, ”she says. “I will pray that the doors will open and the Canadians will come back.”

Katharinensee Berz is a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto with a focus on refugees, public order and social enterprise. She wrote her master’s thesis at Cambridge University on the Eastern Caribbean economy.


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