Tourism as we knew it before COVID–19 has changed, and to beat the challenges brought by the virus to our island and the tourism sector, we ALL must, from now on, build alliances and collaborate in many fronts, in addition to fighting the pandemic.
COVID–19 has been a unique experience and has shaken all areas, with the 80,000 employees in hospitality and 17 associated industries, by far having been the most affected. At the end of August, over 80 percent of hotel and casino employees were furloughed or laid off.
Most certainly, during the past 50 years, Puerto Rico has faced tough times and reemerged to succeed. We have bravely dealt with economic downturns, Zika, hurricanes, earthquakes and government bankruptcy. 2019 was a strong year for tourism and at the beginning of 2020, tourism was growing and creating new jobs.
However, no prior emergency has crippled the tourism sector so badly, and there are powerful reasons for it. COVID–19 has dealt an unprecedented blow to most businesses globally, disrupting our lives and bringing the world’s economy down to its knees. Various studies reflect that a recovery in worldwide travel and tourism may take up to three years.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico may be set for a faster recovery in tourism. New technologies and better health education and awareness have motivated world travelers and families to prefer natural attractions, ecotourism, beaches and outdoor activities for vacation and work. Recent surveys and travel experts indicate that people will be looking for comfortable, safe and healthy locations closer to home; that these expectations will be better fulfilled by destinations and lodgings with a proven quality system and a culture of superior service. Puerto Rico offers these experiences and maintains a good air access to the U.S., one of the largest travelers’ market.
While Puerto Rico may become a desirable destination, our reality is that in the process of dealing with the pandemic, many hospitality businesses have been deeply hurt, key attractions damaged and most national forests, parks and wildlife sanctuaries have been closed for months. Reopening requires a coordinated and collective effort. To overcome these challenges, our tourism leaders must build multiple alliances and work in strong collaboration with our DMO, the hotel industry, restaurateurs, farmers, financial institutions, service suppliers, chambers of commerce, government, municipalities, academia and others, on three priorities.
First, our DMO must bring together key business leaders to implement a viable recovery plan for the tourism sector, while the Tourism Company aligns other governmental agencies to drive product development, and ensure product quality and compliance. We should focus on restarting our core strategic assets along with the endorsed and COVID-19 certified operators and attractions, as a first step. All others will follow.
Second, we must focus on organizational sustainability. Considering the negative effect of climate change in many of our key natural and historic assets, sustainability must become a top priority for every business involved in tourism. In addition to new standards brought by COVID-19, the hospitality industry shall collaborate with other professional and trade organizations to effectively create a business ecosystem that supports life and provides the resources for socioeconomic progress. COVID–19 moved us to a survival mode, causing a backlash in our green practices.
Third, while travel ramps up, our destination hotels will continue to suffer from excess capacity; therefore, a rescue plan to protect our strategic properties is also needed. Consider that for every job we create in a hotel, three to five additional jobs are created in support industries.
The window of opportunity is short and there is no way that we, as tourism leaders, will be able to restart the sector and effectively address these priorities alone. We must build alliances and collaborate with everyone that has a stake on tourism. The time is NOW.