By Shermain Bique-Charles
A new tourism industry report is painting a gloomy picture about the country’s economic bread basket as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy.
The Destination Performance/Occupancy and Airlift report, released yesterday by the Antigua Barbuda Hotels & Tourism Association (ABHTA), suggests jobs for the sector’s thousands of workers remain at risk.
The study, which assesses Covid-19’s impact on the country’s tourism sector, revealed that passenger arrivals in August 2020 were down by 73 percent compared to August last year.
This follows strong occupancy figures seen in January and February 2020 which signalled a turnaround from the effects of hurricanes and invasive sargassum seaweed for Antigua and Barbuda, after six years of intensive staff training and capital expenditures by the association’s members.
Looking ahead to 2021, occupancy projections predict a struggle to break 50 percent through April 2021, based on a data sample of eight ABHTA member properties.
“The reduction in airlift, disrupted booking patterns, breakeven points for resorts and business and a cap on guest numbers to adhere to new health and safety standards are just a few contributing factors,” the report states.
Since Antigua and Barbuda reopened its borders on June 1, the report shows that 14 hotels – accounting for 874 rooms and 28 percent of the room stock – have so far begun welcoming back guests.
An additional 16 hotels are expected to reopen in October through December, totalling 1,497 rooms and 48 percent of the room inventory.
According to the report, the average room occupancy was 37.5 percent in August 2020 based on the 12 properties reopened at the time.
Airlift arrivals projections indicate a 43 percent decline in seats at the start of the 2021 winter season.
“There were an average 7,692 airline seats weekly in 2019 compared to an estimated 4,361 weekly seats October through December 2020. Antigua and Barbuda saw passenger arrivals of 4,002 in July and 4,761 in August 2020, a decline of 83 percent and 72 percent respectively over 2019,” the report said.
ABHTA chairman Vernon Jeffers Snr said the sector is not expected to see an overall turnaround this year – or even next year – given the many variables such as consumer confidence, virus curve fluctuations and the availability of vaccines.
But, he said, for those intrepid travellers ready for a change of scenery the new normal for travel seems to slowly be taking hold.
“The once daunting protocol of pre-testing has become a familiar requirement and available airlift less of an obstacle, while our Antigua and Barbuda health and cleanliness certification programme lets guests know they can place their trust in our member accommodations, restaurants, tours and retail shops,” he added.
The ABHTA is also envisaging that travellers ready to book now won’t visit until the first quarter of next year with the winter season occupancy levels expected to reach 50 percent at the highest, while growth to reach 2019 rates will take two to three years.
The country’s borders were closed and a state of emergency declared in late March, forcing resorts and tour operators to close their doors and layoff staff.
Based on data from the ABHTA, members have terminated around 1,500 of their former 5,500 employees, paying out more than EC$18 million in severance.
Meanwhile, industry bosses continue to prepare for the upcoming season – and Tourism Minister Charles Max Fernandez offered a more upbeat stance. He said officials are cautiously optimistic that with arrivals steadily increasing each month since the destination’s re-opening, the moderate upward trend will continue into the traditionally busy tourism period.
The country received 94,810 stay-over visitors for the first eight months of 2020.
Last month, the destination received 4,761 visitors – two-thirds of whom were from the US, and just over one in five from the UK. Seven percent were from the Caribbean and three percent from Canada.
Fernandez admitted it would not be “business as normal” going forward with visitors required to show negative PCR tests, and adhere to other Covid-related protocols while in the country. He acknowledged this would affect some businesses and could mean reduced hotel occupancy levels.
Presently American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, British Airways, Caribbean Airlines, InterCaribbean and Winair are operating flights into Antigua. And in the next few months, Antigua and Barbuda will welcome Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, and Sunwing.