By Kieron Murdoch
Predictions for the first quarter of the new year’s economy are not much different from what has become the norm – volatility in tourism, public spending on a tight budget, inflation, and a business sector primarily concerned with survival rather than growth and expansion.
That was the view of four persons who joined Observer Radio’s The Big Issues on Sunday afternoon to share their perspectives on whether the 2022’s first few months might net any significant uptick in economic activity, especially with the state of emergency having been called off last month.
Noted businessman Patrick Ryan, who is Managing Director of George W Bennet Bryson and Company Limited, said: “Right now, I think that we are all in survival mode”. He said the recovery following the relaxation of restrictions in the last quarter of 2021 has been promising, however. Yet, he cautioned that “uncertainty” was preventing many businesses from taking serious risks with investing.
Executive Chairman of the Antigua Hotels and Tourism Authority (AHTA), Vernon Jeffers admitted that recently, there was a period in which the pace of cancellations was greater than the pace of new bookings, but he added that this trend had tempered, so as not to outpace bookings.
“Whereas for January and February, many hotels were anticipating occupancy of between 80 to 90 percent, we see right across the board persons reporting 10 to 15 percent of their bookings being cancelled and this translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars of could-be revenue lost to cancellation,” Jeffers remarked.
Economist and statistician Petra Williams, who was also on the panel on Sunday, hedged the performance of the economy in the first few months of the year on the Covid-19 situation, particularly as the case numbers continue to rise. But she warned that a reimposition of the now customary anti-transmission restrictions would dampen any hopes of continued recovery.
“I’m not seeing the gloom unless we go into another lockdown. I think we have to find ways to live with Covid,” Williams said, as she expressed a greater level of optimism that others. She suggested that construction grew in 2021 and was likely to continue to buoy the economy along with sustained performance in the tourism sector. She did warn that prices are likely to remain higher and perhaps even increase somewhat.
However, retired banker and former revenue reform manager Everett Christian was focused on the impact of the current uptick in Covid infections.
“Unless we are able to bring the numbers under control I’m not too optimistic about the nest three months,” he remarked.
On the issue of Social Security Scheme payout delays, Christian was “not overly optimistic of a significant improvement” though he said he hoped that the situation would not deteriorate. He also discussed the potential of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to contribute to the economy at this time. SEZs have been a current topic in the national media since the approval of a new such SEZ called the Western Imperial SEZ (WISEZ).
“To put it bluntly, it’s a waste of time. You’re’ giving away everything so you’re undermining the revenue base. You’re also not creating employment in the zones. Even if they get off the ground, I don’t think they will provide the sort of opportunities that we are looking for,” he said.
On Sunday, January 2, on The Big Issues, Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Lennox Weston defended SEZs, saying that while they are a gamble, attempting them is worth the sacrifice in terms of concessions, given the rewards he argued that they could deliver.