COVID-19 caused an extraordinary crisis for the tourism industry. Tourist arrivals were projected to plunge by 60 to 80 percent in 2020, with tourism spending not likely to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Yet, Dominica is welcoming visitors within strict protocols, moving ahead with new construction in the hotel sector and firming up plans to rebrand the island’s tourism product.
eMAGE speaks with the two ladies leading the charge to find out how they intend to lead the sector to recovery and prosperity.
COVID-19 unleashed devastation on the tourism economy worldwide. Revenue was expected to fall by up to $1.2 trillion in 2020 reducing global gross domestic product by at least 1.5%. In Dominica, tourism officials reported, at the end of 2020, that revenue plunged by approximately $116 million with stay-over visitor arrivals for January to October dipping by 73% compared to the same period, the previous year.
Even more striking, was the direct impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of taxi operators, tour guides, vendors and hotel workers, many still out of a job nine months after the pandemic forced the closure of the country’s borders and effectively shut down all tourism related activity.
Dominica’s top tourism officials say the crisis, though debilitating, presents an opportunity to reassess the country’s tourism product and reset perspectives on the role of the industry in the creation of a resilient economy.
“It has created a new normal which has allowed us to review; re-strategize and retool as we seek to ensure that every visitor to Dominica has a memorable experience which will make them return year after year and share their stories with others. The pandemic allowed us to do a naked analysis of our master plan and refocus on core principles,” says Denise Charles, the second term Member of Parliament, who took up the post of Tourism Minister at the start of 2020.
“It has been devastating on tourism both in the immediate impact in terms of job loss and revenue; and because of the uncertainty it has created. However, we were able to provide fiscal support to persons whose incomes had been negatively affected by the pandemic,” Charles recounts, referring to a Government decision to extend a deadline for tax filing and overdue payments. This decision, as well as the provision of concessional loans at the island’s development bank for small and medium sized businesses impacted by the pandemic, directly benefitted several hotel properties and service providers.
Charles, trained in financial accounting, is the MP for the Soufriere constituency, which boasts the picturesque Scottshead point, overlooking the Soufriere Bay, one of the most popular diving and snorkeling destinations in the Caribbean and part of the Soufriere-Scottshead Marine Reserve. Champagne Beach, a snorkeling hotspot, and a robust nightlife culture in the coastal communities, stretching from Pointe Michel to Scottshead, distinguish the area as a hub for tourism activity.
Her deputy, Chekira Lockhart Hypolite, who has special responsibility for Air and Sea Port Operations, also comes to her role with a background in finance. She served for several years as bursar at the island’s premier tertiary institution, the Dominica State College.
For the two newcomers to the Ministry of Tourism, the pandemic was a baptism by fire.
“We took the helm at a very trying time for the industry but we remain committed to achieving our goals. We are focused, determined and humbled to serve in strengthening this sector that is so critical to economic growth, recognizing the number of lives and livelihoods dependent on sustainable tourism for their daily bread.” Lockhart-Hypolite tells eMAGE.
The reopening of the country’s borders to visitors in August 2020, she says, was a test of the country’s COVID-19 protocols, as authorities sought to protect the health of citizens and simultaneously stimulate activity within the sector.
“The collaboration between tourism and health has been phenomenal. Our country remains in very low risk categories worldwide and received the World Tourism and Travel Council Safe Travels stamp for sound protocols for the containment and management of the pandemic. Dominica remains one of the safest places in the world to visit,” Lockhart-Hypolite boasts.
In July 2020, the Government of Dominica adopted a phased approach to travel by first welcoming nationals wishing to return home. Visitors seeking relaxation, rejuvenation and even a place to work as the pandemic raged on in their home countries, were allowed in from August 2020.
“This allowed us sufficient time to assess our protocols to ensure that the health and safety of nationals and visitors were never compromised. From the reopening of borders in July to date, approximately 4000 persons have arrived in Dominica. Yet, our protocols ensure that we intercept incoming infected persons at the ports and take necessary action to treat and avoid further spread,” Lockhart- Hypolite explains.
In October, the tourism ministry launched the ‘Safe in Nature’ campaign which provides visitors from major tourism markets with five to seven days of a ‘managed experience’ to include transportation services to and from the ports of entry, stays at approved accommodations and freedom to participate in activities on site as well as at select water and land-based attractions. The Discover Dominica Authority followed up with the ‘Sa Ka Fête Dominica’ campaign in December to convey the message that Dominica was open for business and eager to welcome visitors from neighboring islands.
The campaign is expected to encourage bookings for the airlines servicing Dominica and for the accommodation sector, and generate economic activity on island among tourism service providers.
“These campaigns are allowing us to create a corridor to welcome visitors to our shores who want to enjoy and experience our natural wonders, whilst still adhering to health protocols. The feedback from our source markets has been very encouraging, and we have seen increased bookings since its launch and as we approached the winter season,” Minister Charles reports.
To maintain these gains, the tourism officials are looking toward continued collaboration with key stakeholders within the industry and are pursuing full certification of hotel properties, taxi operators, tour guides and other service providers to ensure that protocols are implemented consistently.
But to realize sustained results, industry leaders will have to review the country’s tourism offerings, respond to changes in the market and repackage Dominica’s appeal with clear, simple messaging designed to attract visitors to the island’s shores.
The tourism bosses say they will rebrand, launch a review of the country’s festivals, and conduct an assessment of various investment opportunities within the sector.
“Looking at the data, it is clear that we experience two spikes in visitor arrivals every year – carnival and independence. But the intention is to broaden that throughout the year to include village and culinary festivals, enhance our heritage product and immerse the visitor in our unique culture,” Charles says adding that the ministry had identified four focus areas for investment.
“Our pillars are agro-tourism, aqua- tourism, health and wellness, and adventure. In addition to our efforts to increase stayover and cruise visitors, we are also developing the ‘Work in Nature’ programme which provides digital nomads and remote workers with an opportunity to work surrounded by nature.”
The construction of a number of luxury hotels and the promise of an international airport are also tied to the tourism ministry’s master plan to rebuild the industry. Last year, Kempinski, a prestigious hotel group, opened the Cabrits Resort & Spa and the new Jungle Bay in Soufriere is expanding. Works on the Tranquility Beach Resort by Hilton in Salisbury, Dominica and the Anichi Resort & Spa, a Marriot branded hotel in Portsmouth, continued apace with the pandemic. Expansion is also underway at Secret Bay, a six-star boutique hotel which continues to rack up industry awards and is ranked among the top 5 small luxury hotels in the Caribbean.
An international airport, on the cards for the island, is expected to further unlock the country’s economic growth potential, as increased connectivity spurs tourism.
“Air access has been one of the greatest impediments to attract certain niches to our shores. So the construction of the airport is one of the most important factors that will drive the tourism sector. We are, however, ensuring that we do all the necessary groundwork so that by the time the airport is built, there will be high awareness of and demand for Dominica’s tourism product,” Charles concludes.
Photography by Yuri A. Jones
Make up by Jessia Letang-Queen 2 Queen Makeup Artist
Location: Tranquility Beach Resort – Curio Collection by Hilton in Salisbury Dominica.
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