Hoteliers are reeling from cancellations and no-shows from the COVID-19 pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses, some attractions reporting up to 70 per cent decline in business and others facing possible closure, tourism officials and executives said today.
Several Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) members have predicted even further revenue losses over the next few months and a possible reduction in work hours for some employees.
The uncertainty and dramatic reduction in business in the island’s main economic engine come as major airlines and source markets struggle to contain the spread of the respiratory illness.
Officials said it was a very challenging time for the island and the industry, even as they called on tourism industry players and the wider population not to panic but to work together, be more creative and emerge from the crisis stronger.
Addressing the BHTA’s first quarterly general meeting at the Hilton Resort on Tuesday, Chairman of the BHTA Stephen Austin said a second survey of members showed a major dip in business.
Pointing out that the situation surrounding the spread of the COVID-19 virus was constantly changing, Austin said it had become scary for many.
Just last week, the BHTA official reported that the first of several surveys showed that for the month of March alone there had been a $1.2 million loss in revenue for some 41 members, due to cancellation of 2,853 rooms.
On Tuesday, he said the figure had reached over $3.6 million, though not reporting the number of rooms cancelled.
“To report to you that last week we had over US$1.8 million in cancellation tells you nothing other than we will lose money in the next three to six months in terms of revenues, bookings down and such like,” said Austin, who disclosed workers may have to be placed on vacation, “rotation or short week”.
“Just between last week and this week, the Intimate Hotels loss over US$300,000 in cancellations alone. Vacation rental properties are 80 per cent down on the same period last year, and bookings are pretty much zero in the next six months, and there are cancellations accelerating daily,” Austin reported.
The Intimate Hotels of Barbados is a subsidiary organization in the BHTA, representing over 45 small hotels, guesthouses and villas.
With the cruise industry now at a virtual standstill, the island’s attractions and some other players in the tourism industry who depend heavily on cruise passengers for their business are said to be left hanging by a thread and facing an uncertain future.
Austin said: “Our members in restaurants, attractions and destination management companies have noticed sometimes a 50 per cent decrease in business, and some attractions, 60 to 70 per cent decrease in business.
“But what does that really mean? It really means that it is really not summer.
“It is a season we had not had before – COVID-19 season.”
But the tourism leader advised members not to despair, saying they should now be thinking about how to survive the pandemic by protecting workers, their businesses and the country.
“If we don’t have any income within the tourism sector and within other businesses in Barbados, some businesses will close and that is the reality. I believe the BHTA’s role should be to help minimize losses of staff and I think we will come out of this better off,” he said.
Austin said hoteliers have had discussions with the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) “and are assuring them that we are doing our best to protect our staff”.
He recommended that the hotel start offering staycations to Barbadians, which is usually done in the summer, to ensure some revenue was still coming in.
Adding that the BHTA would provide help to members “where necessary”, Austin pointed out that there was a Tourism Fund that could be used “to help Government with testing or with temperature testing protocols”.
Minister of Tourism Kerrie Symmonds said he was not taking the concerns and challenges facing the sector lightly.
However, he called on the industry officials to join with Government in providing “some certainty, some sure-footedness and nimbleness to dealing with the situation”.
Declaring that the island had to deal with the reality of flight and booking cancellations, Symmonds acknowledged “it is impossible to do tourism unless you move people to consume the service. But if the airlines are not flying you can’t move people to consume the service”.
“Our attractions, let me be very frank, are about to take a major hit,” Symmonds warned.
“Some of our attractions are already operating on razor-thin margins, if on profit margins at all. Seriously speaking, and I am not overstating it and I am not being melodramatic, some of our attractions are so fragile that they may not be able to withstand a month of this without being completely eviscerated,” he said.
But the Tourism Minister said Government would not allow the BHTA’s over 400 members to go under, pointing out that it was time for them to be creative.
Symmonds recommended that hoteliers join forces with attractions and other industry players and offer specials to locals and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nationals.
“We will get back to the sunshine, but what we have to do is make sure that our businesses do not collapse and that is in our hands. Linking it to packages with the attractions allows us to make sure that we keep our attractions up and running,” he told the gathering, which took a different format than usual.
He said: “I am saying to you, CARICOM is a fallback. Yes, Great Britain has said they are urging their citizens not to travel anywhere in the world. In CARICOM, the only country that has said that is Trinidad and Tobago and I don’t confidently believe that position will be maintained for very long.”