News & Views

Sun, Sand and Recovery: Rethinking Island Destinations Need Post COVID-19

Island destinations have been here before. Sort of. If any destination knows what it’s like to weather a storm, many islands from the South Pacific to the Caribbean have done that in the most literal sense for years. And yet the tourism industry always springs back as each cyclone passes, another name that we’ll forget when the next one strikes.

This pandemic, however, is different.

While COVID-19 has devastated tourism worldwide, it has hit island destinations particularly hard. Unlike each passing storm that damages an island’s physical infrastructure, it’s not immediately obvious how to recover from a pandemic. Broken hotel windows and ravaged roads – we all know how to fix those. We can remove fallen trees. We can overturn capsized boats. COVID-19, however, is like the storm whose winds will batter us for months. On islands where many of our clients depend entirely on tourism for their citizens’ livelihood, it won’t be so easy to soldier through this one.

It’s a unique position they’ve been put in, DMOs and tourism boards of islands around the globe who are waiting to see how they’ll progress. Flights in and out of islands are grounded. And with cruise lines planning to set sail again sometime in October, well-after no-sail orders are lifted, we’d be naïve to think it’ll be an easy fix. There’s more than shattered glass and palm fronds to pick up this time.

Islands are more than just ports.

In face of all of these challenges, however, the world’s islands, some of the most iconic tourism destinations in the world, have shown inspiring ingenuity in suppressing the spread of coronavirus. Locking down an island is far easier than a country like Spain or Canada, even if the ramifications are painful.

Still, I’m amazed by how quickly some islands destinations contained the virus, like New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern showed. She demonstrated that fast and rapid action could contain the virus. And then there are the Faroe Islands, where citizens managed to adapt their resources to human testing, maintaining zero deaths.

Some of the lowest instances of virus-related deaths are in island nations like Anguilla, Réunion, French Polynesia, and Grenada which, to date, have reported no losses. Others like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Haiti have tiny percentages compared to larger, more developed nations.

No island, however, is immune.

Obviously size matters in this case, and being an island nation has its advantages. Still, the pandemic has highlighted to what extent being an isolated entity – in any body of water – poses a risk to future happiness and security. There’s no guidebook for this scenario, and some places, like the Philippines, are struggling while juggling a faltering health system, financial downturns, and perilous leadership when Duterte suggested simply shooting the poor who were protesting for aid.

And then there’s Hawaii. Completely locked down, keeping death rates among the lowest in the nation, the American state had some of the highest unemployment in the nation as the tourism sector was all but paused indefinitely. The rest of the Caribbean is also looking to suffer as the cruise industry may not be bringing in vital visitor dollars anytime soon. Even remote destinations like the Cook Islands – where there have been no virus cases reported – are suffering this global lockdown.

These are not novel stories. Maybe we island nations always realized it, but this is the first time in many years where we all have to confront our dependence on tourism together.

Tourism contributes to huge portions of an island’s GDPs. Some estimates suggest these figures are around 12.7% for the Philippines, 17% for French Polynesia, and up to 45% in St. Maarten. Compare this to around 3% in the United States, for example, and it’s readily apparent that there may be an over-reliance on this industry. It could be time to rethink how we move forward, remembering that as quickly as travelers will flock to our beaches, rainforests, and resorts, they can just as quickly stop coming.

Still, island destinations have proven resilient.

Island nations, territories, states, and otherwise have shown that they are not helpless. During the onset of COVID-19, Tahiti responded by creatively sending the world’s longest domestic flight from Papeete to Paris to prevent spreading the disease in a layover. Madagascar, which reported no deaths, was even working on trials for an organic treatment to the virus – though the World Health Organization stressed that no treatments are yet approved.

Still, the ingenuity is there. And the U.S. Virgin Islands was even looking to legalize marijuana as a way to boost its hammered economy once this passes. It may seem unconventional, but it seems that thinking unconventionally is exactly what we need to return from this crisis.

Of course we’ll rely on many of our trusted practices to get visitors back to these islands – safely, of course – attracting them with the promises of exclusive getaways, unique experiences and open waters. There are certain expectations whether it’s snorkeling with sea life in the Bahamas or exploring the black beaches of the Canary Islands.

These allures, however, proved useless in face of the coronavirus, and supporting local communities to diversify, to innovate, to be prepared for a future pandemic will be indispensable. A rum maker in Barbados can pivot towards making hand sanitizer, but will that keep them afloat, and can others in the tourism industry follow suit?

It’s time to ask the tough questions.

For now, we don’t have answers, but at least we know we need to be asking the questions that we’ve been ignoring for decades. Islands worldwide have had a communal splash of cold sea water in the face. Tourism is beneficial, even necessary for most of these tiny destinations, and a precious practice that everyone is rethinking.

Between the obvious threats of climate change and rising oceans swallowing lands and the threat of worldwide pandemic cutting off lifelines to the world, we need to do what’s best for islands if there is any hope for the future. On a larger, institutional scale, we need to make sure that future closures or lockdowns, no matter the source of the crisis, are events that won’t send islands spiraling into panic and disarray. They may be small, but so is a virus, and we cannot forget how unprepared many island destinations were.

Governments, DMOs, local economies, and even regions need to start working together – not unlike New Zealand and Australia with their notion of a travel bubble – for the future. These destinations may be island physically, but moving forward, they can’t act like one in the face of worldwide crises.

Answers will only come when we start asking the right questions, and we can’t be on island time anymore.

DCI has worked alongside several island destinations over the past 60 years. To learn more about how our experiences can orient your island’s marketing efforts post-COVID-19, get in touch with Karyl Leigh Barnes at [email protected] for more information.

Written By

Karyl Leigh Barnes

Karyl Leigh Barnes is President of DCI’s Tourism Practice. Since joining the firm in 1998, Karyl Leigh has led destination strategy and created marketing communication programs for destinations on every continent except Antarctica.

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