With 2020 Behind Us, What’s In Store For 2021?
Never before have I seen a nation – and the world, for that matter – so eager to be done with 2020.
It’s hard to envision it now, but there was a time (way back in December 2019) when we actually looked forward to 2020. I know, I know. I can hear the collective sucking of teeth right now.
This was supposed to be the year of vision and hope, excitement and exuberance. We knew there would never be another 2020 again in the history of the world and we were excited to get the chance to live through it.
But, instead of vision, we got a dark reality. Hope was replaced with feelings of hopelessness. Excitement and exuberance were overshadowed by deaths, sickness, isolation and a term we have now readily accepted into our daily conversations, social distancing.
This global pandemic, known in all four corners of the earth as COVID-19, ensured that we spent 75 percent of the year either locked away at home due to government shutdowns, or hidden behind masks.
While we navigated this new terrain, we found ourselves exposed to a new reality. The Bahamas as we knew it looked very different, especially here in New Providence.
The majestic cruise ships which once docked in the Port of Nassau were nowhere to be found. Their industry ravaged by the pandemic.
Downtown Nassau, our nation’s commercial hub, resembled a ghost town, the likes of which we have seen in old Hollywood westerns.
The once bustling area that teemed to the brim with tourists and activity today remains eerily quiet and desolate.
Where We Stand
In just a few days, 2020 will be a memory, albeit a not-too-distant one. But, as we head into 2021, we do so with a huge debt on our backs.
Our national debt is projected to hit $9.5 billion, a whopping 82.8 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP).
For those unfamiliar with how the debt-to-GDP ratio works, the higher it is, the less likely a country will be able to pay back its debt. So, our chances of defaulting actually increases.
When a country exceeds 77 percent for an extended period of time, economic growth slows. So, the fact that our national debt is at 82.8 percent is deeply troubling.
The Central Bank of The Bahamas noted that the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Hurricane Dorian, pushed the country in this position.
But, given the bad financial shape the country was in and the fact that tourism had dried up, leaving many people unemployed, the government had no choice.
Over the summer, the government borrowed more than $1.3 billion to finance its budget deficit for 2020/2021. That money will also be used to refinance its debt repayment obligations, which is estimated at nearly $697 million.
This is money that will have to be repaid . . . by us.
What Tourism Will Look Like
Earlier this month, the major resorts in New Providence reopened after months of closures. But, even they are not operating at full capacity.
Making matters worse, the cruise ship industry dashed hopes after it announced that its ships would not return until the second quarter of 2021. That was its earliest projection.
Even when they begin sailing again, they may opt for their private islands first and then phase into their typical ports of call.
Restarting tourism will take time. Tourism Minister, Dionisio D’Aguilar rightly urged the industry’s stakeholders to be patient because the industry would not immediately return to its pre-COVID performance.
Those who have expectations that it will are fooling themselves. One can certainly understand the impatience because many people have been unemployed for months. The tourism industry employs half of this nation’s workforce. But, it will take time.
In November, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) warned that in 2021, The Bahamas could experience tourism volumes up to 75 percent below 2019’s 7.2 million visitors.
“Internet search data suggests that future travel for the rest of 2020 and through 2021 will remain 40 to 75 percent below 2019 levels in Barbados, The Bahamas and Jamaica,” the IDB said.
The US continues to experience rising coronavirus numbers every day despite a promising new vaccine being distributed throughout the country.
The US has now confirmed more than 18 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The New York Times shows 29 states where new cases are higher and staying higher and 20 states where cases are higher but going down. Hawaii shows lower numbers that are increasing.
It will take some time for the numbers to level off even with a vaccine.
Now is the time for our government to be thinking of ways to truly revitalise the tourism product. I have said before in previous columns that sun, sand and sea will not cut it. We are in for the fight of our lives and the competition will be stiff.
Aside from our geographical positioning, what makes us the ideal travel destination over Jamaica or Barbados?
Travellers will be looking for a ‘safecation’ (a safe vacation). The last thing they want to do is travel to a Caribbean country and return home with a potentially deadly virus. So, getting our numbers down will mean a lot to visitors and our industry’s overall survival.
To sum 2021 up, in the early months, it’s going to be a rough ride with no cruise ships, drastically decreased visitor arrivals, a huge debt burden, unemployment and possibly some more lockdowns/restrictions to keep the COVID-19 numbers under control.
But, I remain optimistic that the worst is behind us. We have a better understanding of the disease, a vaccine is now being administered, the US has a new president that will be sworn in next month – one who is more mature and believes in, and will listen to the scientists.
Happy New Year!