Islands around the world are working hard to keep COVID19 cases down. As many have limited health infrastructure, the impact of this pandemic hits differently from other parts of the world. Samoa’s suspected samples have been sent more than 4,000 kilometres away to Australia for testing, many Pacific nations have placed a ban on cruise ships and others have limited travel from other countries. In the Baltic states, Saaremaa continues to be the epicenter of the virus. However, beyond the obvious health and social implications, the economic impact of this pandemic is another scary long-term reality that these islands will have to deal with, and it starts with tourism.
The economies of many islands worldwide depend on tourism. Over recent decades, many economies transformed to depend on tourism, and today some are primarily reliant on this single sector. A decrease in the flow of travelers could result in the loss of millions of dollars, with limited opportunities for other economic sectors to replace them.
For instance, nearly half of the GDP of Fiji, the most visited Pacific island nation, was from tourism last year. In just a day, Saint Lucia lost 13,000 jobs—roughly 7% of the total population and 16 percent of the total labor force. In Tonga, tourism is the second-largest source of hard currency earnings following remittances, with 62,500 visitors in 2017 – and the pandemic is sweeping this away. Tourism is the main export from Palau (86%), Vanuatu (63%) and Samoa (62%).
What makes things different this time is that of a total shutdown. Though islanders have faced crises in the past, including cyclones, most of these issues were localized and the economic impact was limited to either a single country or a small number of countries at a time. After a disaster, tourism could still flourish in other island nations nearby, supply chains still operated, and experts could still be moved from one island to the other to help bring the situation down. However, despite the devastation of Cyclone Harold, Vanuatu is keeping its borders closed in order to keep out the virus – and that includes stopping the entry of foreign aid workers.
Islands may not be able to return to business as usual any time soon. Solutions are needed to move beyond tourism and open up opportunities in other sectors. Can tourism-dependent islands use this pandemic as an opportunity to explore new industries?