In 2016, tourism in the Caribbean saw a healthy growth of 4.7% and Mexico earned its place among the top ten tourist destinations. Tourism is an important source of income for both the Caribbean Islands and Mexico. In Mexico, the industry was responsible for 16% of total GDP in 2016, with North America its main source market.
Both the Caribbean and Mexico were recently in the headlines due to a series of natural disasters. Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Caribbean, causing widespread destruction and loss of life, and a deadly earthquake hit Mexico on September 19. Some 326 people have so far been reported dead in Mexico. Both the earthquake and hurricanes have left major infrastructural and super structural devastation in their wake. The search for survivors is ongoing. Bodies are being recovered and the significant loss of lives mourned.
How should the tourism industry respond to such disasters? Of course, the interests of holidaymakers are far from important now, but tourism is economically key to these countries. Currently, the mood is certainly not right for tourists to return to either Mexico or the worst-hit Caribbean islands. And besides the lack of infrastructure and security in affected areas means many would not want to go.
At the same time, developing countries such as Mexico need the income, employment opportunities and foreign exchange generated by tourism. If tourists stay away from such destinations the resident population will not only lose loved ones and belongings, they could also lose their livelihood. As such, it is important that the industry is not damaged too much.
The importance of this can be seen from past instances of disaster. Soon after the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami, for example, Thailand started its marketing campaign with Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s prime minister, asking tourists to “stop fearing ghosts” and to return to the region. Similarly, in 2002, following the Bali bombing, the Indonesian minister of culture and tourism asked people to visit Bali, saying “it makes no sense to isolate them” (the people of Bali). So how much should we worry about this in the case of Mexico and the Caribbean?
Tourism has proven to be resilient industry, although it can be susceptible to shocks from risk-increasing events. Such disasters sometimes have large initial negative effects, but later these tend to decrease or even disappear. But potential tourists can become used to negative events if they occur frequently enough; the shock factor decreases over time.
This has been evident in the responses to the terrorist attacks in Europe that have occurred in recent years. The impact of shock initially put people off from travelling but in many cases there has been a strong rebound once the threat is perceived to have been removed. Overall, studies have shown that impact and recovery depends on a number of factors including destination and tourist type, the type of event, the frequency and scale of destruction.
An earthquake or a hurricane is quite different to an intentional terrorist attack, however. As such, once it is over the risk associated with it tends to diminish, unless the cause of it is perceived to remain. Therefore, given the strength of Mexico as a destination, the recent hurricanes and the Mexico earthquake may impact tourism less than we might expect.
Natural disasters tend to lead to considerable infrastructural damage which in itself impedes the recovery of tourism, in particular if it damages tourist-related infrastructure. In the case of Fukushima, in Japan, for example, multiple connected crises – an earthquake, causing a tsunami, which in turn triggered a nuclear disaster – resulted in a longer recovery time for the tourism industry. Tourist arrivals in Japan did not exceed their pre-disaster levels until early 2013.
The overwhelming majority of tourists going to Mexico and the Caribbean come from within the region, particularity from North America, they tend to be familiar with the hurricane season, although perhaps not earthquakes. Even though the earthquake in Mexico has affected the capital and around it, many tourists areas in the country remain untouched. It is important to pay respect to people who lost their lives during the earthquake, but as long as the foreign office are not advising against travel to these destinations, there may be more reasons to go than not.
The concept of leisure tourism might be seen as fractious when many people are suffering due to the natural disasters in Mexico and the Caribbean, but staying away and watching the scene on TV will not help Mexico to rebuild lives in affected areas. The tourist economy, however, might.