Federal assistance comes for US Caribbean territories, but no relief for vital tourism industries
While the federal government has provided various forms of financial assistance to the Caribbean territories in wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it has not enacted legislation to aid the tourism industry in these territories.
In the US Virgin Islands, tourism accounts for more than half of the total GDP. In Puerto Rico, tourism accounts for only 6% of total GDP, however, it is still a vital element of its economic recovery after natural disasters. Tourism in US Caribbean territories includes beach visits and cruises.
In March, President Trump attempted to affirm the importance of the cruise ship industry, stating in a coronavirus briefing:“We can’t let the cruise lines go out of business that will be a massive number of jobs for our country.” Despite this, The CARES Act (the coronavirus relief fund) has not provided any aid to cruise lines.
This is not to say that the federal government hasn’t provided any aid to the US Caribbean territories. The CARES Act provided roughly $2.25 billion to Puerto Rico and $75 million to The US Virgin Islands. The Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act, enacted by the US Small Business Administration, has provided over $62 million to the US Virgin Islands and over $658 million to Puerto Rico. On April 2, President Trump signed a memorandum directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the US Department of Homeland Security “to fund 100 percent of the emergency assistance activities associated with preventing, mitigating, and responding to the threat to public health and safety” in the US Virgin Islands. However, by neglecting to provide aid to cruise ship lines and other forms of tourism, the federal government is putting both the tourism industry and businesses that tourists often patronize (i.e. airlines, hotels, and restaurants) in economic danger.
Possibly because of the severity of these economic dislocations, US Caribbean territories are beginning to unveil plans to reopen and begin to allow tourism soon, despite public health concerns. Puerto Rico is starting to open up businesses as part of a multi-phase reopening plan that will eventually allow widespread tourism to return to the island. The US Virgin Islands has gone a step further, having reopened for tourism on June 1. Additionally, Carnival Cruises is allowing some cruises to sail beginning in August, and even given the pandemic, bookings for cruises this August are up 200% compared to those for last August.
In a recent interview with Black Enterprise, Joseph Boschulte, commissioner of the US Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, laid out his plans for allowing cruises back into the islands. He stated: “I believe that we will be prepared to accept cruises back in the territory. We are still working at our department of health and with the cruise lines directly in understanding protocols to test for COVID-19. Along with that, we are still [gathering the] necessary inventory of testing supplies here on the island for people who may be in contact with people who may have the infection. ” Boschulte added: “The safety of our residents is paramount.”