‘We’re almost down to zero,’ says JUTA Kgn Chapter president

LIKE most Jamaicans, Noel Williams holds firm to the view that the planned reopening of the country’s borders must be accompanied by strict adherence to health and safety protocols implemented by the Government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, Williams, who is president of the Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) Kingston Chapter, says he and his members across the island are looking forward to the return of visitors, as the economic impact of the virus is hitting them hard.

“I really don’t have an issue with the reopening. We have been significantly impacted by the closure of the tourism industry and, by extension, what is happening in Jamaica,” Williams told the Jamaica Observer yesterday, adding that he has been mandated by JUTA members islandwide to speak on their behalf.

“We know the country needs to earn revenue, and we know we need the economy to keep going… If we continue to have the country lockdown, we will be losing revenue all around. That is not good for our economy,” he said. “However, we have to be very cautious with what we do and how we reopen.”

Jamaica’s borders were closed to all incoming travellers on March 24 following the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

The tourism sector, which contributed approximately US$3.7 billion to the economy from 4.3 million arrivals last year, directly employs 170,000 people and provides indirect income to another 200,000.

The sector has been hard hit by the closure, losing approximately US$15 million daily.

On Sunday, during a virtual press conference at Jamaica House, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that the country’s borders will be reopened to international travellers on June 15.

Two days later, he told Parliament that arriving travellers will undergo mandatory screening at the airports, where a determination will be made if they should be tested.

Yesterday, Williams said while Jamaica is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean, “we have to make sure that we put in the proper protocols, and if that is done, then I don’t think we should see much of a problem”.

“Testing, from what I understand, can be done in a 24-hour period now, so that should significantly help in alerting us if anyone coming into the country has the virus,” he reasoned.

According to Williams, JUTA has seen an overall 95 per cent reduction in business since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Jamaica in March.

He said while tourism provided the bulk of the business for his colleagues operating on the north coast, the members of the tour company’s Kingston Chapter earned mostly from school and church trips, stage shows, beach parties, funerals, and other private hires.

“We’re almost down to zero as we speak,” he said, adding that the JUTA office in Kingston had nine staff members before COVID-19, but now there is only one person working three days weekly. “We couldn’t afford to keep all the staff because we’re not earning anything… The phones are no longer ringing.”

Williams said, in his case, he normally earned 90 per cent of his income providing transportation service to The University of the West Indies, something he has been doing for more than 20 years.

“I have not done a job from the second week of March,” he said.

“One of the hardest part of it is that 98 per cent of us have bank loans to service. Some of the banks are very unreasonable, but some are receptive to our requests for more time to pay. For instance, a moratorium of three months was given to quite a few of us, but that moratorium started at the second/third week of March, so coming next week those moratorium will be up and the banks will now be expecting us to start to pay,” he said.

Some of his members, he said, have loans for up to four vehicles.

“We had thought that three months would have sufficed to get over COVID-19, but that doesn’t seem to be anytime soon, and I believe that at the end of this year we will probably just be starting to look at coming back up, and it won’t be as significant as we would have been accustomed to,” Williams lamented.

He said he had a Zoom meeting with officials from the tourism ministry and was told that even if cruise ships start coming back to Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Falmouth soon, buses that would normally carry 22 people would now be allowed to take only 12.

“But we are paid per head, so that will cut into our earnings,” he said. “It’s really tough on us right now. Many of my members are calling me asking what can they do.”

In an apparent effort to help them, Williams said he will be trying to get some assistance for members from the Business Employee Support and Transfer of Cash (BEST Cash) component of the Government’s COVID-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) Programme.

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