COVID-19, Economy

Unemployment and COVID-19: Tourism’s open wound along the Guanacaste coast

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On March 21, 2020, like so many other days, Israel Carrera went to work in the morning as a bus driver for a tourism company in Liberia. Without much ado, he started his daily routine before getting on his bus, just as he’d been doing for three years.

His boss stopped him and changed his life with one sentence: “We aren’t going to work for a few days. This covid thing doesn’t allow us to do anything.” Carrera went back to his house in Nicoya, afraid and bewildered. A few days turned into weeks and then months. Money stopped coming in and debts began to grow.

Finally, in June, they let him know that the suspension had turned into a dismissal. So he was added to the list of more than 13,000 workers in the tourism industry who have lost their jobs in Guanacaste since the pandemic started, according to data from the Continuous Employment Survey of the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC).

The Voice of Guanacaste analyzed unemployment data for the Chorotega region for the second quarter (April, May and June) from 2018 to 2020. These months coincide with when the health crisis began in the country.

COVID-19 brought two crises to the Guanacaste coast: a health crisis and an economic one. Like Israel, the study revealed that during the beginning of the pandemic, at least 56.8% of the jobs dedicated to tourism in Guanacaste were lost. Among the jobs that this category includes are lodging and restaurant business services.

16.8%of employment in Guanacaste were represented by tourism activities in 2019.

Gustavo Alvarado, director of tourism management and consulting for the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), affirmed that the drop in employment in the province is even more severe than other coastal areas, considering that since 2018, work in tourism within the province had increased significantly. The data analyzed by The Voice of Guanacaste supports this conclusion: between the end of the high season of 2018 and that of 2019, employment in tourism increased by 16.5%.

After the border closures in March, the world entered a “zero season,” the term that hotel managers have been using to describe the situation in the province: zero customers, zero income and zero profits.

The Guanacaste Chamber of Tourism (Caturgua), for example, reported the temporary or permanent closure of its more than 500 associated hotels in April.

Israel, 34, said that the company where he worked temporarily closed in April.

There were no tourists taking tours or going to hotels on the beach, so we had no one to transport,” he related.

Half a year later, his life has taken a 180-degree turn. Before the crisis, he earned about ₡400,000 (about $700), plus tips from the tourists he transported. With that, he supported his wife and four daughters. “It wasn’t much, but I assure you that we had enough to get through the end of the pay period. We ate well,” he said. After the suspension, he stopped receiving any type of income. “I felt desperate. I didn’t know what to do, because I had to help my family somehow.”

With a family to provide for, the driver had to reinvent himself out of obligation, not by choice.

At that time during the pandemic, the Ministry of Health ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants in the country. Delivery service then took center stage. This is how he made money for a few months.

“It wasn’t profitable,” he lamented. The food company he delivered orders for paid him 1,000 colones (about $1.75) for each trip. There were good days, when he could return home with more than ₡20,000 ($35), and horrible days when he only received ₡3,000 (about $5).

The day he told us his story over the phone, he was at home without any source of employment. In July, while getting an order in downtown Nicoya, Israel fell from his motorcycle, fracturing his leg and tearing his foot deeply. Since then, he spends his days at hospitals, thinking about how his insurance coverage will end on October 30.

We live on loans and the little savings we have left,” he related.

Workers like him, heads of households between the ages of 25 and 34, represent the majority of the Guanacaste tourism workforce. They are also the group that suffered the most job loss during the pandemic.

Assistance

In April of this year, the government announced that it would provide the “Proteger” (Protect) bond, economic assistance for unemployed people during the crisis. According to statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS), about 99,000 people in Guanacaste requested it. Israel is one of them.

He says that the Proteger bond served as a lifeline for the three months he received it. After budget problems, most households stopped receiving the bond in August, but the pandemic continues.

The executive president of the Mixed Institute of Social Aid (IMAS), Juan Luis Bermudez, announced in October that this incentive will now focus on the tourism industry. In other words, rather than give it to unemployed individuals, the government will now give it to tourism companies that can generate jobs. This new plan is supposed to start in November.

Reopening, but what about unemployment?

Gustavo Alvarado, from ICT, recognized that the reality for the coastal areas remains similar to the second semester data.

We won’t see the results until after December, when the high season begins and all borders open,” he emphasized.

Caturgua, for its part, said that 40% of the accommodations affiliated with the tourism chamber are open at this time. These have only managed to fill to 20% capacity. “[The crisis] doesn’t just affect direct jobs, but all the linked processes that have been affected by the zero season,” the institution’s press department stated.

Guanacaste has special elements such as the Daniel Oduber Quiros airport in Liberia, which normally receives at least one million passengers a year. This element, according to Alvarado, will make the reactivation of tourism jobs in Guanacaste take place sooner. “It will be a slow process and we probably won’t see it until next year,” he emphasized.

Israel says that right now, he sees being rehired as a distant possibility. His goal is to recover the lost tissue on his foot and return to serving as a tour guide on the roads through the country.

Both Alvarado and Israel preface their projections with an “it depends.” What will happen to the tourism industry in Guanacaste and the country, and what will become of unemployment related to tourism? Alvarado said it depends on if there are new outbreaks or if the borders close again. Israel said it depends on if he can walk again and if he can resume the daily routine that he had been following for years.

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