#COVID19Chronicles-235: November 29, 2020-Guilt tripping

Travel guilt is real!

Several friends of mine are caddies at Jamaican golf courses, and they occasionally tell me stories about the generosity of foreign guests with whom they work. Now ‘tourism (or travel) guilt’ is a real thing.

How travellers deal with it may vary:

Whether travel itself is part of the solution, or spending, or donating, or being especially kind and tolerant, the traveller may feel some angst about what he or she is doing. In places like Jamaica, we see a lot of this guilt meted out in the form of kindness with a monetary tilt.

With many restrictions on movement during the COVID pandemic, it’s been clear that guilt about travel has risen. But, it can be what helps some keep sane. We know!

Funnily, for all of my own lack of need, I have been the beneficiary of it, when some foreigner ‘took pity on me’ and thought I’d need USD 100 pressed into my hand for doing my job as a volunteer, I also had pangs of guilt, but decided I’d accept the gift and do something good with it. It went to a charity.

However, it takes a certain level of pity, or generosity, or more money than sense to give away a US$400 golf club that looks brand new, plus a tip. Well, one of my friends messaged me today about the new ‘toy’ he’d received this way. 🙂 Some guests with whom he’d worked for several days, helping them to learn golf, decided they’d part with their prized putter and depart from the island with a clear conscience, I guess. It’s lovely!

I was fortunate enough for him to let me also have a little ‘play’ with the toy, and I really must reconsider my life choices and think if being a caddy is what I do from now 😉

#COVID19Chronicles-234: November 28, 2020-The west has gone ‘wild’ with cases

We decided to take a short staycation and plumped for Hanover. We usually prefer the rustic charm of Portland, which is where we spent Thanksgiving last year; all three of our daughters were in Jamaica from the USA. We had the bonus of my mother-in-law and her friend. This year’s COVID-affected trip was with just our teenager, plus a cousin and his family. We get day visits from a couple living in Montego Bay.

But, we’ve grown to enjoy some spacious spots in Hanover, which work well in terms of observing COVID protocols of distancing, so several groups can stay in one place but have ample room to exist apart from each other, coming together for meals, which can also be hosted with good spacing at the table, or using several tables.

We were enjoying our turkey dinner on Thursday and praised the parish of Hanover for being lowest for COVID infections: it was the last to report COVID infections. Then, I checked the thread for the evening’s ‘Press briefing and COVID conversations’, which I’d missed. It covered “COVID-19 Protocols at Christmas”:

Well, knock me down! Hanover is now the COVID epicentre!

The west has gone a bit ‘wild’, it seems.

The regional technical director at the Western Regional Health Authority, Dr Dianne Stennett Campbell, gave an assessment of the current situation:

An “uptick in cases in the western end of the island accounts for the overall increase in the country’s figure”.

She added, however, that the increase in cases likely represents local transmission, and at the same time pointed out that no “clear” link has been established with the tourism sector. That should make some sigh with relief as the country heads towards the ‘high season’ for foreign visitors. However, it’s not clear how travel will be affected during the current surge also seen in the USA (from where the bulk of Jamaica’s tourists come), though Thanksgiving travellers seems to have ignored official advice not to travel for this holiday, with about a million people passing through airports each day for the last week. It’s usually the busiest travel time for the USA. But, whether the willingness to jump on planes will be as strong when it comes to travel abroad, we’ll have to see.

Most countries are really in a ‘don’t fly’ category for the USA, sitting at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) ‘level 4’, very high risk–‘Travelers should avoid all travel to these destinations’.

Source: CDC

So, Jamaica has been added to that category, which irked some people, but it includes The Bahamas, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, for example. No countries are in level 3 (Travelers should avoid all nonessential travel to the following destinations). Only a few countries are now in levels 2 (moderate–Travelers at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should avoid all nonessential travel) and only a few in level 1 (low–All travelers should wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet from people who are not from your household, wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer, and watch your health for signs of illness). Some Jamaicans may be miffed because some of our island competing destinations are in level 2 (eg Barbados and St. Lucia); while Anguilla sits in level 1.

Getting back to the west. Dr Dianne Stennett Campbell’s assessment continued: “Most of the cases we’re seeing are locally transmitted cases. We do have cases in the tourist sector, but we have not been able to establish clear pictures of whether it is transmission between visitors in our hotel sector and workers or staff members. Usually, it is from the home environment in terms of that transmission that happens locally. So we’re carefully watching that picture. It may change, but that is what we’re seeing right now.”

Up to yesterday, Hanover accounted for 218 (2%) of the total of 10,537 COVID-19 cases reported since March; Westmoreland, 363; Trelawny, 237; and St. James, 1,094 (>10%). So, Hanover may be showing a high rate of infection per head of population–it has the highest parish rate of active COVID cases per 100,000 residents, 62.1; with Clarendon being the lowest at 6.9 –but the totals are really small. St. James has higher rates but is also trending towards significant numbers, especially if one regards what its usually hustle and bustle in and around Montego Bay may mean for possible contacts from overseas travellers–a scalar issue.

#COVID19Chronicles-232: November 26, 2020-Giving thanks

In the USA, this week is usually when most people travel, to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. In these COVID pandemic days, however, travel and mingling are less encouraged. Positive cases and deaths have been soaring in the USA during November.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) urged people not to travel, yet, the numbers going through airports last weekend through November 25 were the highest since March, over 1 million each day.

People seem determined to travel despite the high-level advice:

It’s not hard to understand: being together with loved ones and close friends has been hard for most of the year, and for most Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday is their national get-together, free from any religious associations that make holidays occurring in late-December a hodge-podge of competing claims. I also think that most people in the USA need a release of tensions that have built up immensely this year, but maybe more so in the USA heading into and continuing through their presidential elections, which should have concluded with voting on November 3. It has, however, become an extensive display of petulance by the incumbent President, claiming fraud and victory with only a set of blinded partisans try to dispute. (The popular vote was clear—over 6 million margin; the Electoral College count is clear—306 votes to 232, a margin the incumbent called a “landslide” when it was in his favour in 2016, even with nearly 3 million popular vote deficit, but he now calls “stolen”.)

Jamaica doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but some of its trappings have seeped into our culture—namely, shopping on ‘Black Friday’. But, many Jamaicans with strong US-ties do celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday and time to gather as families. (Remember, around 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ are in the USA, according to the 2010 Census; many Jamaicans have been and are schooled in the USA; returning residents from the USA are numerous.)

Also, my wife needs a break, not least from 9 hours of Zoom teleconferencing most days, so we’re taking a staycation over Thanksgiving; it fits with our youngest daughter being home from school for that holiday, and last year her older sisters living in the USA came to spend Thanksgiving with us in Portland (bringing some essential ingredients for the dinner :).

We cruised along the highways to the north coast.

SUV becomes true modern pack mule
Coastal view from highway in St. Ann

The car had become the true beast of burden, as it often does on our staycations—we know what we like to eat, so we leave little to chance on food and drink—and this time the passengers were fewer than on previous trips, so space for them was not totally at a minimum.

Traffic was normal, ie relatively light. Our car was laden with the makings of our Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, vegetables, salad, maraconi, cheese. Some debates were going on about the menu, especially desserts. But, the basics were set; Brussel sprouts seemed elusive. We would not be doing a fried turkey, as suggested by one of our local papers:

My wife asked the cook at our lodging if he knew how to make macaroni and cheese. That was not the right question; he needed to know how her mother made it, which he doesn’t, so let’s just accept he needs to be guided, carefully.

We made a chance discovery regarding dessert by having some pumpkin pudding bought from the famous ‘Pudding Man’ in Priory, St. Ann. A few slices of that would work a treat.

I’m not sure of the dinner schedule, as we’ve relatives due to arrive tonight. Meantime, I will settle into a Thanksgiving routine that has to be based around what happens in the USA. That means tuning into the traditional Thanksgiving NFL game between Dallas (‘Cowboys’, aka ‘America’s team’) and Washington (now ‘Football Team’, formerly ‘Redskins’)—an age-old and fierce rivalry—which will be on late-afternoon, with the Detroit Lions hosting the Houston Texans around 12.30pm.

I have half an eye out for visitors from the USA who have decided to leap on planes to come to Jamaica. I understand, but I also am leery of the spread of the pandemic surging out of control there and jumping here. Truth, though, foreign visitors have reportedly been amongst the best behaved group in terms of observing COVID protocols, and we know first-hand that no one in getting on a plane to Jamaica if they have not the required negative COVID test.

Why they love to visit Jamaica (and maybe, other Caribbean countries) is clear: it’s not just the weather, but often a certain ambience, especially if seeking calm. Ironcially, an well-known friend of Jamaica, Arlene Hoffman, died this week:

As The Gleaner wrote:

‘Her love affair with Jamaica began in Port Antonio in the late 1960s. It later moved to Hopewell, Hanover, at the Round Hill, where she learned to inhale all the beautiful Jamaican elements – the cuisine, the laughter, the resort lifestyle, the butterflies and especially the art.

In the early 1970s, her much acclaimed ‘bare bottom’ print ad to promote Jamaica’s tourism found traction with consumers. The ad also found a permanent home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And back then, Hoffman and her agency, Hoffman Mann, spoke to a new generation of American women, nudging them to let them know it was okay to throw a bikini in a bag and run away to a beach in Montego Bay.

Hoffman’s biggest impact on Jamaica came in the late 1970s when she created the We’re More than a Beach … We’re a Country advertising campaign to lure resistant American tourists to the island.’

It’s easy to get this. Just this morning, as I was walking the golf course near where we’re staying, I car came by and I heard “Mr. Jones! You’re back.” A lady waved and we chatted for a minute before she continued her ride to where she worked. She was one of the house staff who looked after us when we visited the area in August. That’s what makes many people return to Jamaica, which has a 40% return visitor rate.

Staff who cater to tourists are amongst our most treasured but perhaps underrated assets.

#COVID19Chronicles-186: October 14, 2020-New testing rules for visitors from overseas

Last week, the PM announced new rules would be in place for arrivals to the island; the details are included below, and took effect on October 10 and apply through October 31:

They come under the latest Disaster Risk Management Order No. 14 – October 6, 2020, which was also made avaiable today, and posted by Susan Goffe on her blog..

The main change is passengers can use (WHO/PAHO approved) Antigen tests as well as PCR tests, and if living in high risk countries (including the USA) do not need to upload a negative test before traveling, but can present the results at time of travel, still subject to it being no more than 10 days old.

#COVID19Chronicles-167: September 26, 2020–Why can’t we get our act together on enforcing protocols?

Minister Tufton aired what many people feel about reports of people breaking COVID protocols: the breaches are frustrating and annoying and disrespectful.

However, it will strike some, at least, as mightily ironic. Why? Well, just this week Jamaica had a visit from a well-known musical artiste, Ye (aka Kanye West), who came to feel the vibes with Buju Banton. All cool? Well, the images that went viral showed Kanye couldn’t care a toss for Jamaica’s COVID protocols, and I may pun wasn’t masking his contempt for them, as he lounged in Gargamel’s studio.

https://twitter.com/reggaenation/status/1308241410106089472?s=21

He also took in some local bickle, again, happily unmasking his love of the food from the fire:

The displays raised annoyed comments on social media, including from noted influencer, Yaneek Page:

The matter raised a question at Thursday’s COVID Conversations and the minister shuffled an answer that was not satisfying about procedures for exceptions, blah blah.

Well, Kanye/Ye flew off and went to Haiti, today, but look-Ye here.

Haiti didn’t see any need for any exceptional treatment and a fully complaint-on-arrival Ye was escorted to the VIP lounge.

Which brings up the obvious question of why Jamaica seems incapable of enforcing its own protocols. It really doesn’t matter a fig if politicians gripe about indiscipline amongst Jamaicans, but is complicit in allowing the breaches when it has matters more or less in its control.

This is, sadly, a continuation of mixed messages that have been apparent for several months and is really the government shooting itself in its own foot, undermining its own efforts. It doesn’t matter if the government wins battles of words if its deeds don’t match.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #12: Representing the IMF abroad—being seen in plain sight and darkness

I was watching a good movie last night, The Good Shepherd, about the origins of the CIA. Towards the end, there’s a scene in Congo, Leopoldville [now Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa], where our spy hero is walking along a street near a market, wearing freshly pressed shirt and tie, carrying his jacket on his arm in what we suppose is searing heat and humidity. I immediately thought of a day on a Fund mission, when the staff member is walking casually around a new city, but what’s apparent too is it’s clearly understood by those locals around what he is: a foreigner. That’s not a hostile term, just an acknowledgement of being ‘not from here’. Hostility can wait. But, much can spin around that fact.

When I joined the Fund, staff were supplied with several ‘tools of the trade’: a black leather briefcase and a HP12c calculator.

These were like the army-supplied rifle and bayonet, canteen etc.

Mission travel was marked by the presence of people with black briefcases arriving at airports, being met by officials, then seen for about two weeks entering and leaving official buildings in business clothes, or at the weekends in casual clothes—always ‘armed’ with these ‘weapons’.

Mission meetings were marked by the presence of the calculators on desks or tables; team members, especially new ones, often tapped on them, frantically, as officials dripped numbers like pebbles from a cliff. Oddly, I never got an HP calculator when I joined 😦 I used a calculator I had from my Bank of England days. I never got one until I became a resident representative (res rep), after over 12 years; by then, I had graduated to a Casio, solar-powered—environmentally friendly before I knew it; I still have it. 🙂

But, the image of Fund staff working wasn’t what tripped my memories, it was the sight of someone walking in an area, trying to fathom what he could, while casually enjoying some air. I’ve lost count of where I’ve walked or maybe gone in a car just getting a feel for a place or just enjoying what a city or country could offer. Because most missions start with a long flight, often trans-Atlantic in my case, it was good to get the body reacclimatized to normal air and to time differences, so I often went from the hotel to get my bearings soon after checking in. Now, mission members don’t often travel as a team; individuals can have travel itineraries to suit themselves. I often took the opportunity of the permitted stopover each way to visit friends or relatives. It was great to keep home style contacts when away from home. I was lucky that, over the years, I’d made acquaintances and friends in many places. I often stopped in London and caught up with friends and relative. I stopped in Oslo often, with friends, the man had worked with me in Washington and I knew his wife and kids from when they were small. I ski and have gone straight from airport onto the snow, even having my first lesson skiing cross-country, and using my friend’s wife’s skis and salopettes to ski with 🙂 I would bring ‘gifts’ which way I was travelling.

As I related before, my first mission was to Ankara, Turkey, and I loved the hotel being on a busy street with lots of local things to see or and smell and gauge a little something about the place. Given that many Fund staff become hermits once on the road, I soon realized I was abnormal. 🙂 But, my style all comes from years of travel for personal pleasure. I get to hear people and try to understand how they handle money, their simple interactions with each other. These make for a little easier formal interaction later, if one’s observant. For instance, IMF mission briefings don’t touch on cultural practices; when I worked at the Bank of England, that was part of what people got to know, along with some background on key personalities. Not the Fund! Just jump in with hobnailed boots on and thrust the good old ‘now listen here!’ down their throats…not quite, but you get my point.

I also use time I have to decide what to do when and if I get more time to explore; that could be as little as 15 minutes or as long as a weekend. So, off I strolled in Ankara. Then, I did likewise in Kampala. You know how many people always want to know where the gym is in a hotel or the ice machine? No real difference. I found a street barber in Kampala and watched and thought…and the next weekend went for a trim. I discovered the hotel did massages 🙂 I knew where to get fresh bread and pastries in Moscow, even though I was in the swankiest hotel; my love of something local to snack on was satisfied.

In those places, I did not give much thought to how I might have stood out; I was in casual clothes. I am a black man, but Turkey and Uganda have seen and see black people often, without conflict because of colour. Ethnicity or tribal differences, are other issues. Language or accent usually mark you, though.

When I first went to Riga, I took note of a park near the hotel. I soon went there for a walk; the day was grey and cool, in autumn, but I knew Europe at that time of year, so it didn’t feel odd. I noticed the poplar trees, often seen in parks in London. Away, but homely. The cold was more severe and fur hat and boots and heavy gloves were soon part of my go-to gear.

Black people in Latvia are as common as dragons on the metro. 🙂 The former Soviet Union, really Russia, had some hostile attitudes towards people ‘of colour’. (For Russians, people from Chechnya, for instance, are called ‘black’.) Black students, often from Africa, tell torrid tales of their times studying in Moscow. But, I was a Fund official! Anyway, it was not an apparent issue, as I walked and watched people feed ducks.

What became a problem from day one of work was that no one spoke English! I had only recently started Russian lessons, so was not going to put weight on that crutch. So, my early meetings were in poor, old German (not my favourite tongue; my counterpart on the budget was fluent) or broken Russian and hand gestures and arithmetic (my counterpart on accounting was nothing if not willing to find some way for us to communicate; she was my teacher in the abstruse logic of Soviet finance). We got there, with a lot of difficulties and many cups of coffee and a little vodka 🙂

When you stay at Hotel Metropol, in Red Square, there’s no option, in my mind but to get to see the magnificent architecture in that one-time bastion of communist power and the oddly powerful juxtaposed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Arriving on a Sunday, I could join Muscovities strolling in the square, with the odd whispers (негръ (negr)—black man 🙂 ). It’s more fun when you can understand, and reply ‘Da’ (yes) and the eyes bulge.

So, I got to know some of Moscow well in my off-hours. So, too, in almost every city I visited.

I loved old cities, like Tallinn, with their medieval squares prominent; they are often great meeting places, and at the weekend, even in deep winter, can be where to see many people just ‘taking some air’. Once my language skills were better, I’d use such times to practice in the guise of seeking information, and hoping for more than just an ‘over there’ or ‘I dont know’. If the weather was nice, as in summer, then chilling at a cafe was in order. I love assimilation.

As I said, not everyone ventures out, but it’s nice to have some mission companion, especially when you can be the ‘guide’ at least because it’s not your first visit.

Things were always better, though, when the mission had a res rep in country, which was more the norm if a program was in place. They got to know the city and country inside out; that’s what excited me about my assignment when it came—to be that fountain of local knowledge of places, activity, customs and people. It’s funny, thinking back, how many people wanted to tell the res rep something 🙂

So, our res rep in Riga—a single woman from Latin America—lived in an enormous apartment in the city centre, really for four families, I guess: the Fund would make the residence fit its needs, within reason, mindful of things like access, security and communications. It was adjacent to the central bank, where she had her office. Our rep in Tallinn—an American man with a wife and young child—had a house on the outskirts of the city, and its best feature was a sauna, where the team could get a little different down time at the weekend. The rep in Moscow also lived in a ‘palace’ and the Fund’s office there was almost on a par with politburo standard, ironically sitting opposite one of bastions of Soviet power, it’s foreign ministry.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

The rep in Baku, Azerbaijan—an American man, with wife and young child—had a lovely apartment, in the city, and he’d become an expert in carpets, so his home was a splendid display of tapis, plus literature on them and their historical origins and significance. He taught me much about bargaining—I’d learned in Turkey (even mis-bidding in an auction), and Azeris are cousins. I learned that a nice rug rolls up well in a suitcase; just rearrange the documents that need to go to Washington. It was then that I learned not to carry documents back myself, but to ask the rep to put them in the ‘pouch’ to get to DC in a week or so. 🙂 Now, you’re talking!!! Our home now has the fruits of that not-so-laborious lesson.

So, when I became a rep, I paid it forward-backward and made sure mission members knew I’d happily send papers back from my office, so that they could put carvings or paintings into their luggage 🙂 But, it could also be a two-way street, as we could not get supplies from DC other than say ‘official stationery’, so missions knew to arrive with things like Pringles and coffee and biscuits 🙂 It was good for them also to bring things they enjoyed themselves, so that meetings would have a level of comfort that can be conducive to good rapport. The art was to pick up something interesting in-transit, so the international flair could show.

That said, not all reps are ready for their spaces to be ‘invaded’, especially their offices. I remember the scene when a mission chief had the temerity to take over the rep’s desk and chair! In the field, the rep can outrank the mission chief, not because of level of seniority or classification within the Fund, but because it’s his world—the position sit apart from those at HQ (and it’s full ambassador rank). I got those things clearly understood, early, and had no problems. Of course, we can renegotiate space etc. Same way with staff: the res rep’s staff are his resources, not the missions’: get the mission secretary to make copies and make binders. 🙂

I always tried to be generous, knowing that being far from home, tired, frustrated, angry etc all make for bad work. So, our home was always a refuge for missions, and our cook was ever ready to show off what he could do on the spur of the moment. If you want relaxed, just drop in. “Yes, you can play with the baby.” That humanizing aspect was always important to me.

But, working in the field is often not smooth sailing, and the arrival and departure are not just simple events, they can be when matters are shaped or broken. I have been in the VIP departure lounge with missions when the agreement with the authorities is not yet reached; the conversations could be tense, on matters of substance (eg actions that must be taken) or numbers (budget and financials that are not reconciled). Missions have to explain where they reached, once back at HQ, and cannot just spin around and get back on a plane to iron things out. It’s both matters of principle and money. Fortunately, the time between when missions leave and have to report to Management at the Fund can be about a week, and a lot can and has happened in that time…thank goodness.

Whatever happens, the res rep is often left ‘cleaning’ up and ‘clearing’ up after missions 😦 We may be the ones to explain to local media the facts and dispel rumours. Your media friends can be vital. The Fund used to be really secretive; now transparency and openness are part of our mantra. However, that doesn’t mean that one can blab about any and everything to those outside official circles.

Reps may not know how all the numbers are supposed to gel, in detail, and we are not single sector experts, anymore. The best thing is that the res rep normally doesn’t have to do ‘grunt’ work on spreadsheets. Yea! Even walking away and letting team members sort them out and send the file for review. Oh, blessings! We can also have no need to write from scratch, but become reviewers and editors. Oh, this is the life! That’s why many res reps return to HQ and have the worst of times with deadlines over numbers and texts.

Being in the field is the best. It’s why many res reps make a career out of filling such posts. Our man in Baku did about three postings back-to-back. If that doesn’t happen, then assignments with a little space in between can work, just fine.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #10: Dealing with the unexpected

We don’t usually get hazard pay for work done on the job, but sometimes we should. When I started my Guinea assignment, I spent a weekend with my assistant on the roof of the building that hosted our office. Why? The Fund knew it couldn’t rely on the parlous state of local telecommunications so wanted to install a satellite connection. Problem? No technician to do that. So, naturally, my assistant and I were up on the roof of our building jiggling a huge satellite and trying to liaise by phone with a technician in another country the physical installation and the technical calibration. I’d not swear to being able to get a job doing that, but, who knows? My assistant and I were forever well-bonded by this experience. [In passing, I did the unthinkable of proposing him for training several times, and as a result the technical capacity of the post was enhanced greatly. He’s now a senior economist/resident representative for the Fund in The Gambia 🙂 Job done!]

One mission to Riga, Latvia in 1994, was memorable for SAS losing my luggage. Checks showed it had gone to Iceland. Well, fine. My briefcase and computer bag were all I had. So, for the next day, a colleague offered me a jacket, shirt and tie. I never travelled long-distance in business clothes. I had no toiletries–never again, and I always have or make sure I keep the vanity kits from in-flight. At the end of day 1, still no bag, which had somehow not been sent to Riga, but Valletta, Malta. The airline suggested I buy some clothes and would get compensated. Great! You probably cannot imagine what lack of choice looked like in recently former Soviet countries: dark grey or dark brown. Jeez!

Security can be an issue, especially when you work for an organization that often doesn’t ‘get the love’. That said, I have never been shot at, though presidential guards’ guns were trained on my driver and car in Guinea, with me inside. Diplomatic privileges kicked in fast—shouldn’t have been necessary—and hostilities (for reasons unknown) were ended.

We were often moved around with lots of security in tow, but that was more for the politicians we were meeting than us. We sometimes could not be trusted to keep our mobile phones in meetings and had to leave them in a tray outside the room.

Some people never felt safe or secure on mission, either because of some deep fear of being in a foreign country, or because the political or social state of the country caused them concerns. I remember one mission to ‘Tana, when one mission member never set foot outside the hotel other than for meetings, after we’d been walking and saw people defecating on the sidewalk. One can understand some mission members, often women, not feeling that walking alone at night was for them; but some felt that way about daytimes. Sadly, that meant when missions offered some downtime from the string of meetings, at the weekends, they were among those always found in their rooms, at worst, or somewhere on the hotel property. In tropical places, like Guyana, that was fine, where the hotel had a nice courtyard with trees and plants that offered a great alternative to the four walls of a room. But, imagine Moscow in February. Many Fund economists will admit they know nothing about their countries beyond the journey to and from the airport, their hotel, and and where they had their meetings.

Choice can pose problems when travelling, and if food options are limited, get used to being back again and again…like regulars…and the menu may mean the same meals, again, and again… It’s usually only 2 weeks and not every meal, lunch and dinner. Going out at night was usually a short walk or if further missions usually had cars and drivers assigned to them by the national authorities, so no need to navigate fares and journeys with taxi drivers. I’ve done that, though, and lived to tell the tale of how to drive the wrong way along one-way streets in Ankara at night: there was a lot of traffic 🙂

By contrast, I was an adverturer. I’ve travelled a lot for pleasure and I have a facility with languages, so was not overawed easily. I grew up in London so thought I could navigate most urban situations with at worst some simple braggadocio. However, you don’t want to attract undue attention to yourself, so the open mike or Karaoke can be skipped, especially if a bit wasted. So, I had no problem doing soft cultural things on my own, or with a colleague, and I was always up for that. I would also want to explore local street or cafe food. In some places, I had acquaintances who would be helpful guides. So, in Moscow, for instance, I spent a few weekends with friends in their typical Russian flat, with their kids, eating and drinking vodka on a winter’s day. I’d been picked up and dropped off in their car, but I’d have happily taken the fabulous Moscow metro.

Adventures could be simple pleasures, like having my hair cut by a street barber in Kampala. They involved hunting the market in Moscow for film or driving out to a dascha with colleagues who were both Russian-speaking and knew Russia. It could involve taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki to see what it was like to head there for shopping. When I worked the monetary sector, I always tried to get a good feel for how money and finance worked on the ground, whether in banks (I opened a bank account in Uganda), or in parallel FX markets (I’ve changed lots of money, even though sometimes Fund rules strictly forbade it), or is regular markets (to see where goods were coming from—the power of China was often visible in consumer goods). A trip to the Pushkin Museum or the ballet in Moscow, which cost 1 ruble; going to the opening of the McDonald’s in Moscow—my first ever Big Mac!

National authorities can test your adventurous nature, too. I’ve told my food stories. But, there are the ‘trips’, some boring, to nationally significant places, but with the added ‘special’ meal or ‘entertainment’. Sword swallowers? OK. Balalaika players? OK. Taking the floor with belly dancers? Not OK, for me 😦 Trips along lazy rivers with lunch at the end? Very OK. Hunting (never took up the offer)? Not OK. I enjoyed visiting the bobsled track at Sigulda, Latvia, and am forever grateful we were not asked to take a ride in a sled for the full experience.

Stress on missions is normal: the Fund has a lot of learning by doing on the job; no mission tutorials, for instance. Working hours are usually long and mission chiefs can be autocratic. I’ve been on mission where a new team member was totally at sea about how to do ‘routine’ forecasts, and we spent hours with her tearfully working through her sector numbers. She was no technical dud, coming from a senior position in her home country, but missions can be solitary and your colleagues may actually or apparently undermine you. Some departments thrive on that, even seating mission members on the same tasks, unbeknownst to them to develop creative tension. Not my style and not my liking 😡

Some just cannot handle the sometimes crazy deadlines on missions and the frequent iterations and integration of numbers. Whether simply flustered or in a downright panic, as I have been, it’s just no fun. My worst nightmare was doing a debt sustainability analysis (necessary to assess if a country had achieved their goal for widescale debt relief); the program kept on crashing. Now, the calculations can be done by hand, but, really? My other nightmare came when I realized I’d calculated some date with the wrong signs—not uncommon with the balance of payments, where some flows need the opposite sign because they are ‘below the line’ (financing items). But, my best was non-nightmare. I was presenting my budget forecast to the finance minister, who was visibly angry and asked “Where did these numbers come from?” I looked at the budget director, with whom I had spent days working on them item by item, mainly in German and Russian. He nodded his accord. The minister was furious because I had a 3% deficit and he thought it ought to be 6%. That’s normally the reverse reaction. A lot of whispering and huddling went on for a few minutes, then the minister came back: “I don’t like these numbers, but I’ll accept them!” I think that was an apology.

Working all night, especially towards the end of missions was normal, even doing numbers on the way to the airport and in the lounge waiting to fly, with some official ready to take the electronic file (disks back in the day, thumb drives later, and now just a shared link). Then, you could crash on the flight…or maybe, just remember that you’d made or not corrected some cockup 😦

Not surprising, then, that coping skills can be tested. I’m a chocoholic; I’d load up on Cadbury’s when I transitted London. I wasn’t a drinker or smoker; but others were. Mission chiefs should sense anxiety but how it’s dealt with varies. One mission chief always had a few sessions where the team read scenes from a Shakespearean play 🤔Another always opened the nightly team meetings by offering the contents of his minibar; his expenses were no issue. Both were good icebreakers, at the end of f sad sad sometimes trying days.

I was never on a mission where any hanky-panky took place amongst or involving mission members. I have been on missions with people who were later found to have been hanky-pankying…. 🙂 The nearest I came was being taken to a night club with Latvian officials—the club was in the penthouse of our hotel—and there I saw how the top apparatchiks could live: young ladies, endless drinks, no paying, sleezy-looking associates… 🙂

Air travel issues are one thing but living in a place brings other ones. Guinea isn’t well served by air travel in or out or within. Most distance travel is by road. The IMF doesn’t have projects to assess but other lending agencies do. I’d often be invited and it helped put flesh on economic activities. A close acquaintance was the rep for the Islamic Development Bank; his office was adjacent to mine at the central bank. I joined him on a road trip to check on a rice project in the Fouta Djallon. He was a Peuhl (Fulani) and that was his native region. We travelled in my Land Cruiser with my driver and economic assistant both of whom were also Peuhl. We’d agreed to stop at their home villages. However, coming uphill from the site, the car hit a large hole in the road and was tipped onto its side. We were four in the car, but could not move it. Fortunately, workers from the rice fields were quick to come to our aid.

Who’d think a plush hotel suite would be hazardous? The Metropol in Moscow is the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed in: its rooms are mainly like studio apartments, and really feel like personal space. Once you stayed several times, they happily assign you your favourite room. But, they also decide upgrades. So, I was thrilled to get a suite the size of a 2-bedroom apartment, with palatial trimming.

However, I never expected to host my mission chief there for any meetings, but he insisted. Well, it was his first trip to Moscow and he’d been given a plain room. When he got to my suite, his eyes popped out on stalks. I explained how things worked at the Metropole. As soon as we’d done, he headed to reception to demand an upgrade; he got it, but it was meh. 🤔😇

Finally, fittingly, maybe, is the matter of gifts. The Fund had a clear policy on accepting gifts and the acceptable value that did not need declaring. Grandiose gifts could be donated to the institution. I have no stash of expensive watches given by any government 🙂 I had fond memories of eating or drinking my gifts, or giving them to friends. Sadly, gifts are often given at the most inconvenient time, eg on arrival at the airport or worse, on our way from the lounge to the plane, when there’s no chance to put the items into checked luggage and one has to negotiate carrying a mini-statue of Tutankhamen all the way back to Washington. But, let’s keep things in perspective: I’ve some trinkets and commemorative coins that hold many tales of good and bad times serving the world. 🙂

#COVID19Chronicles-131: August 23, 2020-We’re all feeling fatigue

The PM raised an important red flag last week while explaining why restrictions hadn’t been tightened during the recent Emancipendence holiday weekend—national fatigue:

Now, some will not like it that this may be an honest assessment of a real and serious national health issue that needs to be balanced alongside other more-recent health concerns. Some may also say that the acceptance of the need for some R and R should have come with a set of warnings or reminders to people that this should not be an excuse for a mass letting down of the national guard with respect to preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Maybe, it was a sign of naïveté to not do this, given what’s known about the national tendency to ‘let go’.

But, physical and mental health concerns have been high during the pandemic and will remain so while it continues with little sign of easing or ending.

Global concerns are reflected in two recent articles in the UK medical journal, The Lancet, ‘Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic’ and ‘How mental health care should change as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic’:

The summary of the latter is clear: ‘The unpredictability and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic; the associated lockdowns, physical distancing, and other containment strategies; and the resulting economic breakdown could increase the risk of mental health problems and exacerbate health inequalities.‘

Regional level concerns are high, with a focus on the need for wider and better mental health services.

PAHO Director, Carissa Etienne said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a mental health crisis in our region at a scale we’ve never seen before. It’s a perfect storm in every country, as we see growing needs and reduced resources to address them. It is urgent that mental health support is considered a critical component of the pandemic response.” It’s noteworthy that concerns are not just for the general population, but also for the health sector workers, who are now close to burn out, after months of being on the front line of dealing with the pandemic.

Jamaica and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) offered training during June-July: ‘The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has collaborated with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information in Jamaica to skill up [sic] a cohort of trainers in mental health literacy, to address an expected increase in metal health needs of secondary aged school children due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.‘

My wife has been working long hours from home during the pandemic and is mentally exhausted from strings of online meetings and discussions, even though she may be physically better off from not having to do lots of air travel or drive around to meetings as she used to. She’s able to manage her time better and that includes getting a lot more physical exercise by playing tennis.

My daughter had a couple of months of online school and she found it exhausting, needing different skills of concentration and missing certain physical interactions that make learning easier for her. She was glad when these sessions ended, and is looking forward to ‘real’ school in the fall, even with the real health risks still present.

But, we’re lucky to live in Jamaica, with its wonderful places to visit and relax and that we can make use of these opportunities. We’ve taken two week-long breaks—staycations—with some friends and relatives and been the better for it. We’ve had to adjust to the realities of living with COVID-19, whether it’s physical distancing, including with unrelated people being separated for meals, sanitizing, etc

We’re thankful for those blessings and hope our sanity is the better for them.

#COVID19Chronicles-104: July 27, 2020-WI Global ‘In the Living Room’ discussion: Reboot, Rethink and Refocus

I was a guest yesterday in a wide-ranging discussion live streamed on the WI Global Facebook platform. We covered a lot of ground in over two hours on how to reboot the English-speaking Caribbean island economies: regional integration, investment thinking and oppportunities, dependence on tourism, and education—all within the framework of what the future focus should be coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Have a listen, in full or in part, and feel free to get back to me with any reactions.

https://www.facebook.com/WIGlobalmedia/

Whither tourism? Wither tourism? Some thoughts on both

Last week, the Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization caused a few ripples in local consciousness with his chosen words about tourism, that resonated more than a little with the Jamaican location where he was speaking. Quoting from the report made by the Jamaica Information Service, Mr. Taleb Rifai, said:

“We cannot continue to build five-star hotels in three-star communities. This is a very important message we have to keep in mind. We cannot let our visitors live in bubbles; this is not acceptable anymore,”

Several commentators have been somewhat put out by this remark.

My own thoughts were initially some puzzlement–of the ‘Yea, right!’ variety–not least because of the ironic nature of the comment, but also some bewilderment.

Let me deal with the irony, first.

If there’s one thing we know about so-called foreign dignitaries when they visit it’s that they are often made to ‘live in bubbles’. Now, the reasons for that can be many, but they often come down to what gives the best impression of a country and makes most people comfortable in terms of the safety and security of the visitors concerned. At the extreme, such visitors may well be ‘housed’ in the residence of the head of government, or their ambassador (if a national on national business). More normally, they will be found in the ‘finest’ hotels that the country can offer.

Such concerns about safety do not rest only with high-ranking persons, but also with the ordinary visitors, who unfamiliar with a country want to avoid putting him- or herself in harm’s way, unnecessarily. Many countries find ways to deal with this, or at least convince visitors that it is a trivial concern. At a basic level, foreign diplomatic representatives try to warn their citizens of local dangers. Without citing the USA as the model, we can see how the USA, being the source of the bulk of visitors to Jamaica), cautions nationals.

Here is the safety and security advice given by the US Embassy for Jamaica:

I wont judge that for accuracy or otherwise, but leave it merely to indicate how the USA sees the landscape into which its citizens will venture.

They offer some guidance on what is deemed ‘best practice’:

It’s noteworthy to me that the highest risks are flagged as being within all-inclusive resorts. So, if it’s so dangerous inside the ‘bubble’, are we to believe that it’s safer outside?

So, the visiting dignitaries tend to not stay anywhere but in the most-exclusive places, but also visitors are warned that to venture out into the general spaces of the country is riddled with horrors of crime and violence.

Now, we know that when people come to spend their time and money on leisure activities like visiting other countries, they do so with a little more of a cavalier attitude, putting many adverse things down to ‘the experience’ they may gain from foreign travel.

Horror stories come in many forms, and crime may stand as minor compared to some other things such as incomplete lodgings, unsanitary food and lodgings, or things like a lack of activities to make the stay enjoyable. For instance, no matter what one learns about Indian or Mexican culture and history, concerns often focus on ‘Delhi belly’ or Montezuma’s revenge’.

In the search for value for money, the ordinary foreign traveller comes in many shapes and sizes. Unlike the more rarified dignitary visitor. Moreover, the ordinary visitors has to look after him- or herself, not have needs met by hosts seeking to please at almost any cost.

The bewilderment part of my concerns were to think about what tourism has become. If we go back to Mr. Talai’s comment, I was struck by the ‘anymore’. Pardon me for parsing, but that suggests something was alright before. Now, change often does not happen overnight, and if the idea were to signal the need that the tourism industry as it’s manifested say in The Caribbean is in need of overhaul, then the comments make sense only if one puts some time frame of getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

My economist mind quickly went to the fact that nothing is costless, and to wonder what the new tourism may look like in its totality–visitor numbers, gross revenue, percent of revenues retained, domestic linkages, new transport investment, etc. I did not have an answer and I noticed that no one else seems to have put forward an answer that could suggest whether the new tourism would be as significant for Jamaica or less than it is now.

I was also bewildered because world tourism is not principally about small countries like Jamaica, but really about major industrial countries in North America, Europe and some of Asia/Australasia.

The UN WTO tell us that 2017 is on its way to a record year. The trend is showing continued demand for travel, after seven consecutive years of growth (unprecedented since the 1960s, according to WTO), projected at well over 1 billion travelers again in 2017.

But, little countries like Jamaica don’t determine world tourism trends, ie what that 1+ billion people want; we’re edging towards 4 million arrivals–that’s less than 1/2% of the world market. What we do is to try to attract as many of those visitors as we can reasonably support and get them to spend as much as possible. But, it’s the markets in North America and Europe that drive what many visitors will find acceptable. In other words, standards of luxury, attractions, mobility, safety, cuisine, and other things are really determined elsewhere, and you would be a rash country to think that by bucking those trends and tastes you will survive very long. Why? Because people can stay at home and get more for their bucks, euros and pounds.

Tourism represented about US$1.5 TRILLION in 2016; 10% of world GDP. But, note, growth in advanced economies (+5%) was more than double that of emerging countries (+2%).

While it’s nice to think about offering a wide and authentic local experience, it’s also fraught with many risks. It’s only a small fraction of visitors who are prepared to just head out and ‘live like locals’. At the best, they will be willing to sample local food and drink, especially if they have some recognition of them already; ie some penetration abroad helps. So, for instance, Jamaican jerk food has an appeal that would surpass other local delights such as cowskin soup, or even our national dish, ackee and saltfish (‘it’s looks like scrambled eggs’). They will also venture to local attractions if safety seems well assured; that assurance isn’t the same for all visitors.

Let’s not fool ourselves about racial perceptions, either, and how a mainly Caucasian set of visitors finds its comfort level in a mass of black or dark people.

But, part of skillful marketing of a destination is to find ways to get local things to be appealing to as wide a group as possible. That’s never ending. However, many visitors will happily default to things they know from home. Hence, the often-heard cries for ‘Where’s McDonalds?’ or ‘Where’s Starbucks?’, just as examples.

Jamaica does well in that it gets some 40+% of visitors repeating their travel to the island.

I wonder what inclusive tourism would look like in countries like Jamaica. Of course, it depends what you deem inclusion to mean–sectors involved, locations involved, people involved, range of countries from which visitors come, and more. Inclusion could also mean what the country can do with what it earns. That’s more than a bit ticklish, not least because most of the players in the business of attracting visitors are private enterprises, who may or may not put much of their revenue into the hands of national governments. Even if they put money into government hands, how much control do they, or could they exert over its use? So, the 30% of tourism revenue that gets retained is to be fought over, either getting more of it to benefit the nation, and/or raising that share to a higher level.

The world has changed much, and technology now allows many more people to participate in activities like tourism with little more capital investment than the home they already own. Ventures like AirBnB can now make many willing home owners into tourism destinations. Jamaica seems to be trying to get on this train. But, what does that look like or do to the overall market? While AirBnB may issue standards, do they stand up to scrutiny and/or match those offered, say, by hotel associations? Happy AirBnB customers, small in total, may not affect perceptions of the destination much, if the bulk of the market remains covered by formal hotels. Would the market be better if either government or a national tourism organization chose to oversee formally a sector such as AirBnB?

But, many Jamaicans, have done with tourism that they do with any revenue-generating activity in the island–latch onto it, most simply by ‘feeding’ on it as sellers of goods and services (call that ‘vending’). It’s style is often the well-tried, rough-and-tumble kind with shaky wooden structures and hoping that people with buy.

Tourism in small economies is often about managing the obvious tension between haves (foreign visitors) and have nots (locals). With few exceptions, such economies can neither match the average wealth of visitors nor do something more than (maybe not much) to manage to regular or season inflows of people that are many times the number of local residents. In such countries, it’s almost unheard of that hotels or lodgings aimed at foreign visitors will be open freely to locals. One doesn’t need to target ‘all-inclusive’ resorts as if they are essentially different from most accommodation for visitors. It can simply be a matter of how to manage people flows. In such economies catering for tourists is part of specialization.

Industrial countries can build tourism on the back of what they have already achieved. Extensive historical interests can be packaged to be more attractive. Medical facilities are generally of a higher standard so will attract business without being touted as a feature of a destination. Special transport isn’t needed because the basic infrastructure is well-developed. Climatic attractions are already part of local cultures, so things like skiing or boating or natural attractions have already a local base that is strong and can be made stronger by foreign visitors, as opposed to be being developed to attract foreign visitors.

I have some thoughts about the sustainability of tourism, which I may discuss separately, but as with inclusion, I know that sustainability can be defined in many different ways. So, while some may routinely think this means the environment, others may thinks it’s about financial viability, for instance. I’m always leery of discussing terms like this without being clear that I’m on the same page as others. I could easily say that a sector is sustainable if a decade from now it is still in the business of making revenue, providing jobs and demanding goods and services from within the country. That goes for any sector, not just something called ‘tourism’.