Monday, June 08, 2020

Al Fresco

I don’t think it especially pessimistic to imagine that it won’t be before 2022 or possibly even 2023 that international travel re-attains pre-pandemic levels. (It's a perspective I share with many airline executives.)

This means that Antigua, more than any other part of this country, could be faced with a fairly catastrophic and protracted economic contraction no matter what happens with the staggered reopening — and we’re looking at mid-September at the earliest if things pan out absolutely optimally in that respect.

It strikes me that Victor Hugo may have been advised to keep a relatively low profile during this period of official calamity, but to pop up again more consistently later on as the face of ‘Antigua, open for business’.

This isn’t going to work without a plan. And giving San Juan del Obispo a paint job doesn’t count as a plan.

Frankly, this is going to involve taking some fairly ruthless decisions. It’s Titanic time, lifeboats are limited and it’s women and children first or everyone is going to end up in the freezing Atlantic. This is inevitably going to be painful, but the authorities have got to decide who to help and who to leave to their own devices.

Back in March I advised a process of triage whereby socially valuable businesses would receive the best care available. Instead we have seen an emerging level of closures where the more useful small firms are actually suffering more than some of the blatantly naff and parasitical ones.

Parts of London are looking to open up now by allowing restaurants and even pubs to serve people outside. 

This would be eminently possible in Antigua as well. One of the most important beneficial changes in San Cristóbal de las Casas over the past decade has been the pedestrianisation and general tarting up of Real de Guadalupe.

Our own Mayor could essay something similar with the Calle del Arco, but my feeling is that the medium term economic security of the city may depend on creating a peatón-only zone* of 3x3 blocks, or equivalent. 

This will surely place some at an advantage and further disadvantage others, but it is necessary, and the time for action is now. 

Al Fresco dining and drinking faces both cultural and meteorological challenges. I remember when Escudilla was in its prime that even during the so called Verano here people used to try to arrive early to avoid the tables that were totally eposed to the elements. 

No matter how warm the day has been, here starry skies portend a bit of a chill. Even in Cambridge I recall sultry summer evenings unlike anything ever
experienced here. 

Tables on the street seem so natural in southern Europe, but Guatemalans will possibly need time to adjust. My wife and I have a long-standing favourite restaurant in the world, a small seafood café above the Vieux Plage in Biarritz. We always sat outside, and however much she adored the place, she never quite got used to the passage of pedestrians between the tables and the main part of the restaurant. 

There's going to be more to this than just blocking off a few roads to cars. The streets themselves may need to be re-formed for the new normal if it is going to work, and that means an investment level indicative of more than a short term compromise 

* Whilst recalling that in Italy Al Fresco tends to mean in jail. 


norm said...

As someone who has spent a great deal of time in other parts of Guatemala, that are not tourist towns, the merchant class in Antigua has been enjoying pretty high margins for a long time compared to other areas. From what I understand, most of that higher cost is rent-an empty building pays no rent, that needs to be addressed first.

Inner Diablog said...

Over time, if demand were to drop significantly, rents might now come down. We know some of the key players in this market and at the moment they need the money less than their tenants. If you compare what simple staples — like a 2L bottle of Coke — cost in the little shops of Antigua compared to outlying communities like Jocotenango or San Pedro you can see the effects of this clearly. Everyone has collaborated in fostering a sort of fake dollar economy. One silver lining would be the death of this, but attitudes take time to change. I make no secret of the fact that I’d like to see a decommercialisation of this town, or at least a significantly restructured form of commercialisation.
Some of the places that can only open for collection or delivery are still charging stupid prices, because they are still shackled to those rents presumably. The businesses that will survive are those that are brave enough to do more than simply wait and pay their way through this pause. I know one place with a good brand that has shut its main outlet and has found other more flexible ways to sell during the pandemic.