Caribbean islands closed borders while case counts were still small, and enforced local lockdowns. The region’s infection tally is currently less than half a percent of cases worldwide—and now, it’s one of the first destinations in North America that’s ready to bring travelers back.
“The English-speaking Caribbean has achieved containment of COVID-19,” says Dr. Clive Landis, pro vice-chancellor at the University of the West Indies and head of UWI’s COVID-19 task force. Curves are also flattening in much of the Dutch and French Caribbean. “The next phase will be critical as Caribbean countries begin to cautiously reopen their economies,” says Landis.
In that next phase, which countries are working on now, new government-mandated protocols will outline safety standards for airports, taxis, and hotels. Most property managers are retraining staff on disinfection and distancing as they face new realities on the islands. The Caribbean islands reopening are moving cautiously, in order to rekindle tourism while keeping both residents and visitors safe.
A gradual return to air travel
The U.S. Virgin Islands is poised to lead the region’s reopening, letting leisure visitors back into St. Thomas and St. Croix by way of American Airlines on June 1, though the only flights currently posted originate from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“The airlines are all expected—assuming that we keep the same mandate of June 1—to increase flights to the territory,” says USVI commissioner of tourism Joseph Boschulte, who added that Delta has expressed plans to add flights at travelers’ increasing request.
Following USVI, Antigua is set to open on June 4, with one American Airlines flight from Miami. St. Lucia will also allow U.S. visitors back on June 4, and American Airlines will operate the single inbound flight from Miami that day. The region hopes to eventually welcome U.K. travelers back, but British Airways isn’t expected to restore flights until July.
Aruba and Grenada also intend to reopen in June, and Belize and the Bahamas are slated to follow in July.
JetBlue is “planning a slow increase as borders are opened and restrictions are eased,” says Tamara Young, a corporate communications representative. “In June, we tentatively plan to offer limited service to 13 international destinations.” In the Caribbean, those destinations include flights to Grenada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and St. Lucia.
Travelers to the Caribbean will either be tested on arrival or have to present proof of a negative virus test taken 48 hours before boarding. St. Lucia and Antigua fall into the latter camp. However, testing availability could be an issue—in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current recommendation still doesn’t include testing individuals without symptoms. Once there, visitors will be expected to wear masks and practice distancing in public places across the region.
The need for leisure travel
The Caribbean attracted 31.5 million visitors last year, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and with some islands relying on tourism for more than half of their gross domestic product, many in the region are eager to recover from more than six weeks without visitors.
That’s all part of what’s driving this next phase of opening up, says Boschulte, who added that tourism represents nearly 60 percent of USVI’s GDP.
“I think the islands need their visitors,” says Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the St. Lucia Hospitality & Tourism Association and executive director of the island’s Jade Mountain resort and Anse Chastanet properties. But nobody wants to rush into reopening borders and “risk that we are bringing COVID back in,” she says. “ So, clearly, we are giving a lot of thought to ensure that we can keep the country safe, keep the guests safe.”
At Jade Mountain, the 29 rooms overlooking St. Lucia’s Pitons mountains were already set up so guests could go days without encountering anyone but their butler. Now even wait staff and housekeeping can make themselves scarce upon request. Guests—including many who have asked to keep their July bookings—will find hygiene stations around the property and a dining room spaced for distancing.
Conflicting emotions around reopening
On the other side of St. Lucia, at Duke’s Place in Gros Islet—a fish grill where locals and visitors dine seaside on Friday and Saturday nights—owner Erwin David thinks it would be better not to rush reopening to travelers from hard-hit places, like the U.S. and Europe.
“I personally feel like the American market would be the highest risk,” he says, though that’s the very market St. Lucia will welcome back first. Still, he’s prepared to spread dining tables out and keep what’s always a long line of eager eaters from getting too close. “As long as we take the necessary precaution measures, we will be okay. We are a small island and we cannot afford to let things go out of hand here. Our population is only about 180,000 people. That can wipe us out.”
Other destinations that have seen the crippling effect of no international arrivals are more eager to reopen.
“Tourism is 45 percent of our GDP, so you can imagine we need to have our guests back sooner than later,” says Tanya McNab, marketing manager at Belize’s Ray Caye private island resort, which will welcome guests back in July when the country intends to reopen. The resort’s dive team is working on sanitization measures for snorkeling gear alongside added efforts to deep clean the property, but eagerness is outweighing wariness among staff.
“I can’t think of a person that I’ve spoken to in the last 30 days who is not ready to reopen,” she says. “I don’t think people are scared, I think we are all nervous that this is a totally new normal.”
Whether governments are ready to reopen borders or airlines are prepared to restart flights, the onus remains on travelers to be conscious and considerate in their actions to keep the islands safe.
As Troubetzkoy puts it: “It really gives a completely new meaning to responsible tourism.”
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