"It's been an interesting year."
Those words of understatement from Raquel Brown, CEO of the St. Kitts Tourism Authority, belied the challenges faced and obstacles overcome by this island of 53,000 people, one half of the two-island Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere.
Covid-19 has played havoc in the Caribbean for a year now. No island has been spared the loss of life, revenue and visitors, yet St. Kitts is a success story for several reasons.
While neighboring islands are currently grappling with case surges, intermittent lockdowns and curfews, St. Kitts enacted measures since its phased-in Oct. 31 reopening that have so far worked to keep total Covid case numbers to date at 40 and no deaths.
"Our entry requirements are stiff," Brown said. "They have to be because our on-island resources are limited, and our goal always has been to keep all our locals, residents and visitors safe."
The entry requirements include a PCR test conducted at least 72 hours before arrival, use of a contact tracing app for the first 14 days on the island, and a required quarantine in approved hotels for seven days followed by a PCR test on day seven and a third on day 14.
Brown said that St. Kitts was the first destination to test departing visitors, well before the new CDC requirement took effect Jan. 26.
"No one is leaving our destination without being tested," she said. "We do not want our visitors to spread this virus when returning home."
Visitors must vacation in place -- a more pleasant description than "quarantine" -- upon arrival in St. Kitts. If they test negative on day seven, they are free to book a tour, although access to destination sites on the island is limited to select guided excursions, which right now include just one: The historic Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, designed by British military engineers and built by African slaves. It's set high on a hill with stunning views all around.
The tour is by appointment only for small groups accompanied by a certified guide, Brown said. Visitors get a brief look at Basseterre on the way to the fortress. The tour price is $80 for one to four people and operates Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"We are still in phase one of our reopening," Brown said. "We're reviewing more tour offerings, especially for our longer-stay visitors. We know they want to see more of the island and have more activities available.
"Everyone in this region is looking to capture tourists. It's very competitive now, but we cannot let our guard down or take anything for granted."
A total of 621 rooms in eight properties are currently approved and available for guests on St. Kitts and Nevis. As demand goes up, more rooms and properties will be added, according to Brown.
St. Kitts and Nevis welcomed 3,000 visitors in the recent Christmas and January period, of whom 80% were from the U.S.
"We used to get 15,000 visitors during this period," she said. "We would love to have cruises return when it's safe for all of us."
Visitor arrivals went from 80,000 to 130,000 a year in the five-year period ending in 2019, and cruise passengers totaled more than one million in 2019.
"What's important now is to not let inertia set in," she said.
"Masks are mandatory everywhere, we hope to have the AstraZeneca vaccine here by April, and we in tourism must keep our brand out there so that when we are ready to ramp up, visitors will know this is a safe island with much to offer," Brown said.
Getting the message out these days is primarily through webinars with travel advisors to share information and keep St. Kitts on their radar for when the time is right.
"We will do island promotions and restart fam trips once the coast is clear," Brown said. "Right now we're taking everything in stride and we're keeping everything in place that has worked thus far. Our travel and tourism will bounce back."