How are the island reopenings going? What advice would Antigua (the first Caribbean destination to reopen, on June 4) give to Grenada (reopening later this year)?
During a June 23 Caribbean Tourism Organization live update on the reopening of Caribbean tourism, Charles Fernandez, minister of tourism for the twin-island country of Antigua and Barbuda, outlined the behind-the-scenes work that took place to ready his destination for its first international visitors since March.
Several of the practices put in place are similar to those being followed on other islands or could serve as a model for future openings.
"We had our first visitors arrive on June 4 on an American Airlines' flight from Miami, but lots had happened in the months preceding that flight," Fernandez said.
He recounted discussions regarding the pandemic that started long before the government shut down arrivals in March, which was followed by a total curfew for several weeks.
"We operated via Zoom and WhatsApp to stay in contact with our stakeholders and set protocols in place," he said. "We had government approval to bring a doctor on board to train our staff, because we knew we had to change our entire outlook regarding the visitor experience, from arrival to departure."
Tourism and hospitality officials communicated with the Ministry of Health frequently during this time, and during a meeting in April the decision was made to target June 1 as the border reopening date.
"We knew we had to have everything in place by or before that date regarding arrival procedures, training for hotel and Airbnb staffs, redcaps, taxi and van drivers, customs and immigration officials, local tour operators, catamaran companies, horseback riding excursions, take-out or dine-in facilities, retail stores and attractions," he said.
The Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment as well the Ministry of Tourism ran classes for more than 1,500 hospitality workers on both islands. Classes included simulations at hotels regarding check-in and safety procedures, dining setups and in-room sanitation methods. Similar simulations took place at the airport.
After the training classes, all participants had to take an exam, and those who passed (and most did), received a Covid-19 Approved decal to display prominently in their place of business.
"We are confident we have done everything to mitigate the spread of this virus for our people and our visitors," Fernandez said.
"The key was to involve all stakeholders from the beginning. We had union representatives, line workers, medical personnel and government and employee representatives at all virtual meetings," he said.
Antigua reopened with one flight a day from Miami that will increase to 12 a week in July on JetBlue, American and Air Canada and 20 a week in October.
Arriving passengers complete a health declaration form, have a thermal temperature check and a PCR swab test of the nose or back of throat. Results of the test are sent within 48 hours to the hotels or wherever the visitors are staying. The test cost, which is paid by the passenger, is approximately $100. Fernandez said that "we are getting the rapid test soon, and it could be cheaper."
A positive test results in a 14-day quarantine in a special section of each hotel.
All guests are temperature-checked daily, and all must wear face masks in public areas and when they move about the island.
As a precaution the destination expanded its infectious disease center in case it would be needed. To date, it remains vacant. And no positive Covid cases have yet been reported among visitors since flights resumed.
Since the reopening, Antigua's visitor count "numbers about 120 on weekends at each resort and between 75 and 100 during the week," according to Fernandez. Approximately 713 rooms are open in nine properties, which represents 23% of rooms in properties that are members of the Antigua and Barbuda Hotels and Tourism Association.
Listening closely was Dr. Clarice Modeste-Curwen, Grenada's minister of tourism, who announced during the webinar that Grenada's borders are slated to reopen on July 1 the date was later pushed back, after Covid-positive cases remained on the upswing in key markets like the U.S.
Dr. Clarice Modeste-Curwen, Grenada's minister of tourism.
Grenada's tourism minister asked her colleague from Antigua what advice he could pass on beyond the measures he had outlined.
Fernandez emphasized that "it is very important to involve all stakeholders from the get-go. It builds confidence in your employees and workers to know that they play a vital role in welcoming visitors and making them feel safe."
Grenada is no longer close to reopening, but it has been preparing. It did a test run of airport operations that began with repatriation flights for Grenadians who had been stranded abroad. "We knew that the Maurice Bishop airport had to be shipshape in terms of thermal cameras, a quarantine section, physical distance markers, setups for the PCR and rapid tests, immigration procedures and health and safety measures for passengers and personnel," Modeste-Curwen said.
And its Ministry of Health trained 1,500 stakeholders, including taxi drivers, housekeeping and maintenance staff, cleaners, security, porters and food and beverage handlers. Face masks are required of all visitors and locals in hotels and public spaces.
"This is a challenging time, and we are dealing with a fluid situation, but thus far Grenada has had low numbers of positive cases and no deaths," she said. "We have put expensive measures in place to safeguard our citizens and our visitors as other destinations have done and are doing. It's the spirt of the Caribbean that we share this knowledge and stay united in this time."
Fernandez echoed her sentiments. "At the end of the day, we are all selling the Caribbean," he said.