It's been six months since Caribbean countries shut down their international borders due to the onset of Covid-19. Several of the countries since then have fully reopened their borders, while others are reopening in phases. Still, there's no question that Caribbean tourism was decimated during the shutdown.
Neil Walters, acting secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization gave a grim but unsurprising snapshot of visitor numbers and hotel occupancies up to June, during a CTO webinar panel presentation Sept. 16.
After growth from most destinations in January and February, "there was no travel in April and May; declines averaged 60% overall from January to June in arrivals; and a 99.1% decline in arrivals [was recorded] for the first two months of summer, with just under 42,000 international visitors," he said.
As of today, he said, at least 20 destinations are open, but not all of those are open to commercial air travel.
The Caribbean Public Health Agency (Carpha) tracked 193,620 cases of Covid in the Caribbean from March through mid-August, according to Dr. Lisa Indar, its assistant director of surveillance, disease prevention and control.
"We blunted the curve early, but as the borders began to reopen, we were seeing increasing numbers of Covid cases in some destinations," Indar said.
Frank Comito, the director general and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said that the increase in Covid cases wasn't surprising. "With reopenings, we knew there would be an uptick in cases as air travelers began to arrive from different points across the U.S. and the world," he said.
His report on hotel occupancy was somewhat encouraging: It included a small uptick in advance bookings seen between now and Christmas, which Comito attributed to "strong cancellation policies on the parts of hotels and airlines, as well as the coverage afforded by some of the travel insurance policies on the market now.
And post-Christmas bookings are even more encouraging. "We're seeing some numbers ranging between 40% and 70% of occupancy, primarily in luxury properties," he said.
"If we can just get above 50% in some of the resorts, we can keep the doors open."
What's keeping travel arrivals down in many destinations that have reopened their borders are entry requirements that call for results of a negative Covid PCR test taken 72 hours prior to arrival, a task that can range from surprisingly simple to practically impossible, depending on varying factors.
"Trying to get a test result within that narrow time frame is deterring travel," Comito said. "We've heard stories where travelers have had to cancel reservations because their test results did not come in time.
But Indar emphasized that testing prior to travel is critical to prevent the transmission of Covid, although many of the cases involving a virus spike in a destination are not coming from tourists entering the country but from residents who have traveled outside of their country and unknowingly brought back the virus, or by local-to-local transmission where no travel is involved.
"We have to do the screening, have to have contract tracing in place, have to have quarantine facilities, and we need everyone to adhere to the measures," she said.
Having strong safety and hygiene protocols in place also helps build confidence among travelers, according to Lloyd Waller, the executive director of the Global Tourism Research and Crisis Management Center in Kingston, Jamaica.
"We're also protecting ourselves by having these protocols and by training all hospitality workers to follow them," he said.
The goal is to return to a sustainable business, Indar said. "We've seen destinations open too quickly, have a spike in cases and then have to shut down again." She referred to Carpha's Caribbean Health Stamp, which recognizes every accommodation that has completed intensive training programs and has been certified and verified in the health and safety protocols.
"In the absence of a vaccine, our tourism strategies have to change on many counts, from finding new ways of greeting one another to how to enforce mask wearing," she said.
The CHTA as well as the CTO has developed guidelines and trained thousands of hospitality workers since June.
"This feeds well into what prospective travelers are telling us. Healthy and safety assurances provide confidence for anyone planning to travel these days," said Comito.
The rise of work-and-stay programs, first introduced in the Caribbean with the program launched by Barbados earlier this summer, which give people a chance to relocate and work remotely for up to a year, are generating much interest, according to the speakers.
"In times like these, it is good for our locals as well by providing employment and salaries for them," Walters said. "We should develop this concept further in the future.
And most visitors are not coming from super-long-haul destinations: "The trends we're seeing now are for short-haul international travel," Comito said. "Most travelers do not want long flights, which bodes well for the Caribbean."
Moderator Johnson Johnrose of the CTO asked each speaker what was most important now for the Caribbean.
"Collaboration efforts between the public and private sectors need to continue," Walters said. And he pointed out that since the region and most organizations and associations do not have a lot of money for promotion, "we have to use social media to highlight and showcase that we are ready for tourism, based on the realities that Covid presents."
Carpha's Indar said: "We have to up our surveillance, up the public health structure. Prevention measures must be followed across the board, like wearing masks and preventing large parties and social gatherings."
Comito listed the need for more consistency in the region. "We need more harmony and consistency and less confusion regarding the entry requirements. Everyone must wear masks. The short term pain of wearing a mask is long-term gain."