Jamaica's Donovan White: Testing, vaccines, visitor numbers

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Jamaica has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, but its tourism director looked ahead to positive 2021 signs.
Jamaica has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, but its tourism director looked ahead to positive 2021 signs.
Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Jamaica recently took a look back at the lessons learned from the pandemic that closed its borders last year for three months.

"We weathered significant Covid fallout," said Donovan White, Jamaica's director of tourism.

As he ticked off obstacles and challenges overcome, achievements reached and goals still to come, I realized that Jamaica's timeline and story in so many ways mirrors that of other Caribbean destinations hit hard by Covid-19.

"From January to mid-March 2020, we were doing very well with visitor arrivals and were on track to meet or exceed our numbers for 2019 of 4.2 million, which was slightly under 2018's figures of 4.3 million," White said.

Jamaica's total visitor numbers for 2020 came to 1.3 million.

Phase one of the reopening last June included the debut of the Resilient Corridors on the north and south coasts dotted with numerous resorts to accommodate guests in certified, approved accommodations.

Jamaica welcomed more than 7,000 visitors in the first weeks after reopening, according to White. That spike continued into July and August with arrival numbers totaling 80,000. During the fall months, numbers dropped off but surged again in December to more than 90,000 arrivals.

The first two months of 2021 were "reassuring," according to White with 43,800 visitors in January followed by more than 50,000 in February.

"Our arrival numbers remain positive, but we have to maintain that balance," he said.

In between the surges in arrivals came the spikes in Covid cases, both in Jamaica and in the U.S.

Last August, due to a rise of Covid in the U.S., Jamaica changed its entry regulations, and all U.S. visitors  had to present proof of a negative PCR test taken within 10 days of the intended travel date. Prior to that, only residents from certain designated hot spots in the U.S. had to provide the test results as part of the travel authorization process.

But as recently as March 10 entry regulations again tightened, with the announcement that all arriving passengers had produce a negative PCR test or antigen test result taken within three days of their travel date, a significant change from the 10-day window.

In addition, the CDC began requiring that all visitors entering the U.S. show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result taken three days before departure, putting pressure on Caribbean countries to put additional testing measures into place.

Jamaica reacted quickly, opening 15 on-island laboratories and test centers, including sites at the airports in Kingston and Montego Bay. More than 40 resorts in the Resilient Corridors responded as well, offering on-site testing for their guests.

Looking forward on vaccine passports and testing

Although Jamaica has seen on-island Covid cases rise in recent days, the first shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine began arriving on island the week of March 8 for residents.

I asked White if vaccine passports would play a role in future travel to Jamaica.

"This is still a matter of discussion and policy at the ministerial level, and we're waiting for more guidance on this," he said.

White believes that pre-entry Covid testing " will be around awhile."

In the year since the pandemic arrived, "we have learned a lot about the industry and ourselves. We had to be proactive, nimble and able to shift and pivot quickly as scenarios changed," he said.

"The destination and all of our partners have worked to prepare Jamaica to function normally and safely in the post-Covid era."

Tourism initiatives in action in 2020

Jamaica's immediate focus when its borders closed was to work with international health organizations to develop health and safety protocols.

The country also came up with free programs to train laid-off hospitality workers with new skills, and it developed virtual programs to stay connected with travel advisors, consumers, the trade and niche markets such as wellness, adventure, romance and culinary.

Jamaica pulled off its first virtual Japex (Jamaica Product Exchange) in November. The destination's annual trade show and conference to showcase, promote and sell its tourism product, drew more than 2,000 buyers and suppliers, got lots of screen time over a two-day period and was described as "the largest Japex ever" by White.

Jamaica's still-to-be-launched Jamaica Cares program, first hinted at by minister of tourism Edmund Bartlett last fall, will encompass the entire destination-wide response to the pandemic, "and will embody our commitment to resilience in the face of challenge," according to Bartlett.

"With vaccines arriving for many and on the horizon for others, a growing number of Gen-C [generation Covid] travelers are acting on their wanderlust and considering or even booking vacations," Bartlett said in a later statement.

"Jamaica Cares will demonstrate to the tourist industry our vision for travel during this pandemic era and beyond."
The program, when launched, is designed to instill confidence in travel advisors and trade partners and showcase that Jamaica is safe to book and beneficial to sell.

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