Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Adam Stewart, the deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International, is normally on a plane much of the time, island-hopping between the seven destinations where Sandals and Beaches hang their shingles.

He was grounded in Jamaica when we spoke by phone last week, but even so, his perspective and outlook on the state of Caribbean tourism buoyed my spirits.

"My family is in good health, and we're adjusting to the new way of living," he said. And as for the Caribbean, he said he believes the region is "miles and miles" ahead of where it was in March when Covid-19 first settled in.

"We've gone through a multitude of phases, from the shutting down of air travel and borders to the drafting and approval of protocols and the sharing of ideas and programs," he said.

Of course, the progress on Covid, in particular, doesn't march forward in a straight line. The Bahamas, for example, opened to U.S. visitors in July, but then it closed, and then it quickly reopened with strict quarantining protocols that have recently been slightly relaxed. The Sandals Royal Bahamian on Nassau and Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma, which had targeted July for reopenings, were pushed back to November. (St. Maartin, where Sandals doesn't have resorts, is another example of Covid's ongoing impact: it closed to visitors for a 30-day period earlier this month).

Sandals has revised reopening dates for other properties, such as its Sandals Regency La Toc in St. Lucia and its resort in Grenada. Beaches Turks and Caicos was pushed back to October.

But in Jamaica, three of its properties are open, as well as one in St. Lucia and one in Antigua. La Toc is scheduled to open at the end of the month, and its two Barbados properties are planning to reopen in early September. The company also announced plans for a St. Vincent resort down the line.

Stewart described the strong spirit of cooperation and teamwork among hotel associations, competitors, governments, tourism organizations and entities in the public-private sector as "a beautiful thing to watch."

On the other hand, there's no road map for the response to Covid, either from a strictly tourism or a safety perspective. "It's been like driving a car at night with no headlights," he said.

He said that Jamaica's pages of health and safety protocols represent hours of challenges of work and days spent testing and training sectors such as taxi drivers, local tour operators, restaurant staff, market vendors, charter boat crews and store clerks.

"These standards have been duplicated in many of the islands so that all of us can welcome our visitors, keep them and our people safe and rebuild our economies," he said.

And educating travel advisors so that they, in turn, can educate and inspire confidence in travelers, is "critical," he said.

In Stewart's opinion, the only thing holding back tourism is testing. "People still want to travel," he said. "The demand is there. We see this in our call centers and on social media."

He's hopeful that a vaccine is near and that rapid testing will be approved and become the norm for entry. 

"We know our customers," Stewart said. "The difficulty that they encounter, that all international travelers encounter these days, is the complexity of testing and obtaining test results quickly to meet the entry requirements on each island."

Meanwhile, at his resorts, as at most Caribbean properties in this new normal, masks are mandatory of all staff. Hugs have been replaced with elbow bumps. "But we are making a pin for every one of our team members to wear. The pin has a photo of their full face with a big smile because it's hard to see a smile with a mask on," he said.

Stewart was upbeat about the path ahead and said he believed that the worst is behind us.

"We're on our way to recovery," he said. "September and October is the traditional off season, so we know the numbers will be down, but I'm seeing nice demand in November, and 2021 looks promising.

"We are proud of our industry. Tourism is our lifeblood. We have to get this right," he said, adding that "we will not be defeated by a virus, and we will not take the world we love for granted."

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