Caribbean tourism hotspot Jamaica has reopened its borders to international travellers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
An early lockdown, strict social distancing and a range of other measures saw the island record just a handful of deaths during the outbreak, leaving the country well poised for a quick recovery.
However, with key source markets in the United States and United Kingdom much harder hit, vigilance is the key word when it comes to the restart.
Speaking to Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole, Donovan White, director of tourism with the Jamaica Tourist Board, explains this is the beginning of what is expected to be a long process.
He reveals: “The situation remains fluid, but we are proud of the work we have done over the past three months to manage the nation, from a health perspective.
“We have mitigated the risk of Covid-19 in Jamaica, and we now see declining numbers here.
“The government has worked very hard, very studiously to ensure we were able to flatten the Covid-19 curve in a way that has allowed the prime minister to begin a phased reopening of the tourism sector.
“As such, the borders have now reopened, and those Jamaicans who depend on the tourism industry can begin to go back to work.”
He adds: “We have seen a total of 659 cases of Covid-19 in Jamaica, with ten deaths, and just over 500 recoveries – with recovery meaning two consecutive, negative tests in a period of 24-hours.
“These figures are seen as extremely positive, with a death rate of less than one per cent.”
In line with much of the Caribbean, tourism is vital to the Jamaican economy.
As many as 350,000 people are employed directly or indirectly by the sector, around a third of the total workforce.
The government has done what it can to protect jobs, but losses are inevitable in such a depressed market.
“More than 90 per cent of the people in the sector would have been furloughed or have lost their jobs during the lockdown over the past three months,” continues White.
“The opportunity to restart their lives, their livelihoods, therefore, has been a priority for us in tourism and for the government of Jamaica.”
With the virus still spreading in much of the world, and the number of cases continuing to rise, the reopening of the tourism sector in Jamaica is expected to be tentative.
New measures have been put in place to ensure the safety of local residents, while, if a guest does test positive, protocols have been developed.
For the time being, arrival on the island is likely to be slightly arduous, with all guests expected to take a mandatory Covid-19 test.
“The process is different to what it would have been earlier this year; every traveller, Jamaican or not, must now apply for a travel authorisation,” explains White.
“The process takes about five minutes, very simple – and approval is granted almost immediately.
“This authorisation is required upon check-in for a flight, and it cannot be completed more than 72-hours before departure.”
He continues: “Once you arrive in Jamaica, processes have been extended, but we are working to refine them in order to generate a smooth flow through immigration.
“Health screeners greet all arriving passengers in the airport before immigration, and they will carry out a face-to-face interview for two or three minutes.
“Through immigration, into customs and then onto the testing area – every arriving passenger coming from a high-risk country will be asked to take a nasal swab test.
“Currently we have established a travel bubble with low-risk countries, mostly our Caribbean neighbours, and persons arriving from these destinations will not be subject to testing unless they are exhibiting symptoms.”
Once through the airport, guests will be taken to the ‘resilience corridor,’ an area along the north coast of the island that is reopening to tourism.
“All visitors will be transported to their hotel, located within the corridor, and will be expected to stay there until the results of the test are available – usually within 48 hours,” continues White.
“Within the area, no attractions are open, along with restaurants or any other business in the tourism space, until June 30th.
“The corridor stretches from Negril, through Montego Bay, Ochos Rios and into Saint Mary and Portland – all along the northern coast of the island and close to the sea.
“The area is contained, so if anybody does test positive, we know exactly where they are, and there are opportunities to provide care within that corridor.
“This is all part of our technique - in terms of risk management we hope to contain, manage and mitigate as quickly as possible to eliminate the risk of the virus spreading.”
While the measures are finickity, they are expected to be in place in one form or another for the foreseeable future.
“Until there is a vaccine, there is always going to be a risk, and what we have to do is identify where those risks are.
“The protocols we have put in place will be in place for as long as it takes for us to inoculate society, to get the whole world inoculated against the virus, so you are not importing it.
“There are no plans to ease the protocols until this is the case,” adds White.
“In fact, social distancing, the wearing of masks and other measures will only harden has we add more persons to the corridor – we have to maintain a level of vigilance.”
However, in the longer-term, White foresees a gradual re-emergence of the hospitality sector, as holidaymakers become accustom to the new normal.
“We have reopened from an aviation perspective, and both airports are operational,” he says encouragingly.
“We have a number of flights between both Montego Bay and Kingston and gateways in the United States and Canada.
“We are also in discussions with other carriers, including European carriers, looking a bit further down the road, who are preparing to begin long-haul flights to the Caribbean.
“Those discussions are ongoing, daily, and have a lot to do with the opening of European borders.
Any recovery, however, is expected to take a number of years.
White concludes: “This will be a long, ‘U-shaped’ curve in terms of us here in Jamaica getting back to where we were in 2019 – we are looking toward the second quarter of 2023 to reach pre-Covid-19 arrivals levels.
“This is still a soft reopening; we expect our numbers to be up to 40 per cent of where they were last year in terms of international stopover arrivals.
“This would put us in the range of one million guests this year.
“But, that is if we are able to continue this phased reopening until winter this year.
“Obviously, if something happens, an upsurge in the virus, then this may change – all our numbers now are forecasts.
“While are confident we can develop our methods here in Jamaica, some of our source markets may well continue to be hit, and they may be forced to close their own borders, or limit their nationals’ freedom to travel.
“A lot remains outside of our control.
“We are looking for growth next year, but still around 30 per cent off what we saw in 2019.
“In 2022, we are looking to grow again, but, again, this is based on all things being equal, with 2023 a hopeful return.
“It is a long journey ahead, but tourism is a resilient business and we are a resilient nation – if we continue to do the right things, and do them properly, the journey will come to an end and we can get back to life as we knew it.”
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