These Caribbean islands are successfully combating the pandemic -- here’s why you should think twice before visiting
Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
The Caribbean and the islands of the North Atlantic Ocean were some of the first regions in the world to reopen to U.S. travelers, as these destinations rely heavily on tourism. And they've managed to keep their infection rates low with strict mask mandates and quarantine measures. Breaking the rules can even land you in jail.
But that doesn’t mean you should immediately hop on a jet to trade cold weather and snow for rum punch and white sand beaches. A coronavirus outbreak could be catastrophic for residents, and as positive cases and deaths in the U.S. and around the world continue to soar, it's clear why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging travelers to stay home.
These Caribbean islands are handling the pandemic well -- but do they really want tourists? And should you visit? Here’s what you need to know about the Caribbean islands with the lowest COVID-19 infection rates.
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Islands with the lowest infection rates
Unsurprisingly, the islands that have kept the coronavirus at bay have several things in common: low populations, remote locations and few direct flights connecting them to the U.S.
In fact, five islands in the Caribbean have recorded no deaths at all. The combined islands that make up the Caribbean Netherlands -- Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius -- have recorded just three deaths.
The table below shows the 10 islands with the lowest COVID-19 rates (we’ve lumped the Caribbean Netherlands together). The positive rate data comes from the CDC, while positive cases and deaths are pulled from Johns Hopkins University, which has tracked the spread of the novel coronavirus.
There’s little data on how many hospital beds each island has, but some of these countries appear to be better equipped than the United States. For instance, the U.S. had just 2.83 hospital beds per 1,000 people in 2014 while Grenada, with a population of 112,000, had 3.7.
|Name||Population||Positive cases||Positive rate per 100,000 people||Deaths|
|St. Kitts and Nevis||52,834||39||70.2||0|
|British Virgin Islands||30,030||114||372.1||1|
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines||110,589||1,059||940.2||2|
|Saba, St. Eustatius & Bonaire||25,987||193||3|
While many Caribbean nations have been largely spared from the virus, that doesn’t mean you should immediately plan your next vacation there. In fact, you might not even be allowed to go. The Cayman Islands, for instance, is currently closed to the majority of visitors. Even some islands with the lowest positive rates, including Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, now carry “Level 4: Very high” warnings from the CDC -- which means you should avoid all travel.
Challenges facing Caribbean destinations
The Caribbean is often treated like a sunny playground for travelers, but the effects of the coronavirus disease uniquely impact residents. More than 15% of people in the Caribbean are employed in the travel sector, and tourism represents just under 14% of the Caribbean’s total gross domestic product. That means the region is heavily dependent on the travel and leisure industry whether the region wants tourists right now or not.
But the coronavirus poses more than financial threats to the region.
Last summer, I wrote about the struggles facing the Caribbean when it reopened to tourism. At the time, infectious disease specialists warned reopening too soon could result in overwhelmed healthcare systems.
When I spoke to Dr. Yohann White, the medical director at Para Caribe Consulting in Kingston, Jamaica, he put the situation in the region bluntly: “We do not have the health system capacity to accommodate a significant surge in cases … already, our health system is on a strain,” Dr. White said in June.
A large share of travelers to the Caribbean are from the U.S., which is currently experiencing a surge in positive COVID-19 cases and deaths. And dangerous new variants of the disease have been discovered around the world.
Unfortunately, there’s some correlation between an increase in positive cases and reopening borders. In August, Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis put the country on lockdown after ICU beds were at capacity and deaths from the coronavirus spiked. U.S. travelers were initially banned in July from entering by plane or vessel as cases spiked, but the ban was later amended to allow Americans to visit following a 14-day quarantine at a government facility. Americans can now visit the Bahamas with a negative RT-PCR (swab) test taken within five days of arrival and a Bahamas Travel Health Visa (including mandatory insurance).
That means if you are planning to visit the Caribbean, you should do so with extreme caution.
Tourism during a pandemic
Because the region is so dependent on tourism, it has had to adapt to serve travelers despite the ongoing pandemic. One way it did so is by offering tests to travelers returning to the U.S.
The CDC recently issued an order requiring anyone flying to the United States to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before departure. It’s a necessary requirement to stop the spread of the virus, but it’s also a new hurdle for travelers and a potentially devastating blow to resorts in places like the Caribbean.
Related: What it was like flying home now that the US requires a negative COVID-19 test
However, the region appears to have quickly adapted to the new mandate.
Several resorts quickly announced plans to provide on-site testing to guests. The entire network of Sandals resorts across the Caribbean will provide free COVID-19 tests to guests through the end of March. You can also find on-site COVID-19 testing facilities at multiple properties across St. Lucia, Barbados and Antigua, for instance.
Depending on where you’re headed in the region, you may be required to quarantine or show negative a coronavirus test to opt-out of isolation. Many islands also require travelers to fill out a health declaration form before arrival. For instance, the only way to avoid a 10-day quarantine in Bonaire (at your own cost) is to present proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken 72 hours before arrival.
As reported by Travel Market Report, St. Barts has reopened to travelers who can provide proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test three days prior to arrival (or a negative rapid test two days prior to arrival). The CDC has even lowered the advisory risk in St. Barts from a Level 4 to a Level 1.
And, destinations like Anguilla, Aruba and the Bahamas require that you purchase mandatory health/travel insurance that covers COVID-19 as a prerequisite to entry.
Cases around the world are beginning to drop, and while much of the Caribbean has been spared from the grim numbers we’ve seen in other parts of the world, the stakes there are much higher. That means if you're planning to trade your cramped apartment for the Caribbean sun and sand, you may want to rethink your plan, especially if you’re coming from the U.S.
Additional reporting by Stella Shon.