Did the Bahamas reopen too quickly?
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on June 29, 2020.
As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.
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 economies were battered by the effects of COVID-19 and the loss of tourism. We reported in June that infectious disease specialists warned reopening too soon could result in overwhelmed healthcare systems.
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Tourism is vital to the region’s economic survival and employs over three million in the region. Throughout the pandemic, societies around the globe have tried to balance the isolation and economic harm of lockdowns with doing whatever they could to stop the virus from spreading. Some countries were successful in flattening the curve while others bungled the response.
Countries that have gotten it wrong, (particularly the U.S., where lockdowns were left up to individual states) reopened too soon or never really closed.
They are now being forced to once-again impose new restrictions as the pandemic drags on.
Related: Puerto Rico delays reopening
Unfortunately, we’re starting to see the effects of those warnings as cases surge in the region, and now, one country is locking down altogether. Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced on August 3 that the country would go on lockdown as ICU beds are at capacity and deaths from the coronavirus increase. Healthcare workers in the Bahamas have also warned about overcrowded facilities.
“There has been an exponential increase in the number of cases, an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in the demand for ICU beds, and sadly, an increase in the number of deaths,” Minnis said.
The Bahamas in mid-July banned U.S. travelers from entering its borders by plane or vessel (expect those traveling by private jet) as cases in Texas, California and Florida spiked. That ban was later amended to allow Americans to visit but required them to quarantine for 14 days at a government facility.
Before the increase in cases and subsequent reversal in reopening plans, travel boards, residents and businesses were cautiously optimistic about travel returning to the Caribbean and the islands of the North Atlantic. For Ed Buckley, 2020 was supposed to be the “best year” for his scuba diving business in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has been in operation for more than 20 years.
“Prior to COVID-19, we were on track to have the best year in our almost 22-year history,” Buckley, the owner of St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures told TPG.
And then the novel coronavirus happened.
“We refunded around $75,000 in prebooking money for summer bookings,” Buckley said. “That was tough to swallow since that is money that we normally use for purchasing inventory for the normally busy summer months.” Buckley has reopened his business with new social distancing procedures such as halving the number of divers on his boats and eliminating a communal mask rinse tank.
That’s just one way the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally reshaped the travel industry. Airlines have suspended flights, cruise lines have scrapped some of their ships and many hotels have offered full refunds for hotel bookings.
But in the Caribbean, where the travel and tourism industry is so central to the economy — and how millions of people make a living — reopening isn’t really a choice. Tourism employs nearly three million people in the region and represented 14% of the Caribbean’s total GDP in 2013, according to a World Travel and Tourism Council report.
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Several islands in the region have already reopened to international travelers while more plan to reopen in the coming weeks. With relaxed travel restrictions, tourism boards are operating in full swing while small businesses hope to still turn a profit this year. Amid the pandemic, they also have to balance the economic implications of reopening with safety concerns to avoid outbreaks on small — and in some cases, remote — islands.
So far, many parts of the Caribbean have been spared from widespread outbreaks other countries like the United States and Italy have experienced. Jamaica has reported 684 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths, while the Bahamas reported 104 cases and 11 deaths. Several tourism boards and residents told TPG their countries are ready (and eager) to welcome tourists but urge travelers to practice social distancing.
If done correctly, reopening could inject much-needed money back into the economy and serve as a model for other countries preparing to reopen. But done incorrectly, experts say, could lead to an outbreak that would be devastating to the region and would set back reopening efforts.
“We do not have the health system capacity to accommodate a significant surge in cases … already our health system is on a strain,” said Dr. Yohann White, the medical director at Para Caribe Consulting in Kingston, Jamaica.
Residents agree — and encourage travelers who plan to visit the region to follow local regulations to stop the spread of the virus.
“Barbados is one of the safest places in the world,” Joaquin Brewster, who lives in Barbados, told TPG. “But that can change, [if] the people coming here for vacation have the virus. It goes back to being safe and being cautious.” Barbados has entered phase three of reopening and there is no restriction on travel to the island.
Antigua and Barbuda, two small islands with a population of just under 100,000, reopened for travelers on June 4. Nonstop flights are available from cities like New York (JFK) and Miami (MIA). The country isn’t taking any chances for a potential outbreak — mask-wearing is mandatory — but looks forward to welcoming international tourists again. TPG’s Brian Kelly visited Antigua just last week and said that the country was taking the pandemic very seriously.
“They disinfected my luggage on arrival, [had] plastic sheets in taxi vans to protect drivers and did not take away from the beautiful essence of Antigua,” said Kelly.
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“We want people to come here and to feel very welcomed,” says Colin James, the CEO of the Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority. “So although we might be wearing a mask, we are smiling underneath.”
In this new normal, James says, feeling safe on vacation is as important to travelers as feeling relaxed. In Antigua, health screenings and temperature checks are mandatory upon arrival, and customs officers will have little contact with travelers’ luggage. Hotels have adopted online check-in to minimize contact and workers are sanitizing travelers’ bags after arrival. Hotel rooms are now sealed after being cleaned. Hotels in Jamaica are now required to receive a “COVID-19 Compliant Certificate” to operate, Jamaica’s director of tourism, Donovan White, told TPG in an email exchange.
“Our hospitality workers are receiving extensive training so they can enforce these new regulations, while also continuing to infuse our warmth and culture into the travel experience,” White said.
Several travelers I spoke to are taking advantage of empty resorts and cheaper flights during the downturn. They’ve noticed the strides countries have made to make tourists and residents feel safer amid the pandemic. So what can travelers do to protect themselves and residents?
“As tourism resumes, it will be really important for it to be done responsibly,” said Dr. Catie Oldenburg, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UC San Francisco. “That means taking the same precautions to keep infection down in your home communities.”
Oldenburg says that means avoiding places at a resort, like bars, where overcrowding might take place. Overcrowding can cause transmission at resorts, which can then be transmitted to people who are working at the resorts and their communities. “It could be problematic and re-establish infections in countries where they’ve gotten it under control and [have been] able to reopen.”
Experts and locals say that enjoying a Caribbean vacation is possible even amid the pandemic, but for the reopenings to be a success, it means tourists will have to do their part to protect themselves and residents.
Featured image by Westend61/Getty Images
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