Commendably, the Caribbean has responded proactively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Borders were effectively closed and health system response capacity was increased. Citizens were educated on preventative measures through intensive communication campaigns. Not to mention, curfews were successfully implemented and a host of other proactive measures were executed to minimize the internal spread of the virus. Later, islands opened internally and about 10 opened to international visitors.
The challenge with reopening tourism
Caribbean islands have opened to tourists with varying degrees of success. All require some form of negative COVID-19 test result for entry, either before travelling or upon arrival, and the submission of a health screening form. All destinations have put health standards and protocols in place for ports of entry, transportation, hotels, restaurants and other points of contact for both residents and visitors. Despite the measures, some islands started to see increased cases of COVID-19 after reopening to visitors. Some are now considering that they may have reopened too early. Or, need to relook at their standards, protocols and processes.
The “2nd wave” and the vaccine
The question of when and how to reopen safely is now complicated by the fact that major tourism source markets are now experiencing a “2nd wave” of infections. The coming fall flu season in winter markets will add confusion about COVID-19 cases given their similarity in symptoms. Additionally, questions remain about the reopening of schools. With experts predicting January as the earliest possible date for the even remote possibility of a vaccine, the next six months is packed with challenges.
Many families in the colder flu zone states and countries are now considering the “Caribbean for the winter”; anticipating another cold winter being locked down in their houses prompts this. Many are prepared to spend extended periods of the winter in the Caribbean given they can work from home and schools are very likely to continue remote learning programs in the fall. With internet services in the region now comparable to those in major source markets, many will opt to spend extended periods in the Caribbean. Besides, outdoor living and activities has its allure being one Zoom call away.
Managed risk and safer tourism
This spells opportunity for the Caribbean if it can achieve the right balance that protects its people and at the same time allow its tourism economies to operate. However, as many that have opened are learning about getting it right, the devil is indeed in the details. The Caribbean protocols and standards published by its COVID-19 Regional Task Force provides a way forward with the following three objectives:
- Utilize effective and efficient testing for COVID-19 to eliminate positive cases from entering the region;
- maintain and execute COVID-19 health and safety protocols to protect workers, visitors and citizens;
- manage information and communication so that both visitors and destination officials are able to exchange information at all times.
These three objectives can be classified as the Three Ts (Testing, Training and Tracking) of Safer Tourism and can be achieved as follows:
- Testing: Based on expert advice, testing 48 to 72 hours before travel departure and 48 hours after arrival in a destination is a magic number. Or, allowing visitors with two negative tests for freely enjoying their vacation interacting in a destination; that is, observing the same strict standard safety protocols as residents. Guests can quarantine for 48-hours in the comfort of their hotel room.
- Training: Consistently good optics are critical in this COVID-19 environment; guests are actively looking for any evidence that boost their confidence in feeling safe. It is therefore imperative that frontline staff get daily training; on the operational and behavioral aspects of health and safety protocols until a culture change takes place in the workplace. After all, it only takes one incident of protocol breach; or, poor execution to make the guest feel unsafe and harm the reputation of an establishment.
- Tracking: Interactive digital technology that engages visitors before, during and after their visit; additionally, providing up to the minute information 24/7 is necessary. Technology that pulls information from various sources such as Health, Immigration, Tourism and other official sources; to seamlessly present it as needed, in the form required and on a device determined by the user will help tourists feel safer.
It is impossible to totally eliminate COVID-19 risk in the Caribbean, or any tourism destination. However, it can be managed in a way that protects workers and local residents.