Caribbean destinations at odds over region’s tourism reopening

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With regional destinations seemingly at odds over a common date for reopening of the vital tourism industry, two global tourism bodies – the United Nations specialised agency for tourism, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) – have urged the Caribbean to unite to rebuild the sector post-COVID-19.

“This collaboration will really make things different and speed up the recovery,” said Virginia Messina, the WTTC’s managing director.

“The Caribbean has to have only one voice. You don’t have too many infected people, so you can work together with the rest of your customers, but it is important to have negotiation only through one voice and with the stakeholders, the airlines, the cruises and the hotels,” added Alejandro Varela, the UNWTO’s deputy regional director for the Americas, during a webinar hosted by the Barbados-headquartered Caribbean Tourism Organization on April 30.

The message of unity was also stressed at a meeting of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders when they met virtually on May 5 to further discuss their COVID-19 response.

A release from the CARICOM Secretariat following the talks said the leaders recognised “the need for a common protocol for the reopening of regional airports to flights from selected third countries and the reopening of hotels”. It’s for this reason that they appointed the St Lucia prime minister, Allen Chastanet, to head a subcommittee to meet with all Caribbean tourism stakeholders “to settle the appropriate protocols needed to ensure safety for workers and visitors upon reopening of the sector”.

Mere days after that meeting, St Lucia announced plans to reopen its borders to visitors from the United States. Not long after, Antigua and Barbuda said it, too, would begin accepting tourists from the US on June 4.

Aruba and the US Virgin Islands have since announced plans to reopen in June, while the Cayman Islands has said it won’t reopen before September 1.

The decision by St Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda flies in the face of that taken at the level of CARICOM heads of government.

While the release from the CARICOM Secretariat did not mention a reopening date, the prime minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, said at a news conference on May 8 that the CARICOM position was that the reopening of borders to international passenger traffic should not happen before July. Other leaders, including The Bahamas’ Hubert Minnis, have also mentioned July. The Barbados prime minister, Mia Mottley, the CARICOM chairman, has also made it clear that any decision on reopening should be guided by data, not a specific date.

MEETING WITH TRUMP

While this is not the first time that Chastanet has been known to stray from CARICOM positions – the meeting with the US president, Donald Trump, which Jamaica’s Andrew Holness also attended, is one such example – the CARICOM leaders’ rationale for a July reopening was to allow for the agreement and implementation of health protocols, something Antigua has made much of a dog’s dinner of. Initially, the Gaston Browne government said visitors would first have to be tested before leaving the US and would be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. They have since said neither of these will be required, and as the clock ticks, they appear to be groping in the dark for agreed protocols.

Of concern to CARICOM is the fact that both St Lucia and Antigua have said they are opening to US visitors only, even though at press time there were 5.9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 370,000 deaths globally, with the US alone accounting for 1.75 million cases and 103,000 deaths, making it the worst affected country in the world, both in terms of the number of cases and the number of deaths.

Analysts say a much better option would have been to open up to the Caribbean, particularly the English-speaking countries, which research by The University of the West Indies has shown have largely contained the virus.

It’s what the Dutch Caribbean country of St Maarten plans, although it has yet to settle on a reopening date. Speaking at a news conference on May 23, the secretary general of tourism, Miguel de Weever, said while the country was not ready to reopen its borders, when it finally does so, it will be to COVID-19-free areas such as the neighbouring islands of Saba, St Eustatius, and possibly St Barths, Anguilla, Curaçao, Bonaire, and eventually, Aruba. However, he said if any of these allowed visitors from countries to which St Maarten remained closed, residents from these neighbouring states would be barred from entering the Dutch Caribbean country.

While it’s true that Caribbean governments, including Jamaica’s, are being pressured by the airlines and the hotel sector to reopen now, putting profits before people’s lives is deemed to be completely unacceptable, amoral, indefensible, and unforgivable.

(Jamaica Gleaner Editorial)