From the release of Covid testing requirements to their complete elimination, several Caribbean islands have restricted pandemic entry protocols. And officials and the head of the travel agency say that these steps will pave the way for regional recovery this year.
Coexistence with Covid seems to be the current rule of the Caribbean, with a declining global case trajectory leading to less hesitation and more confidence among passengers to pack their slippers and sunscreen and head to the islands.
And although variant BA.2 is causing a new wave of cases, unless it requires blocking or the return of strict measures, the region is ready to record a return to pre-pandemic numbers.
“Preliminary data suggest that the Caribbean is recovering from the impact of Covid-19 at a faster pace this year than at last year,” said Neil Walters, acting secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “A lot of it can be attributed to the release of protocols.
“Destinations that have begun to ease restrictions soon are at a more advanced stage of recovery,” he said.
During a Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) webinar on April 7, Walters said arrivals had increased 69% in 2021 compared to 2020, but still fell 41% compared to 2019.
Nicola Madden-Greig, president of CHTA, quoted positive indicators for 2022: Hotel occupancy rates in the first two months of the year averaged around 70% of the industry’s peak performance in the same period before the pandemic.
She also attributed the growth to easier entry.
“We are pleased with the continuing reduction in COVID-19 travel restrictions, which has removed some of the lingering hesitations when traveling to the region,” she said. “Many jurisdictions are seeing an increase in arrivals. CHTA expects the strong travel trend to continue during the summer months.”
What is certain is that Covid’s entry restrictions are still in place. Many Caribbean islands still require some kind of test for Covid when entering. Several destinations are still closed to unvaccinated passengers and rules may still change with frequency.
However, tourism members welcomed the relaxation of policies, such as allowing vaccinated travelers to undergo rapid pre-arrival antigen testing instead of PCR tests, which are more expensive and can take up to 72 hours to deliver.
“Good news in the Caribbean in recent weeks has added destinations including Saint Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados, Curacao, Antigua and Grenada, easing travel restrictions and making it easier for visitors to come to the region,” Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International, said early April.
Jamaica, for example, no longer requires pre-arrival testing for Covid for vaccinated or unvaccinated visitors. The mandate for camouflage has also ended.
Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said in a recent speech that the number of cases in the island country had “steadily declined in recent months and visitor arrivals are rising in hopes of a full recovery in 2023”.
Jamaica was visited by more than 1.5 million visitors in 2021 and plans to reach 2.5 million this year.
This month, St. Lucia abolished all pre-testing requirements for vaccinated visitors and removed document uploads for all passengers. Unvaccinated visitors must prove themselves by a negative PCR test within five days of arrival.
“We remain committed to coexisting with Covid and look forward to the future,” said Ernest Hilaire, St. Lucia’s tourism minister during the February webinar.
Dominica has waived the testing requirement for vaccinated passengers and abolished the quarantine rule for unvaccinated visitors.
On 1 April, Saint Kitts and Nevis gave vaccinated passengers the opportunity to submit a quick test instead of the PCR test previously required.
“We are confident that these amended entry requirements will help revitalize our air arrivals and the ongoing recovery of our tourism industry and related economies,” said Lindsay Grant, the country’s tourism, transport and ports.
Grenada, which had a mandatory 48-hour quarantine last year, recently lifted testing requirements for all passengers. Aruba, Curacao and Puerto Rico have done the same.
The Dominican Republic has not required testing at Covid since September 2020.
The number of visitors approached 5 million last year, which is almost the level of 2019.
One hurdle: Return testing
One policy that many see as an obstacle to reviving tourism – but beyond the control of the islands – is the rule that all international arrivals the day before joining the US are tested by regional leaders joining a corps of industry voices advocated by the Biden administration to repeal requirement for vaccinated.
“We believe this will further stimulate travel to the Caribbean,” said Madden-Greig.
However, for passengers in the US, this is one obstacle less. On March 10, Puerto Rico dropped the Covid protocols for all travelers. No vaccination certificate, pre-entry test or travel permit is required, which, combined with the fact that you do not have to test or have a passport to return to the US mainland, is one of the easiest islands that US travelers can visit. (The US Virgin Islands have waived pre-entry testing for vaccinated passengers, although non-vaccinated passengers still need to test.)
Jorge Hernandez, CEO of Aerostar Airport Holdings, the operator of Luis Munoz Marina Airport in San Juan, called 2021 a “star year” for consistent messaging, which he said the region should receive.
“All islands need this kind of message to explain to passengers that travel requirements are now easier as the pandemic subsides as demand for travel grows,” he said.