The COVID-19 pandemic struck the Caribbean at the height of high season, when snowbirds, primarily from the United States, pack the beaches for winter and spring break and provide the revenue to see resorts and sometimes entire countries through the lull of summer and fall.
But in recent years, places like Puerto Rico and the Bahamas have developed a strong summer business, fueled by bargain seekers, adventure travelers and families.
Now, as the region begins to reopen to international travelers, it faces not just the challenge of the pandemic but the financial blow dealt by the absence of cruising and the onset of hurricane season.
Excluding Guyana, the Caribbean economy is expected to contract by 3% in 2020, according to the World Bank.
“We’re not fooling ourselves. We fully expect to see a slow return of travel,” said Frank Comito, chief executive and director general of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, which represents 33 national hotel associations in the region. “We expect those that do open up in the coming months will take some time to see hotel occupancy levels even approach 50%.”
As countries reopen, most are mandating face masks indoors and social distancing.
Other restrictions vary widely. Aruba planned to reopen to Canadians, Europeans and most Caribbean nationals on July 1, and to visitors from the United States on July 10. St. Maarten announced its airport would reopen July 1 as long as COVID-19 cases remained at zero. The Cayman Islands, a nation much less reliant on tourism (about 30% of its economy) compared to many of its neighbors, will wait until September. St. Barts is among several islands requiring a negative COVID-19 test of arrivals or offering one on the spot (for 155 euros, or about $175). Bonaire and Curacao planned to reopen July 1, to some Europeans.
“We’re hoping to get going June, July and August to give the economy an injection we need and then hopefully get through hurricane season,” said Joseph Boschulte, the commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The following are plans for five island destinations reopening now.
The Bahamas entered Phase 2 of its reopening July 1, welcoming overseas visitors. Travelers ages 2 and older must present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 10 days of arrival. They must also submit an electronic health visa that asks questions, including where they have traveled in the last six weeks, and receive clearance to travel.
“As we look at the return of tourism, all data is showing Americans are interested in domestic travel, but because of proximity they are considering the Bahamas a domestic stop,” said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, adding that 82% of visitors are from the U.S. “That’s working to our advantage.”
Some resorts, including Baha Mar, the luxury development on Nassau, will remain closed until October.
But the Bahamas’ largest resort, Atlantis Paradise Island, plans to reopen beginning July 30. By midmonth, it expects to have nearly 60% of its 3,786 rooms open. Its water park and dolphin swim facilities will be open along with its casino and 20 restaurants.
Normally, July and August are two of the resort’s busiest months, attracting families on summer vacations.
“We recognize not everyone will be comfortable initially traveling,” said Audrey Oswell, president and managing director of Atlantis. “If we get to 50% occupancy, I’d be thrilled.”
Jamaica reopened its borders to international visitors June 15, with guidelines to be reviewed every two weeks. Currently, visitors must be preapproved for entry via an online travel authorization that assesses an applicant’s health risk. Beginning July 10, travelers from areas deemed high risk — currently those areas include Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas — must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within seven days of arrival.
Travelers are restricted to a newly designated “Resilient Corridor” along the north coast from Negril to Portland (a second corridor in the area of the capital of Kingston is open to business travelers).
Properties that are allowed to reopen must pass a COVID-19 compliant test, which includes protocols such as sanitizing public touch points like elevator buttons every two hours, installing automatic doors or having a person to open and close doors, and moving as many activities as possible outdoors.
Resorts are reopening gradually. Sandals Montego Bay reopened June 16; five more Sandals siblings will roll out through October. The Tryall Club, the 2,200-acre property with 75 rental villas in Montego Bay, has announced it will reopen Aug. 1. The all-inclusive Sunset at the Palms in Negril plans to reopen July 9. The 55-room boutique Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios has yet to name its date, although management expects it may be in late July.
“We don’t feel we have the level of demand to warrant opening,” said Kyle Mais, general manager of the Jamaica Inn. “Airlines are a big part of the formula. We’re seeing more demand in the later part of the month as more flights are being announced.”
Puerto Rico has announced it will reopen for inbound tourism July 15. Arriving travelers will have to show the results of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours or be tested on-site and, if positive, go into quarantine for 14 days at their own expense.
Beaches on Puerto Rico are open, although the islandwide curfew, in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., has been extended to July 22.
Saint Lucia officially reopened its borders June 4 and expected its first international flights the first week of July. Arriving passengers must provide the results of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of arrival.
About a dozen hotels on the island have applied for a new, required COVID-19 cleaning certification that includes protocols for sanitizing luggage on arrival, maintaining a nurse’s station, updating housekeeping standards, dispensing hand sanitizer and reorganizing dining areas to meet social-distancing requirements.
The Moorings, which offers crewed and bareboat yacht charters, will reopen its St. Lucia base Aug. 1 with disinfected boats, linens provided in sealed bags and advice to passengers to bring their own snorkel gear as it will no longer be provided.
“Saint Lucia is fortunate to have strong occupancy year-round and a number of hotels are keen to reopen because they still have business on the books,” said Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the Saint Lucia Hospitality & Tourism Association.
U.S. Virgin Islands
On June 1, the U.S. Virgin Islands entered the fourth of its five reopening phases, which include welcoming tourists who must undergo temperature checks and health screenings upon entry.
Tourism authorities are hoping that the increase in scheduled flights in July and the recent reopening of such high-profile resorts as the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas will encourage travelers to take a summer vacation in the islands.
“The USVI is ripe to benefit from people who want to stay under the U.S. flag,” said Boschulte, the tourism commissioner.
Until the pandemic, the islands were on track to host 1.5 million cruise passengers this year, 1.4 million of them to St. Thomas. While many of the ship-dependent shops on the main street in the capital of Charlotte Amalie remain closed, other businesses are carrying on.