The pandemic struck these islands unequally. What does this mean for tourism, a major economic driver for the entire region? The answer is unique, just like the islands.
By Emily Palmer: New York Times: May 25, 2021
On the glassy blue waters surrounding the U.S. Virgin Islands, catamarans and pleasure yachts have packed the shoreline for the past year — a scene so busy and crowded, it’s unimaginable, even before the pandemic.
Indeed, the business of charter yachts is booming, and expected to pump at least $88 million into the local economy this season, almost double the roughly $45 million that came in 2019, according to Marketplace Excellence, which represents the U.S. territory’s department of tourism.
But less than 12 miles away, the quiet waterways of the British Virgin Islands present a different story. Relatively few boats have harbored there since last spring, when Britain mostly shuttered the territory to international tourists. Strict Covid safety protocols have kept many away.
Before the pandemic, the Caribbean was the world’s most tourism-reliant region, according to recent calculations by the World Travel Tourism Council. Made up of dozens of sovereign nations, territories and dependencies that often reacted disparately to the virus, the region was struck unequally by the coronavirus. Some islands were walloped by staggering caseloads, while infections on others sometimes dwindled to single digits. With 48 percent of its population fully vaccinated, and 62 percent at least partially vaccinated, Turks and Caicos is one of the most inoculated places in the world. Haiti hasn’t received a single dose. And like the B.V.I., the fates of many Caribbean islands are tied to their colonial history. With limited sovereignty, truncated voting rights and an economy largely serving international visitors, they are often subject to the decisions of nations far away.
Health care infrastructures across the region are limited, and many islands have endured flip-flopping border closures and stringent curfews. The result: Tourism has drastically declined, sinking the region’s gross domestic product 58 percent last year.
According to a recent survey by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, a quarter of the more than 250 Caribbean tourism companies surveyed said they do not expect a full recovery until at least mid-2023. More than half of those businesses surveyed said they were unsure they could stay afloat.
In a handful of islands with fewer travel restrictions and more successful vaccine campaigns, tourism is already thriving. For the U.S.V.I. and Turks and Caicos, for example, catering to a wealthier market and specializing in luxurious longer stays, strong numbers are only expected to rise, as islands market a Caribbean summer to an increasing number of vaccinated Americans.
But much of the region lags perilously behind. Unable to secure vaccines and with no end to the economic turmoil in sight, the economies and the people of these islands are endangered — along with the myth of paradise found on their sugar-sand shores. Here’s a look at the strategies that various islands have adopted to survive, from work visas to testing availability.
Aruba’s passport to Covid safety
Proactively responding to travel trends has helped position some islands ahead of others. In February, occupancy rates on the Dutch island of Aruba fell more than 66 percent compared to the same month a year before, according to a recent STR destination report.
Then, in March, Aruba teamed up with JetBlue, which offers about 40 weekly flights from the United States to the island, to debut CommonPass, the world’s first digital vaccine passport. Those with the digital pass may take a virtually supervised at-home PCR test within three days of departure, upload results and cut through immigration lines. United’s Aruba flights from Newark and Houston also use the pass, with plans for additional routes in the near future.
“We wanted to create a way to make it easier on travelers and more efficient for our air travel partners,” said Shensly Tromp, director of development and technology at Aruba Airport Authority N.V., “without compromising the safeguards we have in place around health and safety.”
Vaccination information will be added to CommonPass as early as June.
Before the pandemic, almost three-quarters of the island’s gross domestic product and nearly 85 percent of jobs had been rooted in tourism, according to W.T.T.C. analysis. Now, with tourism up 53 percent from February to March, Dangui Oduber, the minister of tourism, public health and sport, noted a “continual uptick” since Aruba’s dual CommonPass and vaccine rollouts.
Aruba too is a world leader in vaccinations. As of mid-May, almost 57,500 Arubans were at least partially inoculated, with the island optimistically reaching herd immunity this summer, Mr. Oduber said.
‘Reaching the end zone’ in the U.S.V.I.
Even when Americans were shut out of most of the world, the borders to the U.S. Virgin Islands never closed. Lured there with slogans like “Reconnect with Paradise” and the chance for anyone to get vaccinated, even before many could get a shot back home, visitors have recently crowded the American territory’s beaches and restaurants.
Hotel occupancy rates in the U.S.V.I. are almost triple that of the region and seven times that of the Bahamas, according to recent analysis by STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.
Visitors are required to get tested but not to quarantine. With tourists swarming, the U.S.V.I. prioritized hospitality workers early in its vaccine rollout. So, in February Sandy Colasacco, a nurse practitioner who runs the Island Health and Wellness Center, a nonprofit clinic serving many of St. John’s uninsured population, reached out to most restaurants and hotels there to schedule appointments.
“The fact that everyone can get vaccinated and feel safe when they work, even though they’ve been exposed to hundreds of tourists every day, is a relief,” Ms. Colasacco said.
Bryan Mitchell, a software engineer from Los Angeles, discovered that on St. Croix, getting vaccinated was easier than finding a rental car. Extending their stay for the second round, he and his girlfriend were among the tourists who received some 4,150 shots.
“Getting the vaccine and stepping out of the pandemic, felt like reaching the end zone,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Among the first American communities to vaccinate everyone 16 and older, the U.S.V.I. had fully vaccinated 31,645 residents and tourists as of mid-May and is on track to administer 50,000 first shots by July 1, said Tai Hunte-Ceasar, medical director with the territory’s health department.
The health department declined to provide an official target date for reaching herd immunity. But Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has equated reaching that goal with greenlighting the Crucian Christmas Carnival, a monthlong festival on St. Croix in December, which traditionally brings together many islanders and tourists.
But while top Caribbean destinations a year into the pandemic experienced a 34 percent dip in flights, according to global business aviation data by WingX, Americans are already coming to the U.S.V.I. in droves.
A joint partnership to expand testing in Turks and Caicos
Despite low infection rates and a massive vaccine rollout, by late January, Turks and Caicos was just days from effectively re-closing its borders — because the U.S. government had suddenly required inbound international travelers to show proof of a negative antigen test, and Turks and Caicos lacked such a testing infrastructure. Several thousand Americans already vacationing there would be stranded and the travel dollars just returning to the semi-independent British territory would again disappear.
Turks and Caicos, which officially reopened in July 2020, expected some 30,000 visitors — many of them Americans — to its 40 islands and cays in February. A closure would be a devastating blow.
“It was a do-or-die moment for Turks and Caicos,” said Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, then the premier.
With just seven days to plan, Ken Patterson, the chief executive officer of the five-star Seven Stars Resort & Spa, offered to front $600,000 for the archipelago’s needs.
“It really was not that hard a decision,” Mr. Patterson said, noting the catastrophic effects of a potential second closure. “More like swerving to avoid a car wreck: It was just instinctive.”
And so the territorial government and private sector imported 60,000 test kits, immediately certified 18 new testing sites (most at resorts), trained hotel staff to conduct tests and passed a series of laws to ensure health standards.
“It was very, very important for the Turks and Caicos to get it right,” Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said. “Having a tourist come back and say they weren’t stuck, that personal story was the best marketing we could get.”
Deborah Aharon, the chief executive officer of the Provo Air Center, a private airport serving the archipelago, said that traffic is busier than ever.
Since January, the number of private jet flights in and out of Provo Air Center has soared more than 50 percent above rates seen before the pandemic, she said. Mid-May traffic rocketed 73 percent from 2019.
Overall, tourism to the archipelago hovers around 70 percent capacity, but Seven Stars, which now offers a drink voucher along with complimentary Covid-19 tests, is sold out for May and almost sold out for June, with little availability until September.
“It was literally like a tap being turned on,” said Mr. Patterson, noting he had never seen such high demand. In recent weeks “we’ve taken more bookings than we have in the last year.”
St. Barths and the B.V.I.: few tourists to be seen
On the other end of the spectrum, some islands are still undergoing extreme economic stress.
In February, with variants sprouting across the globe, France again locked its territories down, including the 11-mile-long St. Barths. The island is largely autonomous, but not independent.
When St. Barths had its first reopening, last June, tourists quickly returned to the sparkling watercolor island — rusty red roofs and pink bougainvillea set against blue-green sea.
“We never experienced such a busy operation,” recalled Fabrice Moizan, the managing director of Eden Rock - St. Barths hotel. By January, he said, bookings were full through June — long after the typical high season.
“We were ready for the best year ever,” said Nils Dufau, the president of the tourism committee on St. Barths, who noted that Covid-19 cases eventually plateaued as they ramped up testing.
Then, Mr. Moizan said, “out of the blue we received this decree from the French government.”
In mid-February, the island’s territorial council asked the French government to reopen its borders. “The economic consequences of this decision are expected to be dire, especially as no horizon has been drawn,” the council members stated in a policy memo.
“They got our message loud and clear,” Mr. Dufau said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get a positive response.”
In April, the island received Pfizer vaccines from France and pushed a massive rollout. More than two-thirds of the island’s adult residents are now at least partially vaccinated, and the hospital has no Covid-19 patients. St. Barths reopened to the European Union, Britain and some other countries last week, Mr. Dufau said, and expects to reopen to Americans in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, the British Virgin Islands, which had fully vaccinated 4,201 people — or just shy of 14 percent of the population — by mid-May has endured the almost-complete closure of its waterways to international inbound travelers for over a year. Ferries reopened April 15, and those going between the B.V.I. and U.S.V.I. will increase passenger capacity and add a second daily ferry starting May 27. Otherwise, international vessels are still barred, and there is no timeline for reopening, said Keith Dawson, the tourist board’s public relations manager.
Testing and quarantine requirements remain disparate across the region, and testing in the B.V.I. is laborious for those who still want to visit. Travelers must get tested three times — before travel, upon arrival and following a four-day quarantine. (Most travelers with proof of completed vaccination can exit quarantine following a negative test taken upon arrival.) Anyone accused of breaking social distancing rules can be fined up to $10,000. (The territory, which in March had no cases, recently ticked up to 33.)
“Visitors compare no restrictions in the U.S.V.I. to some restrictions in the B.V.I., so the choice is easy for many,” said Clive McCoy, the B.V.I.’s director of tourism, alluding to the shift in tourism to its American counterpart.
Before the pandemic, the B.V.I.’s G.D.P. ranked third in the world for its dependency on tourism, which provided almost two in three jobs, according to a recent W.T.T.C. analysis. The territory has turned to its strong financial services sector to help alleviate the economic strain, Mr. McCoy said.
Other islands have no such safety net. While the U.S.V.I. and Turks and Caicos enjoyed prompt and massive vaccine rollouts, much of the region is dependent on vaccines from other nations or via a discounted global program known as Covax. Largely headed by India, which is plagued by its own desperate outbreaks, the initiative promises to eventually provide poorer countries with enough vaccine doses to cover just incremental portions of their populations. But it faces a $23 billion funding gap and delayed shipments.
Stalling public health and their economic recoveries, countries reliant on Covax are not expected to be widely vaccinated before 2023, “if it happens at all,” according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
So far, the Bahamas and Barbados have only received enough vaccines from Covax and India to fully inoculate fewer than 11 and around 20 percent of their populations, respectively. By February, the Dominican Republic had ordered 20 million doses across international suppliers, but has only received a few million so far, according to government news releases and news articles.
Looking ‘beyond tourism’ in Barbados
A few weeks after the world shuttered, Peter Lawrence Thompson, an entrepreneur from Barbados, pitched the idea of one-year remote work visas to the island’s cabinet. “Our tourism industry must adapt or risk death,” he wrote, outlining a plan to take “Barbados beyond tourism.”
“We’ve been talking forever about diversifying the economy, but it’s hard,” Mr. Thompson said of the independent British Commonwealth nation. “This is a new type of tourism, it’s just very long-term. It’s not vacation, it’s workation.”
More than 2,500 people — mostly from the United States, Britain, Canada and Nigeria — have applied since the Barbados Welcome Stamp Visa began in July, according to recent data from Barbados Tourism Marketing, Inc.
And Terra Caribbean, a real estate group with properties across the region, recently found that about three-quarters of almost 100 visa holders they surveyed had never even visited Barbados before they applied for the program; by November, more than 40 percent of the newcomers Terra Caribbean tracked were budgeting $2,500 to $5,000 monthly for housing.
“From a Barbados brand perspective, this initiative will pay dividends for many years to come,” the group concluded in an analysis this fall.
The remote-work concept has been adopted by other nations across the Caribbean, including Anguilla, Aruba, Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Dominica and Montserrat.
Danita Becker, a senior product owner for a start-up in Dallas, moved to Barbados with the visa in September.
“Coming to the island accelerated a lot of growth for me, putting into perspective some of my career goals,” she said, adding that it provided a break from the mental stress of social isolation and racial tensions in the United States.
Now, most mornings, Ms. Becker, 40, who had never spent more than a few weeks in Barbados visiting her Bajan family, swims in the sea before returning home or to an open-air restaurant to work. Weekends include snorkeling and swimming with turtles, and she has also joined local Christian fellowship groups.
Welcome Stamp may extend visas another year, but Ms. Becker is considering citizenship.
“I have aspirations to make a mark on the island,” she said. “And through technology and volunteering, do my part to improve things here.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.