How Strict COVID-19 Protocols Enabled Jamaica’s Travel Reopening

Like several other Caribbean destinations, Jamaica was headed for a record-breaking tourism year in 2020. Then came COVID-19 outbreak in February and all those plans were scuttled.

Jamaica and virtually every other country in the tourism-reliant Caribbean the destination is now faced with the dual task of controlling local COVID-19 infection rates while still shepherding nascent tourism activity even as visitors arrive from potential hotspots (including the U.S., Jamaica’s largest visitor sources market.

Jamaica was among the earliest Caribbean nations to re-open its borders to visitors, announcing travelers could return – subject to detailed protocols – on June 15. The move was closely tied to the country’s status as one of the region’s three largest tourist destinations (trailing only the Dominican Republic and Mexico).

We spoke this week with Donovan White, Jamaica’s director of tourism, to discuss the reasons behind Jamaica’s management of this unprecedented situation.

TravelPulse: What are you focusing on now that Jamaica is to months into welcoming visitors again?

Donovan White: Our single most important job in this country is to protect lives and to protect livelihoods, and that’s been our focus and the mantra of government in Jamaica. We must provide safety and security to every Jamaican who lives within the borders of our great country and to do it in such a way that can allow for the opening of our borders and therefore return to allowing visitors in.

That’s been our focus and we remain vigilant in that regard. But clearly we are like every other nation, learning to live with COVID. We have to begin to move through the different phases of developing the right protocols, the right set of behavioral practices that will continue to protect lives and protect livelihoods.

TP: How has the pandemic impacted Jamaica’s visitor arrivals?

DW: In 2019 our tourism arrivals, including stopover and cruise arrivals, were 4.3 million. We’re going to be nowhere near that, certainly for the next 18 to 24 months. That’s just a fact. There are no cruise ships sailing the waters, so that eliminates 1.6 million arrivals immediately. And there is no clear definition, certainly from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at this time of when they will provide any kind of permission for the cruise lines to begin sailing again.

Even when they do, the level of confidence that will be required for cruisers to return to travel remains something of a vacuum that we are yet to understand what that will look like. As it relates to air travel and stopover stays, the airlines’ business has been decimated.

None of the things we have endured in the last several years, from wars to epidemics, has ever bought the airlines to a halt in almost 70 years in business. That presents a real challenge for the return of the capacity that existed pre-COVID.

TP: How is that reflected in terms of economic impact?

DW: In our own planning, we [determined] our numbers will likely be on a very slow ramp-up basis over the next 18 months, and we’re probably not going to be 25 or 35 percent of our usual intake of visitors over the next 12 months. That will probably graduate forward beyond 12 months into 18 or24 months. Of course, those numbers are pre-supposed based on the trajectory we see today and the information and intelligence we have from the marketplace and the air carriers.

In 2019 tourism accounted for just under 10 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) directly, and indirectly induced 34 percent [of GDP]. So we are very dependent on tourism from an economic standpoint. When your economy is built that way, you don’t just flip a switch and change into something different. It’s about using your natural resources to develop your economic model.

TP: What were the priorities as you re-launched visitor arrivals?

DW: Like everyone else, we started slowly and that depended on the ability of airlines to fly, their willingness to fly, and having the protocols to fly. But more importantly, it also depended on our ability to put the right set of protocols in place to be safe and to provide a safe environment.

We created a resilient corridor that has enabled us to bookend resort areas across the country. Those corridors have borders, meaning that when tourists come in, they can only go to places within the corridor. That way we are able to understand where [travelers] are, and if something happens we know we have to track and trace someone. We know exactly how to manage any exposure that may have happened whilst they were there. We’ve taken these steps to reopen but more importantly in a safe way that protects lives.

TP: Some observers have used this occasion to point out Caribbean destinations must diversify their economies. How do you respond to that assertion?

DW: We are very dependent from an economic standpoint on our tourism infrastructure. Our agricultural space is very integrated into our tourism product, our transportation system is very integrated into our tourism product, our attractions are very integrated, our artisan sector is integrated, and our manufacturing center depends heavily on our tourism product to generate business.

When you think of such an integrated economy with tourism at its core, when you remove the core, everything falls apart. So we’ve had to take a very hard look at how we bring some kind of tourism activity back.

TP: While Jamaica has been recognized by some observers for its management of COVID-19 within its borders, there have been ups and downs, including hoteliers who have complained about policy changes. How have you dealt with this?

DW: Ups and downs are part of managing the risk. You have to be nimble and able to pivot as is needed to protect lives, sometimes to the displeasure of some of our business partners. But that part of learning to manage risk and living in a pandemic where you’re not always in control of all of the variables.

As things present themselves as being dangerous or exposing both travelers and residents unduly, the government has said from the start that we were always going to be flexible and shutdown if we have to or put more restrictions in where incidents of exposure may present themselves.

TP: How have you been able to establish COVID-19 adherence around the country?

DW: We were early in the game understanding what we needed to do and now best to do it. The first thing we had to do was to ensure we contained and managed the virus in such a way that we provided confidence first to the Jamaican people.

We put the protocols in place that convinced the Jamaican people we were working in their best interests. And that convinced our partners in the travel markets also understood we were working to bring business back because they also depend on destinations like ours to drive their own economies as well. It’s a connected loop when you think about it.

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