Edmund Bartlett | COVID-19 diplomacy, tourism and the future of the developing world
I note with obvious concern the new mandatory COVID test requirement that has been recently introduced by the governments of Canada and the UK. The new protocol requires that all persons, both citizens and visitors alike, entering into both countries by air, present negative test results to either facilitate entry or to avoid self-quarantine.
While I certainly understand the need and responsibility of all governments to protect their citizens during this global health crisis, the non-discriminatory manner in which the new requirement is being applied will undoubtedly set back the recovery of small vulnerable destinations globally, especially those that have made considerable efforts to successfully bolster their health and safety standards to insulate tourists from the risk of COVID-19 infection. After what has been an uncharacteristically calamitous year for the travel and tourism sector in the Caribbean, any hope for a semblance of an uptick during the highly anticipated winter tourism season has effectively been crippled by the latest responses from two of the major source markets for the region. Along with the US, Canada and the UK account for up to 70 per cent of all tourist arrivals in the Caribbean.
The new measures come on the heel of a disastrous November period for travel and tourism. The International Air Transport Association has noted that severe travel restrictions and quarantine measures caused air travel demand to slow down and come to a complete stop in November, with international passenger demand for November being 88.3 per cent below November 2019 level and slightly worse than the 87.6 per cent year-to-year decline recorded in October. The new restrictions being imposed by Canada and the UK will certainly add to the frustration, discomfort and bureaucracy that disincentivizes persons from taking trips outside their countries. At the same time, they also unfairly punish destinations that have done everything in their power to make vacationing safe for international tourists.
Additionally, the new mandatory COVID-19 test requirements will mean that the health authorities of struggling tourism-dependent countries will now be required to find resources to test hundreds of citizens and visitors on a daily basis. This promises to add another layer of burden to an already acutely difficult period characterised by increased government expenditures amid declining revenue performances.
From the onset of the pandemic, tourism officials in Jamaica have responded aggressively to adjust to the new normal. Since March, we have been actively engaging all our stakeholders and partners, including travel agencies, cruise lines, hoteliers, booking agencies, marketing agencies, airlines; World Tourism Organization, Caribbean Tourism Organization, Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and others to coordinate responses to the crisis. We have developed the required infrastructure, provided support to the Ministry of Health and Wellness and have educated all stakeholders about the COVID-19 virus. We have worked to develop our 88-page The COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols, which have been endorsed by the World Travel and Tourism Council as providing leadership in tourism COVID-19 management arrangements, and that have helped to distinguish Jamaica as among the most COVID-19-resilient destinations in the world. The protocols cover all segments of the tourism industry, including airports; cruise ports; accommodations; attractions; tourism transportation operators; craft traders; water sports operators; general security and public safety; and mega events.
Generally, most hotels and resorts have introduced protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including increased physical distancing, wearing of masks in public places, removal of shared or self-service items, installation of handwashing/sanitisation stations, visible cleaning taking place frequently, and more contactless/tech-based transactions. We have also created a special unit, called the Stakeholder Risk Management Unit, to monitor the implementation of COVID-19 response measures at tourist accommodations across the island.
In June, we launched the concept of COVID-Resilient Corridors to boost the country’s ability to manage and trace the movement and activities of tourists along controlled corridors of the island. The Resilient Corridors, which encompass the majority of the island’s tourism regions, provide the opportunity for visitors to enjoy more of the country’s unique offerings, as many coronavirus (COVID-19)-compliant attractions, located along the corridors, are authorised for visits by the health authorities. When tourists arrive in Jamaica, they can only visit approved places within the corridor. As a result of our proactiveness and vigilance in COVID-19 risk management, the country, to date, has not recorded a single case of a COVID-19 infection linked to an international tourist who has vacationed at any hotel within the country.
During this incredibly difficult period, Jamaica has therefore proven to be a safe and secure destination for international tourists, and we will continue to monitor and improve health and safety standards to protect every single tourist who lands on our shores. We, consequently, implore the governments of Canada and the UK to consider revising their latest one-size-fits-all COVID policy and, instead, take into consideration the peculiar circumstances and risk level associated with travelling to individual countries. Thoughtful consideration to this suggestion will give tourism recovery the push-start that the sector so desperately needs. The economic livelihoods of millions of people depend on it.
Edmund Bartlett is minister of tourism for Jamaica.