Fri | Jan 15, 2021

COVID-19 spike could cost Jamaica millions of tourism dollars

Published:Sunday | August 30, 2020 | 1:05 AM

‘People are already shaky about their travel plans and we don’t want them to have any reason at all to change their plans and cancel’. – Paul Cleary
‘People are already shaky about their travel plans and we don’t want them to have any reason at all to change their plans and cancel’. – Paul Cleary

The “perverse” reaction of the British government to Jamaica’s rising coronavirus infection rate could cost Kingston millions of dollars in well-needed tourist revenue, dealing a blow to the Government’s plans to reignite the economy through tourism.

Effective 4 a.m. UK time on Saturday, August 29 (10 p.m. Friday in Jamaica), the UK removed Jamaica – along with Switzerland and the Czech Republic – from its safe travel list; meaning, arrivals from this country will have to quarantine for two weeks. On the other hand, Cuba, which up until Friday morning had 2,000 more confirmed cases than Jamaica, has been added to the corridor list.

However, with the rising number of infections here in recent weeks, the decision came as no surprise to Paul Cleary, the managing director of Caribtours, described as the UK’s leading privately owned holiday company which has been “handcrafting bespoke holidays” to the Caribbean and other regions for over 40 years.

“We were disappointed but not that surprised that it happened,” Cleary told The Sunday Gleaner.

The decision by the British authorities, after the department for transport said data from the UK’s joint biosecurity centre and Public Health England had indicated a “significant change in both the level and pace” of confirmed COVID-19 cases, came at a time when demand for Jamaica was on the increase, Cleary said. In fact, the travel executive told The Sunday Gleaner, his company has about half a million pounds worth of future business due for Jamaica from October onwards. He’s worried that holidaymakers will cancel should Jamaica remain off the list for a lengthy period.

“Up until now we’ve seen quite a pickup in demand for Jamaica. Our customers who are due to go … they are all happy to leave their bookings in place for the moment, but inevitably those bookings will start to look to cancel, or to change destination, which is a real shame,” said Cleary.

“The best-case scenario is Jamaica is taken off the [quarantine] list as quickly as it has been put on it. If that doesn’t happen, what we’re likely to see is a displacement of demand that would have gone to Jamaica, to go to other Caribbean destinations, so that is not what we want to happen, but that is preferable to the worst fear, which is we just get more cancellations.”

BORDER OPENING

The UK’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said in a tweet: “A lead indicator is 20 cases per 100k over seven days but they take into account a wide range of factors, including level, rate and speed of change in confirmed cases.” In the week leading up to the decision, the weekly cases per 100,000 in Jamaica were said to have increased from 4.3 on August 20 to 20.8 on August 27, a 382 per cent rise.

This seemingly meteoric increase – Jamaica had 2,011 known cases as of Friday – began following the reopening of the country’s borders to international travel on June 15, which the Government saw as the means to getting the economy functioning again.

Other Caribbean countries, such as Aruba, The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, have all been removed from the UK’s safe travel list over the past two weeks due to spikes in confirmed cases since reopening. But so, too, has Trinidad and Tobago, which has yet to reopen its borders, but whose numbers climbed from 173 on August 1 to 1,429 as of August 28. Like Jamaica, which is in the middle of a general election campaign, Trinidad and Tobago has just had an election. The numbers in Guyana have also been rising rapidly and had reached 1,093 confirmed cases as of Friday morning, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.

The spikes in many of the Caribbean countries have some people questioning whether the region is losing its grip on the situation, although Dr James Hospedales, the former head of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, isn’t convinced that it is.

“A country can start early and close borders and test and trace and isolate, and be ‘winning the battle’, but once you begin to open up, the virus is there, waiting to come back in,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

“The question is not only about how governments respond, it is also about how the community and business respond. It will be a test of discipline and ability to change and sustain behaviour change in our entire populations. As the epidemic transitions to more generalised spread, there will be other shocks and tests to our systems. And how we respond to those will also influence the answer to the question: ‘which countries are winning the battle’?”

However, the tiny island of Anguilla, whose three cases makes it the least infected country in the world, according to WHO statistics, has long boasted of its COVID-free status.

“With the initial shutdown of the borders back in March, the people of Anguilla adhered to the protocols that were put in place. To date, Anguilla is in an enviable position of the status of COVID-free,” Cardigan Connor, who until the end of June was the parliamentary secretary of tourism, told The Sunday Gleaner.

The island is to begin welcoming visitors again as of November 1, but there’s a lengthy and costly application process – ranging from US$1,000 for an individual who wishes to stay for under three months to US$2,000 for those wishing to stay up to a year. For families of four, the cost is up to US$3,000.

NO CLEAR LINK

However, one senior Caribbean tourism official told The Sunday Gleaner that there has been no clear link between visitors and the community spread being experienced in Jamaica and some other regional countries. According to the official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, by focusing almost entirely on tourism, many of these countries no longer place adequate attention on public information campaigns.

Whatever the cause, the rise in COVID-19 cases that has kept Jamaica from the so-called CARICOM bubble of Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent & the Grenadines, has also seen it removed from the UK’s travel corridor list.

This, according to Paul Cleary, could have implications for the entire Caribbean’s travel and tourism sector.

“My worst fears are that the people in the UK [will have a] disinclination to travel. People are already shaky about their travel plans and we don’t want them to have any reason at all to change their plans and cancel,” he said.

“We will be hoping this is temporary and we have to be optimistic. We’ve actually seen an increased demand into the Caribbean – not Jamaica specifically, but Jamaica would be part of that – over the past six weeks because a number of closer-to-home destination for British holidaymakers have been off limits. So it’s [taking Jamaica off the safe travel list] a perverse reaction.”

editorial@gleanerjm.com