Some years ago, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation launched a marketing campaign under the tagline “life needs the Caribbean.” It positioned the region’s tourism experience of peace and relaxation as the perfect antidote to the stress and demands of life in its major source markets.
As some countries struggle to balance the need to protect the health and well-being of their citizens with the need to open their economies, I believe the Caribbean region has the opportunity to fulfil this marketing pledge during the current pandemic, finding its own balance while at the same time becoming a model for how health and economy can coexist with Covid-19. This commentary gives the reasons for this belief along with how it can be done, and I am prepared to help. Now is the time for the Caribbean travel and tourism industry to rethink and rework its historical processes and practices and use this pandemic crisis as an opportunity to incorporate new technologies into the business of tourism to enhance its unique visitor experience and better equip its people to maintain more sustainable tourism economies.
Leading the way
Small island states — by virtue of their small size and population and borders bound by oceans — can more easily combat issues afflicting their citizens such as the Covid-19 virus. As microcosms of large countries, they are able to more easily model solutions to global issues such as pandemics and climate change. By controlling the variables impacting their residents and creating the prototypes to address challenges afflicting their population, they can perfect solutions that can be applied to larger and more populous countries. This is evidenced by the number of “Covid-19 free” island nations in the Caribbean where swift and sustained measures were implemented to combat the spread of the virus. Borders were effectively closed, health system response capacity was increased, citizens were educated on preventative measures through intensive communication campaigns, curfews were successfully implemented, and a host of other proactive measures were executed to eliminate the internal spread of the virus. Today, more than 12 Caribbean island nations have reopened internally and are reporting zero Covid-19 cases, with many others near zero or declining.
Like all countries struggling with finding the right balance between the need to protect the well-being of their citizens and opening up their economy, Caribbean destinations have to get the how and when right. Their challenge is intensified by the fact that some of their major source tourism markets have not yet attained the same level of success in curtailing the virus as many in the region. All islands have now reopened to their citizens locked out with the border closures. Most returnees are required to quarantine for 14 days upon return and get tested. This has worked well for the most part, with minimal impact on the zero Covid-19 status of the islands.
The real challenge for the Caribbean is external reopening for tourism and welcoming visitors back. The region is the most tourist dependent in the world, with tourism accounting for over 15 percent of its gross domestic product — and more than 50 percent in some of its islands, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. This level of dependency has placed tremendous pressure on the region’s political directorate to reopen their economies. With an estimated 1.3 million of its workforce employed in the tourism sector, prolonging the reopening of tourism puts unsustainable strain on limited resources already dwindled by over four months of no tourism activity.
In the immediate aftermath of shutting its borders, the region scrambled to establish common protocols for reopening tourism economies in a pre-emptive push to minimise economic impact. Governments, tourism officials, health officials, industry operators, airlines and other stakeholders collectively came up with a plan of protocols and standards for reopening entitled “Reopening of Caribbean Tourism and Travel: Guidelines and Checklists.”
Over the past weeks, some islands have opened their borders to tourists with varying degrees of success. All require some form of negative testing for the Covid-19 virus, either before travelling or upon arrival in the destination — or both — and the submission of a health screening form. As the 14-day quarantine required of residents was not practical for tourism, it is generally not required for visitors. Protocols and standards were put in place for ports of entry, transportation, hotels, restaurants and other points of contact for both residents and visitors. Despite the measures, some islands started to see increased cases of Covid-19. Some are now considering that they may have reopened too early or need to relook at their standards, protocols and processes.
The second wave
Meanwhile in the Caribbean’s biggest source market, the United States, cases of Covid-19 are on the rise in many states as summer festivities and the pressure to open economic activity in some markets have overridden concerns about the spread of the virus. A similar trend is occurring in the region’s largest European market, the United Kingdom and other large countries. Both source markets and destinations now have to reconsider the way forward as both the economic and the health pressures mount. The right balance between timing and protocols is required for an effective opening that meets both health and economic objectives. Now is the time to re-assess and make the necessary changes based on lessons learned from the early openings.
Complicating the safe reopening question is the fact that some experts are now predicting a “second wave” of infections that will worsen as the flu season approaches in the fall and add further confusion about symptoms of Covid-19. Question remains about the reopening of schools, which adds more uncertainty to what may occur after the summer leading into the fall. With experts predicting January as the earliest possible date for a vaccine or herd immunity, the next six months is packed with challenges.
‘For the winter’
While the outlook seems dire for the tourist-dependent Caribbean, there is a glimmer of opportunity for the region to become the “second wave” safety destination of choice. Many families in the colder flu zone states and countries are now considering the “Caribbean for the winter,” anticipating another cold winter of being locked down in their houses. Many are prepared to spend extended periods of the winter in the Caribbean given that they can work from home and schools are very likely to continue remote learning programmes in the fall. With internet services in the region now comparable to those in metropolitan countries, many will opt to spend extended periods in the Caribbean with its alluring outdoor living and activities one Zoom call away.
With the prospects of no cruise ships this winter and a smaller pool of overnight visitors, Covid-19 refugees on extended stays would provide some sustained recurring revenue to Caribbean governments and direct revenues to local businesses. The lost revenue of the last four months and the cost of stimulus packages have placed unsustainable financial stress on already struggling economies, some of which are still recovering from devastating hurricanes and climate change impacts. A well-coordinated and marketed “Caribbean for the Winter” initiative will bring some much-needed tourism economic activity to the region, ease the need for unsustainable stimulus programmes, and place regional economies on a better financial footing for the future.
Being a former director of tourism in the region, I am protective of the success the Caribbean has attained in achieving zero Covid-19 cases in some of the islands. At the same time, I was concerned about the increasing and potentially devastating impact on the region’s tourism economies. I believe that the region is on the right track to achieving the right balance that protects its people and at the same time allows its tourism economies to generate revenues through tourism. However, as many that have opened are learning about getting it right, the devil is indeed in the details.
In an effort to help, I reached out to some experts in my contact list to see how it was possible to achieve the right balance between health and economy and have safe tourism based on the regional protocols published by the Caribbean Covid-19 Regional Task Force in the publication cited earlier. These protocols can be summarised into the following three key objectives:
- effective and efficient testing for Covid-19 to eliminate positive cases from entering the region;
- establishing and maintaining Covid-19 health and safety protocols to protect workers, visitors and citizens while delivering a good visitor experience; and
- managing information and communication to ensure that both visitors and destination officials are able to exchange information at all times, and using data generated from this information as a tool for analysis to identify trends and issues managing the sector.
If these objectives are achieved, they will create a managed risk environment where safe tourism can develop. They also provide a launching pad to elevate the business of tourism in the Caribbean to the level where the region can capitalise on its unique tourism offering to truly develop stronger and more sustainable economies for a brighter future for its people.
The following sections outline the challenges of each of the above objectives and how they can be accomplished based on my research and the input of industry experts I contacted in each of these respective objective areas.
- First I’ll address the challenges surrounding effective and efficient Covid-19 testing in general. The regional protocol requires that persons must have a negative test before being allowed to vacation in the Caribbean. Some destinations require this before departing while some require it on arrival. The concern is how do you contact trace a case where a visitor returns home after a vacation and tests positive for the virus. In the case of testing before departure, it could have happened in travel, in the destination or in the visitor’s residence. In the case of testing after arrival, it could have happened in the destination or in the visitor’s place of residence. Either case complicates contact tracing, and the destination is exposed as a possible spreader of Covid-19. This ambiguity can negatively impact the reputation of destinations that have worked hard to attain zero Covid-19 cases and may not be at fault. Testing before departure and after arrival protects the hard-earned “Covid-19 Free” status of Caribbean islands and allows visitors to more easily contact-trace should they test positive for the virus after returning from a vacation. This raises the question of the effectiveness and benefits of double testing as well as whether extended quarantines are necessary.
Now I’ll address effective and efficient Covid-19 testing for safe tourism. To better understand how to best achieve the objective of effective and efficient testing for Covid-19 to eliminate positive cases from entering the region, I reached out to a chief scientist for a Covid-19 testing company. He explained that based on what is known about the virus that causes Covid-19, signs and symptoms may appear any time from two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Based on preliminary data, the median incubation period is approximately five days, but may range from two to 14.
Clinical advisors agree that the rationale of testing negative 48 hours prior to departure and negative again 48 hours after arriving in a destination is medically and scientifically sound. For many infected, the symptoms appear soon after the initial exposure. So sampling at two days prior to departure would capture an infected individual who was exposed in the days before testing. For those that take a bit longer, the second test would capture those beyond the five-day median period. There are some variations based on exposure, time of exposure, and native immune system, but the rationale proposed would bracket the days in such a way that the vast majority would be captured since the virus would be replicating within hours of exposure. With an assay that is 100 percent sensitive and specific and RT-PCR tests that are a very good assay to pick up very small numbers of virus, the 96-144-hour window would capture infected patients quite reliably and with high accuracy.
Based on expert advice, testing 48 hours before travel departure and 48 hours after travel arrival in a destination, a visitor with two negative tests should be free to enjoy their vacation interacting in a destination observing the same standard safety protocols as residents. This eliminates the need to quarantine beyond the initial 48 hours after arrival, which the guest can do in the comfort of their hotel room. Now that saliva testing for Covid-19 is available with the same reliability and accuracy as the dreaded nasal swap, the experience of creating a safe guest is now more pleasant.
- Now I’ll address challenges establishing and maintaining Covid-19 health and safety protocols. The regional protocols require that all points of contact with visitors observe well-defined health and safety protocols. The countries have done a commendable job in getting frontline personnel trained and executing these protocols. All destinations have standard protocols for social distancing, hand washing, wearing of masks, and other measures in place for hotels, restaurants, transportation, immigration, customs and other points of contact.
The requirement for frontline staff to uphold these protocols on a daily basis is a big additional responsibility placed on them. They are not only responsible for executing health and safety protocols, but they are also responsible for making the guest “feel safe” by the manner in which they execute the protocols. Additionally, they are now required to be “safety and health police,” which can be a challenging task at bars, celebratory events, restaurants and other venues/activities where alcohol is served or where guests are seeking relaxation.
Also needed are special Covid-19 health and safety protocols for safe tourism. To better understand how to best achieve the objective of establishing and maintaining Covid-19 health and safety protocols to protect workers, visitors and citizens while delivering a good visitor experience, I checked in with an expert on training for service standards and delivering exceptional guest experiences in hospitality. He explained that frontline staff already have to effectively display good attitude, skill and knowledge in delivering a good visitor experience. They are now being required to execute health and safety protocols and standards and to make guests “feel safe” in the process. This has introduced the variable of safety to the guest experience, and it overshadows all other variables in the minds of guests.
The region has done a commendable job in defining protocols for health and safety. However, the challenge is executing and implementing them in a way that makes the guest feel safe and to a consistent high standard that makes for an exceptional guest experience. Guests are laser focused on the behavioural aspects of a team member’s service duties in regard to handling difficult conversations, explaining the new protocols, and so on. They also pay close attention to certain technical aspects such as handling food and beverages; team-members following the protocols themselves in regard to hand washing, glove changing, and touching surfaces and their own face; and other guest-visible tasks.
Consistently good optics are critical in this environment and guests are looking for any evidence that boost their confidence in feeling safe. It is therefore imperative and strongly suggested that frontline staff get daily training on the operational and behavioural aspects of health and safety protocols until a culture change takes place in the workplace. It only takes one incident of protocols not being executed or executed in a way that makes the guest feel unsafe to harm the reputation of an establishment.
Frontline staff are critical to a positive guest experience in this Covid-19 environment laden with uncertainty. While guests may overlook a bad service experience, they will not compromise when they feel that their health or safety are put at risk based on real or perceived actions of frontline staff. Habits are hard to change and only training with daily reminders and drills will make a difference.
- Now I’ll offer ideas for managing the information and communication challenges of Covid-19. The regional protocols require that visitors to destinations are required to present completed health forms and proof of Covid-19 negative test results upon arrival in a destination. Some destinations are collecting this information online in addition to immigration information. Early communication is also initiated with the traveller to ensure they are aware of any requirements or information that may develop in the travel process. In some cases, information is being manually processed through the physical handling of paper at the destination.
Managing information and communication in this dynamic and rapidly changing environment has its challenges, and tracking trends and quickly identifying issues and communicating them dynamically presents a challenge for some destinations. It is clear that the contactless exchange of information and its real-time utilisation for managing tourism is key, especially to facilitate quick, safe and efficient entry into a destination. Maintaining communication with the visitor before, during and after their visit is also important in the event of issues related to health.
Asking an expert
To better understand how best to achieve the objective of managing information and communication to ensure that both visitors and destination officials are able to exchange information at all times and use the data generated from this information as a tool for analysis, identifying trends and issues and managing the sector, I contacted an expert on using information and data for customised engagement between the customer and hospitality service providers. He explained that customers respond best when information is customised to their unique situation and allows them to control how, when and where they engage with service providers.
Interactive technology using artificial intelligence and other user-centric tools that can engage in exchange with visitors and provide up-to-the-minute information 24/7 is the standard that is required to meet the demand of the Covid-19 hospitality environment. The technology should allow for the submission, analysis and clearance of requests to visit a destination before travel begins, and this is best achieved with technology that pulls information from various sources such as health, immigration, tourism and other official sources, and seamlessly presents it to where it is needed in the form and on a device determined by the user.
All of the information collected and exchanged with the customer should then be used to produce real-time information and data and statistics for analysis, identifying and tracking trends, marketing, development and the overall management of tourism.
I am convinced based on this work that safe tourism for the Caribbean is possible and the region can safely open up its economies and at the same time keep citizens, workers and guests safe in a managed risk environment. There is an opportunity for the Caribbean to implement this or a similar framework now that will position the region as a “Covid-19 free” haven for the coming winter season. This approach represents a win-win for Caribbean tourism destinations and their visitors. Life needs the Caribbean and the Caribbean needs visitors, especially during Covid-19.
Mr. Malone is a former tourism director for the Virgin Islands. He can be contacted at email@example.com.