The time will come, and hopefully soon, when tourists will be allowed to return to the Virgin Islands. Tourism is a part of the economy that is just too big to ignore. Other islands in the Caribbean have already scheduled their opening date, and businesses there can begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.
There are of course people who feel it is too soon, and there will be some who say we should never accept visitors. But the fact is, the crest of the Covid-19 wave has passed, everyone worldwide is now well versed in the dangers and the protocols, and every society is now making adjustments to get back to business in the safest way possible. Will it ever be perfect? No, it won’t, but it wasn’t perfect before 2020 either. Can the world function in a manner that manages the risk of Covid-19 in a reasonable way? Yes, it can.
Here in the Virgin Islands, we can look first to how our guests enter. Testing before travelling is the most obvious approach. Spain is leading the way with testing programmes in place before travelling to the Canary Islands, and Austria has a “test before entering” airport terminal in Vienna. The cost for the testing would be the visitors’ responsibility, though the test and method of testing would be under the government’s control. Programmes like these are likely to be more common going forward.
Once a guest has tested, they can fly or board the ferry. On arrival, there are no drastic changes needed. It might make sense for guests to be required to enlist the services of a single taxi for the length of their stay, to simplify contact tracing if necessary. Or require the group to rent a car. But once they are tested and here — and following the same protocols that they follow at home and around the rest of the world — they represent no greater risk than we do to ourselves.
Yacht visitors present a rather small danger, since they are isolated on the boat for much of their stay. Especially with a local captain aboard, in part to enforce regulations and protocols, they will spend most of their time aboard, or swimming and diving from the boat. When they go ashore, they will practise the same distancing rules that we do, again with their captain there to help guide them.
With a few small changes in regulations, the yacht industry could, and should, open as soon as possible, since yacht visitors present such a limited risk. This would provide needed income and get local captains back to work as quickly as possible.
Tourists who stay in a villa or villa-based hotel can also represent a very limited risk. This is especially true of villas with pools or near beaches, as the guests can enjoy large parts of their stay without leaving the property. If they want to go on a tour or trip, they can be required to hire a local guide who is trained in the local protocols, hours of operation, and rules. This will provide a safer environment for the community, employment for the Virgin Islands, and a richer experience for the visitor.
An important aspect of these tourist safety schemes will be monitoring, and for this purpose there will need to be a new department in government that specialises in the tourist experience in the “new regular.” The agency’s officers would need to be trained in both hospitality and health awareness under the management of the BVI Tourist Board. Their job would be to visit hotels, villas and yachts where possible to ensure and reassure the protocols. During these visits, they will interact with the guests, ensure they are aware of regulations and following them, and have a brief temperature screening. But more importantly, they would also conduct a short and friendly survey about how the visit “feels” for the visitor. Is it enough? Will they come back? Has it changed anything about how they love the VI?
The answers to these surveys would play a key role in how the programme moves forward. With this information, the economic pillar that is the tourism industry can be reinforced with a firm foundation of caution and information, to continue to support the economy in a way that it has for so long. A conservative view towards risk management should take no chances with our health safety, while keeping a firm hand on our financial security and maintaining the relationship with our visitors that has made us the leader in the Caribbean.