Stakeholders on Tortola rolled out the red carpet for cruise ship visitors this week for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, touting the territory’s readiness to receive visitors on a larger scale again.
“This afternoon marks a monumental shift toward a more positive outlook for the tourism sector,” Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie de Castro said on Oct. 12 at a ceremony celebrating the return of cruising and anticipated revival of many tourism-related industries hurt by worldwide shutdowns. “We acted quickly and worked tirelessly to carefully balance the safety of lives and livelihoods. Notwithstanding, we can all agree that it has been a long and challenging road leading up to this point, and words cannot describe how excited I am that we are now seeing another glimmer of hope in our economic recovery efforts.”
Though a few cruise ships previously had docked in Road Town since the end of last year, they couldn’t carry passengers and had to follow strict rules about keeping crewmembers onboard. But the first guest-filled boat arrived on Oct. 13 in Road Town.
Ms. de Castro said that after VI leaders met with industry partners at the 35th annual SeaTrade networking conference this month, the territory had confirmed an additional 176 calls starting this week and continuing until 2024.
The calls — which include Disney, Carnival and Royal Caribbean lines — bring the total expected calls for the 2021-2022 season to 299, she said during a press conference on Oct. 8.
“Having such favourable commitments from the major cruise lines is an indication that the cruise industry is confident in our ability to deliver on the required safety protocols, as well as their recognition of our excellent cruise product,” she said.
As part of the new stage in reopening, Premier Andrew Fahie said at the Oct. 8 press conference that training will be required for taxi and tour operators and other residents dealing directly with incoming tourists.
Informed by concerns from some parents about school-age children sharing space with tourists, drivers will have to complete new protocol training and stop by a sanitisation station at Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park for inspection every time they pick up cruise ship passengers, according to the premier.
He added that fines will be enforced for anyone who is found to have skipped the station.
He also said that cruise lines will be enforcing their own safety protocols.
“They have ensured they have created the safest environment imaginable with a vaccine rate of 95 percent or greater, reduced passenger loads, and [implemented] more-than-adequate preventative measures and medical facilities,” Mr. Fahie said.
Though children younger than 12 on board the ships are not required to be vaccinated, he said cruise lines have enforced additional testing measures to assure the safety of all passengers.
Wherever possible, the VI sought to be the first stop on their itineraries, in which case the ships will be “free flowing” and not restricted to a specific “bubble” of countries, according to the premier.
Otherwise, travel will be restricted to specific stops in the Caribbean, and passengers will be randomly tested along the way, he said.
The premier also urged all VI residents to more carefully follow social distancing measures and get vaccinated against the disease if they have not yet done so. As of Oct. 8, he said 41 active Covid-19 cases remained in the territory.
The premier also shared his optimism that the reopening will offer a serious boost to the territory’s economy and help provide new job opportunities for residents who have been out of work or underemployed at some point since March 2020.
Since borders reopened in December 2020, the territory has received more than 30,000 visitors, Mr. Fahie said.
But he acknowledged that greater volumes of incoming guests are needed to support various industries.
“We’re on the verge of putting a lot of persons back to work,” Mr. Fahie said.
Tortola Pier Park CEO Vance Lewis said on Oct. 8 that demand for tenancies at the park remains high, and occupancy is close to 90 percent. Though some vendors have struggled to keep up with rent, he said the park is not seeing any sort of “massive delinquency.”
“The management has been pretty flexible in our approach to the tenants in terms of ensuring that we balance the need for us to collect the rents with the need to keep tenancies open,” Mr. Lewis said. “Understand that every business in the tourism industry, globally, has been challenged. In some cases, we’ve seen the total collapse of the industry. We have not seen that.”
In the coming weeks, Mr. Fahie said government will be working to increase the number of entry ports and testing sites throughout the islands, intending to facilitate economic activity across the territory.
Rehabilitative works are beginning on the Virgin Gorda airport landing strip and facilities this week, he said.
“Furthermore, plans are being drawn up to begin construction of the testing facility at the Virgin Gorda airport so that it is ready for Thanksgiving,” he said.
On Anegada, he said, steps are being taken to accommodate more arrivals at the airport with the greenlighting of night-time flights starting Nov. 1.
He also announced the government’s intention to make the Anegada ferry port a permanent international port of entry.
Extra ferry trips are pending as well, he said.
Ms. de Castro said the government is in dialogue with the BVI Tourist Board and industry partners to determine what measures are necessary to welcome back megayachts as well. Tourism Director Clive McCoy said marketing campaigns are in the works in anticipation of the holidays.
All taxi and tour operators must get cruise certified before taking on passengers by completing a mandatory “refresher” course on health and safety protocols provided by the Taxi and Livery Commission and the Environmental Health Division, officials said.
Courses were offered on Oct. 11 on Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and on Oct. 12 on Jost Van Dyke and virtually, according to information published on the government’s website.
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