Following the government’s recent announcement that expatriates will be allowed to enter the territory starting in September, one big question remains about plans for the border reopening: When will tourists be welcomed back?
We are glad that the government has avoided the temptation to rush this step — unlike several other Caribbean islands, some of which are now battling a resurgence of Covid-19 as a result.
Nevertheless, even with the Virgin Islands’ own resurgence now ongoing, the borders here will need to open eventually. The territory needs a strategy for how that will happen even if it includes multiple contingencies.
As leaders have stressed often, public health should be top priority. But the economic situation is also urgent. Tourism is the territory’s largest employer, and because of the pandemic and the border closure many businesses are earning little or nothing.
One of stakeholders’ most often repeated complaints, however, is not the government’s refusal to allow tourists, but its lack of communication about the way forward. The ramifications are many. Businesses can’t plan ahead. Charter yachts are relocating. Tourists can’t schedule their visits in advance. Employees on work permits don’t know if they should stay or go.
Publishing a well-researched strategy would help ease such issues. At this stage, perhaps it could take the form of a series of “if-then” propositions.
For example: “If the territory confirms no new Covid-19 cases by X date, then the borders would open to tourists from countries that haven’t confirmed a new case in the past month. If a vaccine is discovered, the borders would open to tourists who can prove that they have received it.” And so on.
These ideas are just examples, but leaders surely must be having such conversations behind the scenes right now.
The strategy should also include outside-the-box solutions. There are many examples to consider.
Barbados and Bermuda, for instance, are now offering remote-work visas that allow foreigners to stay for up to a year while working remotely for their job back home. The VI should consider a similar arrangement, which could bring in long-term visitors who would fill empty apartments and spend money without taking up local jobs.
Other governments in the region have proposed a “Covid passport” system that would allow people to travel between countries where Covid-19 has been contained.
The VI’s yachting sector also provides opportunities. In Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Antigua and Barbuda, yacht and superyacht tourism have resumed at a quicker pace given the ease of isolation onboard boats. The VI might be able to launch its own reopening with a similar approach. Additionally, the fact that some VI resorts are located on separate islands also provides food for thought.
Moving forward, government communication is key. Obviously, not all the answers will be available immediately. But leaders should consult with stakeholders and publish a tentative strategy as soon as possible. After that, they should continue discussing the reopening with the public and providing frequent updates on their thinking so that everyone can plan accordingly.
Then when the borders do open to tourists, the territory will be ready.