Since government set up a marine “exclusion zone” in June to protect the borders during the pandemic, boaters have been prohibited from travelling directly to Jost Van Dyke from Road Town, Nanny Cay or West End without special permission.
But many marine industry stakeholders say it’s high time for a change.
With marine tourism occupancy now below 1.5 percent, the sector is suffering under the strict rules, according to BVI Marine Association Vice President Andrew Ball.
“The exclusion zone began when the decision was made to open up local waters [on June 11]; when we were locked down, the waters were closed altogether,” Mr. Ball explained.
The exclusion zone, he added, was meant to be a “no man’s land” in the waters between the Virgin Islands and the United States VI. “That’s how it came about, but it was not intended for our current situation,” he added. “It was not intended to be in place when tourism reopened.”
Others in the marine industry had been calling for a change even before borders opened to tourists at the start of December.
“There were multiple proposals submitted as early as October, but nothing has changed,” Mr. Ball said. “There’s no reason why a small channel can’t be included or excluded along the shore of Tortola. … Unfortunately, it hasn’t evolved as our approach to Covid has evolved.”
Then-Governor Gus Jaspert announced the restrictions on June 3, when he also unveiled other curfew measures for the territory.
“The movement of vessels within the territorial waters will be allowed, except in waters that are classified as an exclusion zone,” he said. “This exclusion zone is necessary to ensure that our law enforcement and security agencies can effectively monitor and control our key marine borders to ensure that there is no unauthorised entry which could bring the risk of the virus in.”
Travelling through the zone, he added, requires pre-clearance from the “Multi-Agency Operational Command.”
His statement excluded licensed fishermen and pre-approved cargo vessels, but he said that other “boaters that enter the exclusion zone without prior permission will be in violation of Curfew (No. 21) Order, 2020 and can be penalised.”
Shortly after, a diagram mapping out the exclusion zone was published.
No changes have been made to the zone since then, and Mr. Ball said the restriction is having adverse effects on the tourism industry, both locally and internationally.
“It chokes off a lot of the access to Jost Van Dyke and West End for a lot of our marine tourism,” he told the Beacon. “You can request permission to go through, but it’s one more hurdle to go through.”
For some, however, getting permission hasn’t been difficult.
“You may not sail into the exclusion zone without permission (however, getting permission is quick and easy),” Chris Midgley wrote in a Facebook group called BVI Alive.
Recently, members of the forum have been guiding each other through entry protocols.
Mr. Midgley posted the WhatsApp number and email address of Deputy Customs Commissioner Greg Romney, urging travellers to contact Mr. Romney to secure permission to travel through the zone.
Government has not published details of the application process, but Mr. Midgley said travellers must request permission 24 hours in advance, providing the names of everyone on board as well as the time, date and purpose of travel.
Requests must be made for each trip, he added.
Mr. Midgley provided this information on Dec. 14, two weeks after borders re-opened to tourism.
Since then, others have wondered if the exclusion zone will remain in effect indefinitely.
Warner Thomas from Jost Van Dyke and Scott Hustins, who resides in West End, took to Facebook, both agreeing that the zone has excluded business from bareboats in West End and in JVD.
Judy Petz, director of the BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival said that “now would be a good time” to lift the restriction.
According the Mr. Ball, authorities are now asking that boats request permission to travel once they are “ready to leave.”
Efforts to clarify such information with Customs Commissioner Wade Smith, who chairs the Joint Task Force charged with protecting the borders during the pandemic, were not immediately successful.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ball said marine industry stakeholders also want to know why the exclusion zone is still in effect.
“If our enforcement agencies feel it needs to be there for them to safely monitor the border, then fair enough,” he said.
But he added that communication — which typically comes through the police or the Joint Task Force — hasn’t been consistent.
“It’s not constructive,” he said. “There’s no private-public partnership there.”
With the charter industry below 1.5 percent occupancy, he added, the situation remains dire for marine tourism in what he called a “crisis of confidence.”
“Tourists will come. Tourists will always come,” he said. “But people won’t be willing to invest [in the marine industry].”