Tourists in White Bay, Jost van Dyke enjoy the beach bars. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

A boom in Caribbean tourism in late 2021 could be in the cards, but only if governments have the tools in place to capitalise on it, according to a panel of travel experts who spoke last week during an online panel discussion sponsored by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the travel industry, with arrivals falling as much as 90 percent in some countries.

But the rollout of vaccines and the worldwide drop in cases — nearly 50 percent since January, according to the World Health Organisation — has created “a lot of pent-up demand,” said Eric Bowman, executive editor of the industry publication Travel Pulse.

He added that many travel advisors are booking long-term holidays for later this year.

“There’s a lot of intrigue about where can you go, what can you do, that kind of stuff,” he said. “Most of them are saying that they’re booking out future trips in the third and fourth quarter, and they say that their outlook for 2021 is really looking promising. And I think the Caribbean is in a great position be able to capture that for maybe the third quarter but definitely the fourth quarter of 2021, and then on to next year.”

Reassurance

However, seizing that opportunity will involve reassuring travellers that they won’t be stuck or inconvenienced abroad, the panellists agreed. Strict protocols such as the Virgin Islands’ — consisting of a four-day quarantine with three required tests — may not be an ideal formula to capitalise on the boom, they added.

“At the moment, there’s a fear factor in terms of what you’re gonna get when you get to those islands. Are you going to be welcomed? Are you going to be put in a quarantine hotel?” said Colin Pegler, managing director of Resort Marketing International.

He added that destinations like Mexico, which never closed to tourism and has less stringent protocols, are much better positioned to capture a late-year surge than destinations like the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago, which currently are not open to tourists at all.

“They have got to be welcomed: Otherwise that business is going to go to Mexico; it’s going to go to other long-haul destinations that, in theory, [can] tick the boxes as to what people want on holiday in terms of sunshine, a beautiful combination of great food, culture, activities, etcetera,” he said. “Let’s just be open for business.”

Socially distanced

However, the panellists added that the Caribbean has certain marketing advantages, including low virus infection rates and uncrowded beaches, which may be ideal for families and groups looking to reconnect post-pandemic.

Carol Johnson, senior principal client advisor from TripAdvisor, said 67 percent of travellers “are going to travel for a beach vacation” within the next year.

“You have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” Ms. Johnson said. “They’re wide-open spaces. And then on top of that, you have some of these culinary and outdoor activities. I really think we need to take those elements that are so important to people right now.”

Lynette Harrigan, marketing manager at the BVI Tourist Board, observed the webinar and posted a comment, noting that the board has been seeing many families renting out villas and yachts.

Mr. Bowman agreed, saying that his friends who run boating businesses are reporting lots of bookings.

“That just fits in with a multi-generational reconnecting with the family,” he said, adding, “Sailing holidays will kind of create your own little bubble there, so I think that is enticing to people and is for sure gonna be in high demand. They already are now: They’re on the rise now and I think they’ll continue to be on the rise in the future.”

Vaccine passports?

However, short-term travellers and day trippers also represented a significant
proportion of Caribbean tourism pre-Covid, and welcoming them back will eventually require a different approach, panellists said.

“If you’re only coming for four nights, five nights, and you’ve got to spend three nights of [quarantine], then it absolutely doesn’t work,” Mr. Pegler said. “So the fundamental answer to it all is that we have to find a way through that doesn’t involve everyone quarantining on arrival.”

That could involve the much-discussed prospect of vaccine passports, he said. So far, no Caribbean government has implemented a passport, and the VI has not announced any plans for one.

However, countries further abroad, including Georgia, Romania and the Seychelles, have announced such policies, as have several cruise lines.

Experts said that this approach may be the quickest way to increase the volume of visitors, especially in smaller jurisdictions like the VI, which currently has the capacity to process only 500 test results per day.

“A lot of governments have shied away from this, but I can’t see that it’s a bad thing,” Mr. Pegler said. “You’ve got a vaccination; you’ve got a card in your hand that proves that you’ve had that vaccination along with a negative test perhaps three days before travelling — and I don’t understand the need for somebody to go into quarantine. But frankly that’s a question that really needs to be put
to the governments of the Caribbean islands, and of course the CTO secretariat, as to what work can be done to achieve that, because otherwise we’re going to have some serious troubles trying to put volume into these islands.”


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