Government officials in tourism-reliant Caribbean destinations are seeking to balance COVID-19 evaluation, testing and prevention measures with efforts to continue crucial leisure travel activities as the illness’ impact spreads worldwide.
In a statement Thursday, Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) officials say that while there “continues to be a limited number of imported coronavirus cases and no cases of local transmission” in the region, “health authorities across our membership are taking necessary steps to limit the number of new cases and curb the possible spread among our populations from the confirmed imported cases.”
The statement added, “The World Health Organization (WHO) has not called for any travel and trade restrictions as a result of the coronavirus,” adding “local populations and visitors alike are assured that the Caribbean remains open for business.”
While no COVID-19 cases have been transmitted in the region, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Jamaica, French Saint Martin and St. Barthelemy have each reported residents and visitors who contracted COVID-19 elsewhere.
On March 10, three confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced by Martinique’s Regional Health Agency. The patients are now in isolation at a quarantine unit in CHU Martinique Hospital. Two Jamaican residents, a Dominican Republic visitor from Italy and two people on French Saint Martin have also tested positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation, say officials.
Meanwhile, the Cayman Islands, Saint Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis, none of which have reported local COVID-19 cases, have nevertheless issued statements announcing the activation of national preparedness and response plans, as well as recommended protocols to slow the disease’s spread.
Regional destinations have also placed travel restrictions on non-nationals with travel histories that include visits to COVID-19 impacted regions. In some cases, islands are placing quarantines on nationals with recent travel histories to impacted areas.
Caribbean countries are also reporting local updates to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), say destination officials. CTO and Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Assn. are recommending travelers monitor the CARPHA site for regular updates.
Some officials say it is a matter of time before more cases are reported across the region. “As more cases are confirmed worldwide, the overall risk of the coronavirus (COVID-19) coming to the Cayman Islands is high and the situation is evolving rapidly,” said Dr. John Lee, chief medical officer at the Cayman Islands’ Public Health Department.
“Continuing preventative measures such as washing hands regularly and avoiding others with respiratory illnesses are essential,” said Lee. He recommended Cayman visitors and residents adopt social-distancing practices including “[increasing] your distance from people to a minimum of three feet, and preferably six feet.”
Added Lee, “A review of our plans to protect residents and visitors is an ongoing process. We remain vigilant while working with stakeholders to ensure our borders are protected and that any imported case is managed efficiently to minimize the impact.”
Yet as a top cruise ship port of call as well as a resort-based vacation destination, Cayman officials are monitoring visitors on two fronts. “The Ministry of Tourism is in close contact with cruise line partners and [is] adhering to established medical protocols with respect to the landing of cruise ships and passengers,” said Moses Kirkconnell, the Cayman Islands tourism minister. “Similar measures also apply to stayover visitors.”
Caribbean officials also face the increasingly difficult task of balancing public health with a desire to encourage and continue economically crucial tourism activity. “It is very important that our guests be aware that the regional and tourism authorities are prepared and have taken in the last weeks all the necessary steps to prevent and contain the virus,” said François Languedoc-Baltus, director of the Martinique Tourism Authority.
Martinique is in stage one of a three-stage prevention protocol established by the French government in 2009 following the H1N1 flu epidemic. Stage one measures include the screening of all disembarking cruise passengers; a ban on anchoring yacht visitors from coming ashore and additional sanitary inspectors at airports. Other Caribbean countries are taking similar steps.
Additionally, groups including the CTO, CARPHA, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) and the Global Tourism Resilience & Crisis Management Centre (GTRCMC) announced an agreement to “pool organizational resources to formalize our efforts and messaging through the establishment of [a] COVID-19 Caribbean Tourism Task Force (CCTTF).
The task force “will focus on raising awareness and sharing accurate information; strengthening monitoring at airports, seaports, hotels and accommodations [and] improving coordination among stakeholder organizations and locally between tourism and health officials.
“Tourism is the lifeblood of the Caribbean so we’ve come together as organizations already engaged in readiness programs to pool resources so we can ensure the people of our region, and our visitors, remain safe from this viral threat,” said task force’s members in a statement. “This agreement allows us to plan for an emergency and move our resources rapidly.”