The pandemic struck these islands unequally. What does this mean for tourism, a major economic driver for the entire region? The answer is unique, just like the islands.
On the glassy blue waters surrounding the U.S. Virgin Islands, catamarans and pleasure yachts have packed the shoreline for the past year — a scene so busy and crowded, it’s unimaginable, even before the pandemic.
Indeed, the business of charter yachts is booming, and expected to pump at least $88 million into the local economy this season, almost double the roughly $45 million that came in 2019, according to Marketplace Excellence, which represents the U.S. territory’s department of tourism.
But less than 12 miles away, the quiet waterways of the British Virgin Islands present a different story. Relatively few boats have harbored there since last spring, when Britain mostly shuttered the territory to international tourists. Strict Covid safety protocols have kept many away.
Before the pandemic, the Caribbean was the world’s most tourism-reliant region, according to recent calculations by the World Travel Tourism Council. Made up of dozens of sovereign nations, territories and dependencies that often reacted disparately to the virus, the region was struck unequally by the coronavirus. Some islands were walloped by staggering caseloads, while infections on others sometimes dwindled to single digits. With 48 percent of its population fully vaccinated, and 62 percent at least partially vaccinated, Turks and Caicos is one of the most inoculated places in the world. Haiti hasn’t received a single dose. And like the B.V.I., the fates of many Caribbean islands are tied to their colonial history. With limited sovereignty, truncated voting rights and an economy largely serving international visitors, they are often subject to the decisions of nations far away.
Health care infrastructures across the region are limited, and many islands have endured flip-flopping border closures and stringent curfews. The result: Tourism has drastically declined, sinking the region’s gross domestic product 58 percent last year.
According to a recent survey by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, a quarter of the more than 250 Caribbean tourism companies surveyed said they do not expect a full recovery until at least mid-2023. More than half of those businesses surveyed said they were unsure they could stay afloat.
In a handful of islands with fewer travel restrictions and more successful vaccine campaigns, tourism is already thriving. For the U.S.V.I. and Turks and Caicos, for example, catering to a wealthier market and specializing in luxurious longer stays, strong numbers are only expected to rise, as islands market a Caribbean summer to an increasing number of vaccinated Americans.
But much of the region lags perilously behind. Unable to secure vaccines and with no end to the economic turmoil in sight, the economies and the people of these islands are endangered — along with the myth of paradise found on their sugar-sand shores. Here’s a look at the strategies that various islands have adopted to survive, from work visas to testing availability.
Aruba’s passport to Covid safety
Proactively responding to travel trends has helped position some islands ahead of others. In February, occupancy rates on the Dutch island of Aruba fell more than 66 percent compared to the same month a year before, according to a recent STR destination report.
Then, in March, Aruba teamed up with JetBlue, which offers about 40 weekly flights from the United States to the island, to debut CommonPass, the world’s first digital vaccine passport. Those with the digital pass may take a virtually supervised at-home PCR test within three days of departure, upload results and cut through immigration lines. United’s Aruba flights from Newark and Houston also use the pass, with plans for additional routes in the near future.
“We wanted to create a way to make it easier on travelers and more efficient for our air travel partners,” said Shensly Tromp, director of development and technology at Aruba Airport Authority N.V., “without compromising the safeguards we have in place around health and safety.”
Vaccination information will be added to CommonPass as early as June.
Before the pandemic, almost three-quarters of the island’s gross domestic product and nearly 85 percent of jobs had been rooted in tourism, according to W.T.T.C. analysis. Now, with tourism up 53 percent from February to March, Dangui Oduber, the minister of tourism, public health and sport, noted a “continual uptick” since Aruba’s dual CommonPass and vaccine rollouts.
Aruba too is a world leader in vaccinations. As of mid-May, almost 57,500 Arubans were at least partially inoculated, with the island optimistically reaching herd immunity this summer, Mr. Oduber said.
‘Reaching the end zone’ in the U.S.V.I.
Even when Americans were shut out of most of the world, the borders to the U.S. Virgin Islands never closed. Lured there with slogans like “Reconnect with Paradise” and the chance for anyone to get vaccinated, even before many could get a shot back home, visitors have recently crowded the American territory’s beaches and restaurants.
Hotel occupancy rates in the U.S.V.I. are almost triple that of the region and seven times that of the Bahamas, according to recent analysis by STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.
Visitors are required to get tested but not to quarantine. With tourists swarming, the U.S.V.I. prioritized hospitality workers early in its vaccine rollout. So, in February Sandy Colasacco, a nurse practitioner who runs the Island Health and Wellness Center, a nonprofit clinic serving many of St. John’s uninsured population, reached out to most restaurants and hotels there to schedule appointments.
“The fact that everyone can get vaccinated and feel safe when they work, even though they’ve been exposed to hundreds of tourists every day, is a relief,” Ms. Colasacco said.
Bryan Mitchell, a software engineer from Los Angeles, discovered that on St. Croix, getting vaccinated was easier than finding a rental car. Extending their stay for the second round, he and his girlfriend were among the tourists who received some 4,150 shots.
“Getting the vaccine and stepping out of the pandemic, felt like reaching the end zone,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Among the first American communities to vaccinate everyone 16 and older, the U.S.V.I. had fully vaccinated 31,645 residents and tourists as of mid-May and is on track to administer 50,000 first shots by July 1, said Tai Hunte-Ceasar, medical director with the territory’s health department.
The health department declined to provide an official target date for reaching herd immunity. But Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has equated reaching that goal with greenlighting the Crucian Christmas Carnival, a monthlong festival on St. Croix in December, which traditionally brings together many islanders and tourists.
But while top Caribbean destinations a year into the pandemic experienced a 34 percent dip in flights, according to global business aviation data by WingX, Americans are already coming to the U.S.V.I. in droves.
Commercial summer air travel is expected to rival the territory’s prepandemic winter high season, according to Marketplace Excellence. New flights are being introduced: In February, Frontier Airlines added flights from Orlando, and American Airlines will have daily flights from Charlotte and Dallas in June. JetBlue offers four new weekly flights from Newark in July.
A joint partnership to expand testing in Turks and Caicos
Despite low infection rates and a massive vaccine rollout, by late January, Turks and Caicos was just days from effectively re-closing its borders — because the U.S. government had suddenly required inbound international travelers to show proof of a negative antigen test, and Turks and Caicos lacked such a testing infrastructure. Several thousand Americans already vacationing there would be stranded and the travel dollars just returning to the semi-independent British territory would again disappear.
Turks and Caicos, which officially reopened in July 2020, expected some 30,000 visitors — many of them Americans — to its 40 islands and cays in February. A closure would be a devastating blow.
“It was a do-or-die moment for Turks and Caicos,” said Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, then the premier.
With just seven days to plan, Ken Patterson, the chief executive officer of the five-star Seven Stars Resort & Spa, offered to front $600,000 for the archipelago’s needs.
“It really was not that hard a decision,” Mr. Patterson said, noting the catastrophic effects of a potential second closure. “More like swerving to avoid a car wreck: It was just instinctive.”
And so the territorial government and private sector imported 60,000 test kits, immediately certified 18 new testing sites (most at resorts), trained hotel staff to conduct tests and passed a series of laws to ensure health standards.
“It was very, very important for the Turks and Caicos to get it right,” Ms. Cartwright-Robinson said. “Having a tourist come back and say they weren’t stuck, that personal story was the best marketing we could get.”
Deborah Aharon, the chief executive officer of the Provo Air Center, a private airport serving the archipelago, said that traffic is busier than ever.
Since January, the number of private jet flights in and out of Provo Air Center has soared more than 50 percent above rates seen before the pandemic, she said. Mid-May traffic rocketed 73 percent from 2019.
Overall, tourism to the archipelago hovers around 70 percent capacity, but Seven Stars, which now offers a drink voucher along with complimentary Covid-19 tests, is sold out for May and almost sold out for June, with little availability until September.
“It was literally like a tap being turned on,” said Mr. Patterson, noting he had never seen such high demand. In recent weeks “we’ve taken more bookings than we have in the last year.”