The two-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis rebooted its tourism industry on Oct. 31, 2020, welcoming back international visitors willing to take a COVID-19 test 72 hours before boarding a plane to the eastern Caribbean destination, which is home to about 53,000 residents.
TravelAge West caught up with Lindsay F.P. Grant, minister of tourism, transport and ports for St. Kitts and Nevis. Here, the minister provides an assessment of the destination’s tourism restart, as well as some background on why certain safety measures were enacted. He also offers a look at what’s ahead, including the impact of the current vaccination effort.
How have things gone since the Oct. 31 reopening of the islands to international visitors?
To put it in context, we were one of the last Caribbean islands to reopen. Actually, we reopened three months after many of the other Caribbean islands. Since Oct. 31, we haven’t had large [visitor] numbers, but what we have, I believe, is sufficiently strong, and we have begun our rebuilding exercise in the tourism industry. A majority of our visitors come from the U.S. — our main gateway — and at this time, we currently have three flights coming out of Miami every week. And I believe we are up to 15% to 20% in terms of total visitors, compared to where we were before the pandemic.
Since we opened, we've had no community spread.
Given the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, would you describe that as a success?
I would view the success of the industry through the lens of what we've achieved. Since we opened, we've had no community spread. Our COVID-19 numbers are low — 41 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, 39 of which are recovered. We have had no deaths and no community spread, so for us, that is very important.
Have any visitors tested positive since the restart?
Yes. We've had a number of them. But bear in mind, we've only had 41 total cases. In terms of the number of visitors, we are looking at probably 15 to 20 of those.
What do U.S. visitors need to do prior to visiting St. Kitts and Nevis?
They will first have to take a nasopharyngeal, RT-PCR test within 72 hours of travel to St. Kitts and Nevis. The results of the test must be uploaded online with our Travel Authorization Form and proof of booking at a travel-approved hotel [a property on the list of hotels available to international travelers at this time]. Once this form is submitted, the traveler will receive an approved letter to enter the federation. You cannot board the plane unless you produce that approved letter. Once they arrive, travelers will undergo a health check. If they are showing any symptoms, they may be asked to take the COVID-19 test again.
What should U.S. visitors expect after the airport?
For the first two weeks of their stay, guests can vacation in place at the hotel. They are welcome to move about the property, including going to restaurants and bars, or interacting with other guests and partaking in hotel activities. On the seventh day, they will undergo testing again. Once they are cleared, they can do other tours approved by the ministry. For example, they can tour the Brimstone Hill National Fortress [a UNESCO World Heritage Site], or they can do a highlights of St. Kitts tour. They can do that between the seventh and the 14th day [of their stay]. On the 14th day, if they are staying beyond that and they test negative, they can integrate within the society.
Why was it decided that travelers need to remain on hotel grounds for the first seven days?
We were very concerned about community spread and didn’t want to overwhelm our health institutions. That is why we ensured we had a rigorous system of not only testing, but making sure the corridor of containment was very narrow, so we can do contact tracing. And if something slips out, we can mitigate any substantial challenges. That has really worked for us. When we look around the region, we see community spread in several of the other Caribbean islands. But we have been one of the few countries that has been able to contain this virus.
And depending on where the traveler is staying, there are different things they can do. For example, if [clients] are staying at the Park Hyatt St. Kitts Christophe Harbour, they can partake in the hotel’s robust program of activities, including painting, fishing, meditation, pottery and mixology classes, along with watersports such as kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling. If they are staying at Four Seasons Resort Nevis, they can participate in a tremendous number of activities. The resort has also opened up its popular golf course.
Our forecasts indicate there is significant pent-up demand, and we believe once people get vaccinated, travel is going to come back.
How has Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) mandate (that international travelers provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the U.S.) impacted on-island procedures?
It hasn't really affected our demand because before the CDC mandate, we were already requiring an exit nasopharyngeal RT-PCR test for travelers departing from St. Kitts and Nevis. We had that provision implemented as of Oct. 31. That exit testing now happens at the hotel. We have health workers who will visit the hotel, and they have a list of the people leaving on any particular day. That personnel visits the hotel two or three days prior, takes samples and then brings back results to the visitors. The visitor doesn't have to move, and they don't have to worry.
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What happens if a visitor tests positive?
If they test positive, they won't be able to leave. We do an isolation for them [at the resort in which they are staying] until they produce two negative PCR tests.
Looking ahead, how are bookings shaping up?
We have faced a decline in demand that came with the emergence of the new COVID-19 variants. We are very cognizant of that. We are also cognizant that the entire world is really reeling from that. Our challenge right now is to stay the course in these coming months; to make sure we don't have community spread; and to contain the virus as best as we can. But we remain very hopeful, and we’re certainly hoping that with our public relations and our marketing promotions in major gateways such as North America, Canada and the U.K., that people will consider a vacation during spring break, this summer or in the fall.
With the vaccination programs well on their way in the U.S., I believe this is really going to have a significant positive impact on travel, and we are hoping the fourth quarter of 2021 will be our best performing quarter [since the outbreak]. Our forecasts indicate there is significant pent-up demand, and we believe once people get vaccinated, travel is going to come back. Not at pre-COVID-19 levels, but it's going to begin to make its way back and start a positive trajectory. We're now launching a campaign to promote travel for the fourth quarter and in 2022.
What should U.S. travel advisors know about that promotional campaign?
We are going to put significant emphasis on the fact that we have been — throughout COVID-19 — very, very good in terms of our COVID-19 numbers. One focus will be that, after travel has picked up, tourists can rest assured that St. Kitts and Nevis is really a safe place in terms of the virus. Obviously, we're going to be talking about our fantastic cuisine, our friendly people and our historic sites. But I think people who are traveling may have some misgivings about COVID-19 in different parts of the world, and we can sell our story of success when it comes to that.
How will St. Kitts and Nevis modify existing safety protocols for travelers who have been vaccinated?
Our health authorities are monitoring it very closely. Our position is, for the moment, that even if travelers have the vaccination and they come to St. Kitts, they still have to quarantine. That's the position as of today. It may very well change a month from now when we learn more of the science. We want to get to a position where we have herd immunity, and we'll take our position from there. I suspect it all depends on how fast we get our population vaccinated over the next two or three months.
St Kitts Tourism Authority