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Nearly four months after Jamaica reopened its borders to international travelers, its tourism officials are describing the Caribbean island’s tourism industry reboot as overwhelmingly positive.
"Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, Jamaica has been successful at navigating the potential threats and evolving protocols and technologies to ensure a safe and seamless travel experience,” said Donovan White, director of tourism for Jamaica, adding that the nation’s June 15 launch of “Resilient Corridors” (restricted zones where tourists can travel) has been an “innovative solution” that bolstered traveler confidence.
Through the end of September, Jamaica had welcomed more than 121,000 international visitors since its June 15 reopening, according to White. He also noted that tourism officials there have since expanded the Resilient Corridors concept (from one that initially limited travelers to a collection of Jamaica’s open resort properties) to now also allowing access outside those grounds at the island’s popular attractions. The areas to which the concept applies have also expanded, covering much of the destination’s northern coastal resort areas, and now the island’s southeastern corner.
"Since the Resilient Corridors were put into place, there have been no known cases of COVID-19 transmission in the areas,” he said. “Our year-over-year visitation is down by slightly more than 60%, but we are starting to see positive signs of a rebound. We are predicting a 40% increase in arrivals over the coming months, compared to arrivals since reopening in June. Some properties have reported they are reaching up to 60% occupancy through a combination of international and local guests — with numbers reaching nearly 90% around holiday weekends.”
Jamaica requires U.S. travelers over the age of 12 to provide proof of negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen tests taken within 10 days of their flight and to complete an online travel authorization form — which asks for details about their recent health — within five days of their departure.
Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, Jamaica has been successful at navigating the potential threats and evolving protocols and technologies to ensure a safe and seamless travel experience.
The destination also made headlines in recent weeks, announcing that starting this month it will require visitors to purchase a $40 Jamaica Cares insurance plan, per person, to cover the cost of emergency medical services and medical evacuations due to illnesses such as COVID-19.
According to Ted Blank, the host agency manager at Minneapolis-based Travel Leaders’ Market Square Travel, who is headed to Jamaica this week on a fam trip with Sandals Resorts, the insurance plan mandate “is not quite ready to run yet.”
On Nov. 2, Blank asked the Jamaica Tourist Board about how to purchase the coverage, and was told in an email by tourism officials: “The Minister of Tourism is expected to make an official announcement about the Jamaica Cares Insurance in the latter part of November. As soon as we are given official information, it will be posted on our website.”
Blank said advisors at his agency in Minneapolis have been selling Jamaica vacations to clients this summer, but new inquiries and bookings have picked up noticeably since Labor Day.
“Jamaica is one of the perennially popular destinations for Minnesota because we’ve got pretty good airlift to get there,” Blank said. “It’s probably our second- or third most-booked sun destination behind Cancun, Mexico, and Punta Cana [in the Dominican Republic].”
Jamaica’s COVID-19 pretest mandate has made it less appealing in the eyes of some travelers, according to Blank, who noted that competing destinations such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic do not require tests. He said he sees both a positive and negative side to pretest requirements mandated by tourism destinations.
"On the one hand, it provides a great deal of reassurance for travelers and is certainly something public health authorities might want to do,” he said. “But on the other hand, it adds a level of uncertainty to the vacation, right? So, what happens if I test positive? Vacations are supposed to be fun, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that level of uncertainty at this point.”
Guests wishing to travel at later dates are cautious in making their bookings because they don’t know what the protocol will be.
Ray Snisky, group president of Apple Leisure Group Vacations (ALGV), said Jamaica has understandably adapted its safety protocols and testing requirements over the course of the past four months, announcing guidelines with two- to four-week expirations.
“These changes do cause confusion in the marketplace,” Snisky said. “Guests wishing to travel at later dates are cautious in making their bookings, because they don’t know what the protocol will be.”
Snisky said ALGV’s bookings to Jamaica for the rest of this year are down 40% to 50%, and for the destination’s January to April (high season) in 2021, business is down 50%. He noted the wholesaler has, however, seen booking windows shrink dramatically across all of its destinations, “and regularly 60% of our business is coming inside of 90 days.”
“Business is coming in much closer to departure,” Snisky said of ALGV’s Jamaica reservations. “So, we fully expect those [booking] numbers to greatly improve as we get closer.”
Rey Alton, an advisor at Almeda Travel, a Travel Leaders’ affiliate in Houston, said he has five couples booked to Jamaica later this year, and he has also seen clients choose to book the destination at the last minute.
"I’m finding now that people are booking about 14 days in advance,” Alton said. “They’re taking things day by day, and week by week.”
Alton said the bulk of the Jamaica inquiries he’s fielding are from couples, and a pair of his clients recently returned from a seven-night stay at the adults-only Breathless Montego Bay Resort & Spa, a property he’s booked for clients many times.
“They had a really great time,” Alton said, noting that the couple had been to Jamaica before and was not looking to take part in many off-property activities. “Some of the restaurants were closed, but that wasn’t a problem for them. They just really wanted to get away.”
Alton has also done a great deal of destination wedding business to Jamaica in the past, but he said much of that interest has fallen off during the pandemic. A wedding he had been working on, scheduled for mid-November in Jamaica, was recently canceled because Iberostar Rose Hall Beach wasn’t opening to guests as scheduled. Meanwhile, a December vow renewal ceremony was also canceled because a number of guests were not comfortable with Jamaica’s COVID-19 pretest requirements.
"They just said, ‘Hey, we will look at a later time,’” Alton said. “We were expecting 50 to 60 [guests] when they started planning it last year. By the end, they may have had about 20, but all 20 just decided to cancel.”
Still, Alton indicated he was optimistic about the prospect of sending more couples to Jamaica in the months ahead, noting that the market was the first to rebound after the financial crisis in 2009.
"We know couples have been locked up and are probably driving each other crazy,” he said with a laugh. “I think couples, or romance travelers, are the ideal customer.”
The Details Jamaica Tourist Board www.visitjamaica.com