Editor's Note: The COVID-19 policies and procedures listed below are up-to-date as of press time. However, we encourage all readers to head to each individual country’s governmental tourism website prior to travel to confirm the information regarding entry protocols.
Jamaica was one of the first tourism destinations to implement a pre-test program for international travelers early last summer, reopening its borders to visitors willing to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane to the popular Caribbean island.
And between last year’s tourism reset on June 15 to the end of December 2020, Jamaica welcomed around 260,000 U.S. travelers, according to Donovan White, the destination’s Director of Tourism.
Here, White offers an assessment of Jamaica’s pre-test and safety protocols since last summer’s visitor industry reboot and provides some insight into how the destination has performed since. He offers a look at what’s ahead, including how bookings are shaping up for the rest of this year, and shares Jamaica’s stance on restrictions for travelers who’ve already been vaccinated.
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It’s been 10 months since Jamaica reopened to international visitors. Has that tourism restart been a success?
We have done some very interesting things to enable reopening and [then] staying reopened, because many destinations have opened, but have actually had to re-close and open again. We've managed to stay the course. The creation of the Resilient Corridors was a significant achievement for us because what it enabled us to do is to geographically bookend 80% of our tourism assets in an area that also occupies less than 20% of our domestic population. In effect, we've enabled the tourism space with very little transmission of the virus to the Jamaican population from tourists. That was one of our big initiatives in reopening, which has worked tremendously well in terms of keeping us safe, keeping our visitors safe, but more importantly, still allowing for seamless movement of visitors across the destination.
Can you explain those Resilient Corridors further? Why have travelers been limited to those areas?
It was decided on as a way to reopen safely, allowing visitors to enjoy the characteristics of the destination while they're vacationing, but at the same time, doing so safely for Jamaicans who live in Jamaica. The two corridors stretch between Negril in the west to Port Antonio in the east, and then from Negril again in the west to Milk River in the central parts of Jamaica and the south. This allowed us to cover, as I said, more than 80% of our tourism assets, which meant there is very little a visitor coming to Jamaica would want to experience that they wouldn't be able to do.
What the Resilient Corridor also requires is that visitors to Jamaica can only traverse the Resilient Corridors in a Tourist Board-licensed transportation. They couldn't come in and get a car and just drive all over the country, because that would defeat the purpose of what the Resilient Corridor is designed to do. From that perspective, our focus, when it was conceived, was to provide an area of the country that allowed for full movement of visitors to the country without having any risks being transferred onto the citizens of the country.
Our focus … was to provide an area of the country that allowed for full movement of visitors to the country without having any risks being transferred onto the citizens of the country.
What does a U.S. traveler need to do to visit Jamaica?
Pretty much all the major destination partners in Jamaica are available for business. Then, the next most important thing you need to do is get onto the Visit Jamaica website. You need to understand our entry process, which has been augmented with the Travel Authorization process, which is very simple.
They also need to know that they have to get a COVID-19 test done no more than 72 hours before traveling to Jamaica. That COVID-19 test can now be either PCR or antigen.
That testing window shrunk some recently, right? It was 10 days. Why change that?
It’s now in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirements. In January, when the CDC required all persons traveling into [or returning to] the U.S. to have a negative COVID-19 test no more than 72 hours (before traveling), we felt that if we're going to implement it on the re-entry, it also makes sense to do it on the entry. It also provides us even more security that the persons traveling to Jamaica are of a lower risk factor of being carriers of the virus.
What have the arrivals and tourism revenue figures looked like since last June’s restart?
In terms of our overall 2020 performance, as a destination, our numbers are down some 68% in 2020 versus 2019. In total, we had somewhere in the order of 850,000 arrivals for the year, compared to 2.5 million the year before in 2019, so it's a huge fall-off. The comparative fall-off in earnings would be somewhere around 73%, because our earnings for the destination were around $1.3 billion in 2020 compared to $3.8 billion the year before. The impact on the overall economy has been very stark. We are obviously, like most other tourism-dependent countries, in rebuilding mode right now.
Did the CDC's mandate that U.S. travelers provide proof of a negative test before returning home from abroad impact U.S. arrivals and bookings?
Short-term, yes. In the immediate period after the CDC announcements and the period through which they required destinations to respond or to put the measures in place, there were some levels of trepidation in bookings.
Bookings have typically been soft through the months of January and February. But we're beginning to see a tremendous amount of uptick in the booking markets, particularly across the U.S., from late April onward through the summer months. We suspect the confidence is beginning to come back into the traveling public's mind with vaccinations becoming more pervasive in terms of availability.
We’re optimistic, but we're being realistic in our outlook for 2021. We think that our numbers for 2021 will somewhat represent our 2020 numbers.
Then the next wave of demand we suspect will kick in around about October and will take us through the winter season.
We’re optimistic, but we're being realistic in our outlook for 2021. We think that our numbers for 2021 will somewhat represent our 2020 numbers. We'll still be trying to get above 2020, but just maybe somewhere around about 1 million, 1.1 million visitors for this year. In 2022, we expect our numbers will begin to pick up a little more.
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Where in Jamaica can U.S. travelers get their required COVID-19 test before flying home?
More than 40 of our resorts are now allowing their guests to have their COVID-19 test done on-property, which means they physically don't have to leave the property to go find a lab to get the test done. So far, it has worked seamlessly. There's been no complaints, no issues, no faulty tests or anything like that. It has been all positive.
Have many American travelers tested positive since?
Many? No. There have been some cases. Our statistics tell us it's been less than 1% of persons coming to Jamaica and returning who have reported a positive test.
What happens when somebody tests positive?
All of our hoteliers, as part of the protocols, have made provisions in their room stock to provide for quarantining for positive persons, because once you're positive, you then are unable to fly. … Those individuals have been extremely well taken care of on these properties. I haven't had any complaints or heard of any complaints where guests were stranded or anything of the sort.
How will Jamaica modify existing safety protocols for travelers who have been vaccinated?
The rules on persons who have already been vaccinated is one that is still subject to policy refinement. I know it has been discussed very heavily by our tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, and the cabinet of the country. Before long, I'm sure he'll be in a position to make a more precise and detailed announcement in terms of what the Jamaica government's policy will be on that particular score. Until then, I would prefer to not say much more on that particular subject because that's one related to the minister's policy.
What major challenges lie ahead for Jamaica tourism?
The challenges are there daily. This virus now has several variants, and several more dangerous variants. We have to be mindful of those. We have to continue the process of vaccinating our population. Jamaica is one of the most tourist-dependent nations. Tourism contributes some 10% of our GDP directly, and when you add the indirect contribution to GDP, it's about 34% of our economy. So recovery for us is essential. The tourism industry employs some 170,000 workers in the industry. So far, we've only been able to return somewhere in the order of about 50% of that number to active work.
While we're doing what is necessary to revive the economy, we have to also be mindful that this virus is very dangerous. It takes lives. With everything we do, we have to make sure we have thought it through carefully.
Those are our immediate and very real challenges because they affect people's lives and livelihoods. While we're doing what is necessary to revive the economy, we have to also be mindful that this virus is very dangerous. It takes lives. With everything we do, we have to make sure we have thought it through carefully and that the things we're implementing are indeed practical, but more importantly, that they don't unduly put our workers and the people who support the industry as well as our visitors at any risk at all.
Jamaica Tourist Board