The Jamaican Government had no choice but to announce the intention to start accepting tourists this month in the absence of sufficient protocols to save the tourism industry from “calamity”.
Faced with a backlash from civil society and the Opposition, Prime Minister Andrew Holness is expected to announce in Gordon House this afternoon more “rigorous screening” protocols at air and seaports for tourists, especially from the United States and the United Kingdom – two of the worst-hit countries by the coronavirus and where management of the pandemic has been fraught with problems.
The prime minister is being forced to act after disclosing Sunday that visitors who’ll be allowed into Jamaica from June 15 onwards will not be pre-tested because of the high costs involved.
Airlines have also said they cannot bear the burden.
Jamaicans returning from June 1-14 will be pre-tested.
A proposed COVID ‘passport’ was also abandoned.
Health Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton warned, though, that Jamaicans should prepare for an “exponential” increase in COVID-19 cases.
Most tourists likely to visit Jamaica now are from North America and the United Kingdom and the major airlines flying the routes had reportedly indicated to Jamaica that if the country was not added to their schedule now, they could not guarantee to airlift to Jamaica before September or October, a government source said.
American Airlines, JetBlue, and Delta Air Lines are the major carriers of North American tourists to Jamaica.
Such a prospect frightened hoteliers who pushed for the early resumption of the industry reportedly claiming that while the summer season is the slowest, at least there would be some activity.
One of the biggest players in Jamaica reportedly told the government that action had to be taken now to prevent the refunding for summer bookings.
And with just over 10,000 Jamaicans stranded overseas, planning flights to the country were also seen as not economic for the airlines, which needed greater incentives.
The argument was persuasive for the government given the dire economic prospects facing the country confirmed just last week by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, which has projected a 12-14% economic contraction for the current April – June quarter.
Reviving the tourism industry could help jumpstart economic recovery not just through increased foreign exchange inflows but also to get back some of the 300,000 tourism workers back on the job.
A June 15 date for welcoming non-Jamaicans, however, was not among the recommendations by the economic recovery task force whose members were reportedly ‘surprised’ when they heard the announcement from Holness on Sunday.
The task force had recommended the phased reopening of the international airports starting with Jamaicans whom Holness said would be allowed to return as of June 1 but must be tested, except for those entering from a country designated as a “travel bubble”.
Countries that fall within this ‘bubble’ are entirely Caribbean nations with management and profile results for COVID-19 similar to Jamaica’s regarding spread, death rate, infection prevention, and control measures, contact-tracing protocols, and other such criteria.
They include Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the British territories of Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Approximately 1,000 Jamaicans are expected to be returned from those states.
“Protocols are being put in place but we just are not fully ready for tourists,” said a task force member who asked not to be identified.
“I think July to August would have been more ideal for visitors especially because of the need to work out a proper screening protocol.”
Helene Davis Whyte, a trade union representative on the task force, said the government was not obligated to take a date from the taskforce but considered June 15 “a bit early to be accepting persons from overseas”.
The enhanced protocols for visitors that Holness is expected to announce this afternoon will focus on visitors traveling from key areas like New York and London.
Full restrictions on bars, churches, and entertainment were proposed to be lifted on July 1; border openings for Jamaicans on August 1 and tourism on October 1.