TORONTO — There’s nothing like a massive cruise ship sailing into port to usher in a new era in tourism.
For St. Kitts, a tiny island nation that relies heavily on the cruise industry, the early morning arrival of the Celebrity Equinox on Sept. 14 marked more than just the return of the Royal Caribbean Group, which comprises Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Silversea. It also reaffirmed the island’s status as a marquee port that welcomes over one million passengers per year, and signalled a new phase in St. Kitts’ recovery following 17 long months of the cruise industry’s pause due to COVID-19.
Racquel Brown, CEO of the St. Kitts Tourism Authority, was there that morning to welcome the Equinox’s 1,147 passengers to the island. Speaking with Travelweek, she says that she didn’t quite believe the moment would actually happen until the first passenger set foot on the island. (Prior to the Equinox, the planned summer arrival of two other ships – Celebrity Summit and Allure of the Seas – had fallen through due to the fact that St. Kitts, at the time, had yet to approve antigen testing.)
“Seeing the Celebrity Equinox in port was a very weird feeling, but it was a feeling of relief. It was also a feeling of, ‘Okay, we can do this!’” says Brown. “There is hope that the travel industry will come back. It won’t be what it used to be right away, but it’s a good start.”
The truth is, St. Kitts’ recovery began well before the arrival of the Equinox, which is, in fact, the second major cruise ship to arrive on shore (the Seabourn Odyssey was the first back in July). St. Kitts officially opened its borders for commercial air and sea way back in October 2020. Although movement was understandably slow at first (“We mostly had returning residents or returning nationals coming home,” says Brown), the island gained some momentum in April 2021 when it kicked off a new marketing campaign in the U.S. and other feeder markets. Shortly after that, in August 2021, the destination turned its focus to Canada, promoting the highly anticipated return of Air Canada flights on Dec. 5, 2021.
“Canadians are such a priority for us,” says Brown, adding that in 2019 the stayover visitation rate for Canadians was 9,727, which was on an upward trajectory thanks to Air Canada’s second mid-week seasonal flight that year. “Canadians tend to be more adventurous than Americans. They stay a week and they like to go out and see the destination, do a day trip to Nevis and see different attractions and sites. When Canadians come, they’re not just staying at the hotel – they’re spending outside of the hotel, too. So you can actually see this economic benefit trickling down, which is so important for tourism.”
With Canadians playing an essential role to the local economy, St. Kitts has made it easier and more appealing for them to visit this winter. For one thing, the destination is allowing entry to those who’ve received a mixed-dose regimen of COVID-19 vaccines, a policy Brown says was implemented with Canadians in mind, to give St. Kitts a competitive edge heading into the winter season. Approximately 3.9 million people in Canada have received mixed-doses of vaccines, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“This is something that we needed to provide clarity on because we saw what it was doing to other destinations that weren’t clear on their position,” says Brown. “We were kind of late coming out of the gate in terms of when our flights start. Before we started any advertising, we made sure that our position on mixed-vaccines was clear so that once Air Canada’s flight launches, there wouldn’t be any misgivings.”
In addition to recognizing mixed vaccines, St. Kitts is also accommodating Canadians, who are required to provide proof of a COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of their return to Canada, by offering PCR testing at hotels at a cost of US$150. Reservations can be easily made with the hotel concierge.
Plus, to coincide with the launch of flights, Air Canada has extended its seat sale, valid for travel from Dec. 5, 2021 through April 24, 2022, and featuring savings of up to $300 off roundtrip flights departing Toronto to St. Kitts.
And for travel advisors, the St. Kitts Tourism Authority has a bonus offer of $100 for each booking made, plus, notes Brown, the organization consistently hosts training webinars to help advisors better sell the destination.
“Everybody’s looking to travel but not everybody is booking to travel to come to a destination like ours,” says Brown. “So we’ve upped the ante for agents – not only do they get $300 off for their clients with the Air Canada seat sale, they also get compensation for seeing St. Kitts for themselves, so it’s a win-win.”
Brown remains hopeful that St. Kitts’ mandatory quarantine, which was reduced from nine days to four back in May 2021, will eventually be eliminated altogether, making the destination even more accessible to Canadians and all other travellers. Noting that the destination saw load factors double from the U.S. once the quarantine was reduced to four days, Brown is hoping to reduce the quarantine even further, especially in light of the fact that quarantines are not being required by many other Caribbean destinations.
“That’s why we want to pre-empt the Canadian market by not having them go through this four-day drama, we want to get started as soon as possible because we believe it does impact a person’s ability to move around,” says Brown. “Knowing our demographic, we have to understand that guests are not in an all-inclusive space – they want to go out, and that’s the kind of destination that we are, where you go out to eat, go on excursions, go out to beaches. So I think if we can reduce the quarantine, it will make us that much more appealing.”
Brown notes that the ideal scenario would be to either require testing upon arrival with results back within 24 hours, or eliminate quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers.
“We’re waiting to get funds from our Ministry of Health on that and they have said ‘for winter,’ – it’s just a matter of when,” says Brown.
Once Canadians get past the ‘hump’ of a four-day quarantine, “normal life” awaits them in St. Kitts, she adds. Aside from the need to wear masks in public places like the supermarket and restaurants, it’s still the same “blue seas” and “tropical winds” that Canadians have come to love.
“St. Kitts is a destination where you can find the real, traditional Caribbean, where you can just walk and nobody bothers you, you can walk to dinner without the need for a cab and interact with the local community,” says Brown. “This is so important because it gives us a true, authentic experience. I know many Canadians are feeling nostalgic for and are in love with the ‘old’ Caribbean and I want them to know that’s exactly what they’ll find here in St. Kitts – but with all the modern amenities.”
For the most up-to-date entry requirements and more information on health and safety protocols in St. Kitts, go to https://www.stkittstourism.kn/travel-requirements.