TORONTO — It’s been a good week for cruising, with Crystal announcing yesterday that it will be resuming operations this summer and now word coming from the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) that it’s currently in talks with several cruise lines about the possibility of homeporting in Jamaica this year.
The news, announced yesterday by Donovan White, JTB’s Director of Tourism during a virtual travel trade briefing, would be a significant development in Jamaica’s recovery plan, as the cruise industry represents a major economic driver for the island.
According to White, if all goes well there’ll be cruise itineraries across three or four different ports in Jamaica. After flying to the island, cruisers will be taken to their cruise port before embarking on voyages that either remain in Jamaican waters or sail to other islands before returning to Jamaica.
“We will have more to say in the coming weeks but you can be assured that conversations are indeed happening and the necessary policy and strategic frameworks that are required to make this a reality are, in fact, in place and are being reshaped where necessary,” said White.
When it comes to recovery, Jamaica has fared better than other tourist destinations, thanks to swift health and safety measures taken early on in the pandemic. Like with many destinations, Jamaica temporarily closed its borders to tourists last March in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but managed to roll out its phased reopening by mid-June during which time a Resilient Corridor was introduced from Negril to Port Antonio. Within this stretch of coastline, designated hotels and resorts, all of which had implemented stringent safety measures, safely welcomed back tourists to Jamaica’s shores.
In those first two weeks after its reopening Jamaica welcomed just over 7,000 visitors, “which we saw as an encouraging sign,” said White. Momentum continued to build, boosted by Air Canada’s resumption of service in June, and by July and August the island was seeing over 80,000 visitors. In December, its highest visitor arrivals month in 2020, Jamaica welcomed just over 90,000 visitors.
“The establishment of Resilient Corridors was a critical measure in which the destination sought to manage the pandemic,” added White. “At a time when very little was known about the COVID-19 virus, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health & Wellness worked together with international tourism and health organizations to identify health and safety protocols that would keep our travellers and local communities safe upon reopening.”
Jamaica was on track to build on December’s promising numbers in 2021, but then came the news of Canada’s cancelled winter sun flights in January, a measure taken by the federal government to protect Canada’s borders from concerning COVID-19 variants. With no flights coming in from Canada until April 30, Jamaica saw a dip in January arrivals with some 43,800 visitors. February looks to be more encouraging, however, with preliminary estimates putting total visitor arrivals at just over 50,000.
“The Canadian market has been extremely soft,” said White. “Most of the carriers did not restart when we reopened and the ones that did since the reclosure of borders or the grounding of air travel out of Canada, those bookings have significantly softened. Looking ahead even six months out, as of right now we are still relatively low. We’re still less than 10% of room nights booked compared to 2019 at the same time, so it’s extremely soft.”
White did, however, report a “phenomenal” level of responsiveness from travel agents and tour operator partners in Canada, as well as client demand and requests for opportunities in Jamaica. When asked how he feels about Canada’s ongoing travel restrictions, considered among the most stringent in the world, White said: “Canada’s leadership must determine what’s best for their citizens, and Canadians have responded in kind and, for the most part, yielded to the request of their Prime Minister, and we respect that. We understand that it’s a pandemic. But we remain confident that we will have our fair share of the Canadian travel marketplace once flights resume from airports out of Canada.”
Here are more updates from yesterday’s briefing:
UPDATED ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
As of March 4, 2021, all travellers to Jamaica 12 years of age and over, regardless of nationality, are required to present a negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen test result to check in for a flight to Jamaica. Negative test results must be presented to the airline representative in order to complete the check-in for their flight.
In addition, Jamaica has shortened the window travellers have to take a COVID-19 test prior to their arrival, from 10 days to three. For travel after March 10, 2021, the date of the sample collection must be within three days of the travel date.
Moreover, according to White, in addition to being tested prior to departure to Jamaica, business travellers must also be tested upon arrival.
When asked whether these new updates were made in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Jamaica, White said it was a combination of global standards as well as greater community transmission in recent weeks.
“It’s in our best interest from a health perspective to protect Jamaicans and do whatever we can to keep our economy open because the last thing we want to do is to be in a situation where you are importing more cases of the virus, which would only deepen our own cases and affect our economy,” he said. “It really is about looking ahead and trying to manage as best we can while at the same time ensuring that we can maintain economic activity.”
For the latest information on Jamaica’s entry requirements go to https://www.visitjamaica.com/travelauthorization/test-req/.
JAMAICA CARES’ INSURANCE PROGRAM STILL TO COME
After the launch of Jamaica’s groundbreaking Jamaica Cares program last fall, White confirmed that the insurance and health logistics portion of the program is still being “reimagined.” At its launch in October 2020, the program was described as a first-of-its-kind traveller protection and emergency services program comprising two parts: an ‘All Hazards’ program that covers case management, transportation, field rescue, evacuation and repatriation for medical emergencies and other crises; and international health coverage up to US$100,000 for visitors as well as on-island health coverage up to $50,000. The program, mandatory for all foreign travellers, would come at a cost of $40 and was scheduled to launch by end of 2020.
“To be clear, Jamaica Cares is not an end-to-end health logistics program. The insurance and health logistics of the Jamaica Cares program is still under development and will come to market fairly soon,” said White. “We are still aggressively pursuing that aspect of the program but it’s not quite there yet and we do not and will not bring half-baked products to the marketplace. We want to make sure that we get it right and that we have done all the necessary research to ensure that when we bring it to market, that it’s indeed a successful addition to our destination assurance programs.”
White noted that rather than just a health insurance program, Jamaica Cares should be regarded as encompassing Jamaica’s destination-wide response to the pandemic, which includes testing at hotels and resorts and other health and safety protocols.
“It’s about responding nimbly and showing resilience in the evolving landscape, using innovation to enable fun and authenticity but also ensuring health and safety,” he added. “Through Jamaica Cares, we instill confidence in travel specialists and trade partners to showcase that Jamaica is safe to book and beneficial to sell. But it is important to note that Jamaica Cares will continue to evolve.”
White went on to highlight key steps in Jamaica’s expansive response to the pandemic, including the recent ramping up of COVID-19 testing at resorts, airports and participating laboratories. More than 40 hotels and resorts are currently providing testing on property for their guests, while over 15 labs have also been granted approval to provide testing. Plus, testing resources have been added at Sangster International Airport and Norman Manley International Airport.
“This comprehensive, destination-wide approach, paired with a laser-like focus, will bring the public and private sectors together to turn any obstacles into opportunities and ensure we are delivering the highest levels of health for our visitors, tourism workers and, indeed, our local communities,” added White.
WHAT ABOUT VACCINATION PASSPORTS?
When asked his opinion on vaccination passports and whether Jamaica will one day allow vaccinated tourists to arrive without the need for testing, similar to Belize, White said the issue is still a matter of policy at the ministerial level. He did acknowledge that “conversations” are currently taking place between government heads and that an update specifically about the matter is expected in a couple weeks.
As of now, the government is currently focused on Jamaica’s national vaccination program, which rolled out on March 10. As more and more Jamaicans become vaccinated, said White, travellers coming to Jamaica will have “the added assurance that there is an active and aggressive vaccination program happening.” This, he added, will “hopefully add to their own personal security, knowing that they’re going to a destination that has taken COVID-19 extremely seriously and has been at the forefront of driving policy that protects lives and livelihoods and provide a safe environment for our visitors.”