TORONTO — Though Jamaica has officially reopened its borders to international travellers, questions still remain as to how safe it is to travel right now and whether the same island experience that visitors have come to know and love is even possible during the COVID-19 crisis.
To address these concerns, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), along with several of its tourism partners, hosted a one-of-a-kind Virtual Tourism Update yesterday, July 29, featuring product and destination news from across the island.
In his opening remarks, Donovan White, JTB’s Director of Tourism, said the destination has a new focus moving forward: finding innovative ways to ensure that “the rhythms of Jamaica” continue to shine through despite today’s physical distance realities.
“Jamaica is known as a larger-than-life destination due to our culture, our personalized service, music, attractions and food,” he said. “We know these are the passion points that visitors desire most when they come to our shores and it’s crucial that we preserve these experiences in their natural form as best as we can – always.”
To achieve this, the government of Jamaica has implemented a wide range of health and safety protocols based on nine fundamental tenets. These include sanitization for all workers, tourists and surroundings, face masks and PPE for workers and tourists in public spaces, physical distancing to allow people to be together yet stay physically apart, enhanced digital enablement to allow for more contactless transactions, real-time health monitoring and reporting, and rapid response protocols in the event of a positive test.
However, White noted that “we cannot eliminate risk entirely” until mass access to a COVID-19 vaccine is made available.
“So for now, we must use our available resources to strategically manage and mitigate the risks as we restart the economy and bring it back to full productivity and capacity as quickly as possible,” he said. “This must be done in the safest way possible to protect lives and secure livelihoods.”
Jamaica has been praised for its response to the pandemic, with less than 1,000 positive cases reported thus far. It first reopened to tourists on June 15 with protocols developed in consultation with global organizations like the CDC and the World Travel & Tourism Council, as well as the private sector, worker unions and local government agencies including the Ministries of Health & Wellness, National Security and Foreign Affairs.
“Our government has worked with experts from around the globe to develop our tourism protocols; travellers should feel confident in Jamaica’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus,” added White, who also noted that based on virtual engagement during the lockdown period that demand for Jamaica not only remains strong but grew stronger. “Along with our partners across the industry, we’re confident these protocols will allow visitors to continue having a larger-than-life experience in Jamaica.
Here are updates from the various partners who participated in today’s Virtual Tourism Update:
Love has not been cancelled at Sandals, not by a long shot, said Marsha-Ann Brown, Director of Romance. The company is servicing all bookings coming in with 18 new touchpoints of safety that span from airport arrivals and transfers, to resort experiences. Team members underwent rigorous training supported by a learning management system at the Sandals University, with each member having to matriculate from one module to another to ensure that all levels of excellence were passed. With the onus on the Sandals staff, guests are only required to wear masks in public areas at Sandals resorts. What is mandatory, “without question or even a blink of consideration,” is that every single staff member, regardless of capacity, must wear a mask and their respective protective gear, where applicable.
With regard to weddings, a new model focuses on two main elements: physical distancing, with tables and chairs being spaced six feet apart, and a reduced capacity of 50% at all Sandals wedding locations, for both ceremonies and receptions. At present time, the largest size reception that can be accommodated, depending on the location, is approximately 50. Weddings have also moved to a served buffet or pre-plated meals.
According to Brown, one of the most drastic changes she has seen as a result of the pandemic pertains to wedding group sizes.
“Prior to covid, destination wedding sizes were really large; it wasn’t uncommon to see people travelling with 100 of their guests down to Jamaica to celebrate their wedding,” she said. “Now, folks are only bringing 10 of their closest friends and family members. You will see a lot more intimate sized weddings but destination weddings will still continue to come.”
As for future bookings, Brown added that projections are “looking good” due to the fact that travellers know the Sandals brand and have identified Jamaica’s “phenomenal track record” at handling the pandemic. And though tourism in Jamaica was poised to explode prior to the pandemic in what experts considered to be a bumper-crop year, Brown is confident that numbers will bounce back.
“I believe if we continue to maintain the pattern of how we’ve handled the situation, Jamaica will continue to be one of the hottest destinations,” she said. “People understand and appreciate that Jamaica is ready and that we’re ready to serve them at Sandals.”
Reopening this Friday, the family-owned, boutique-style Jamaica Inn is already poised to meet the standards of ‘the new normal,’ said General Manager Kyle Mais. “Because of the style of our property, we’ve been physically distancing for over 60 years now.”
With just 55 keys, the “low-density” hotel never offered buffets and boasts open-air dining. Room service, which Mais said will be a very popular option now, is brought to rooms and left on verandahs. As for what’s new, the number of seats and tables in restaurants has been reduced, reservations are now required at restaurants, and masks are mandatory in public areas (though not on the beach).
During its temporary closure, the property developed enhanced safety protocols, completed its annual refurbishments that are normally done in September, and launched a new website. For its opening weekend, Mais says the Inn is operating at full capacity. Beyond that, Mais said bookings are now coming in “slow but steady,” with August projections sitting at about 30%.
“It’s not a huge number by any means and it’s not exactly sustainable, but it’s better than zero,” he said. “If in December we’re at 50% – though we’re hoping for 60% – we’ll be happy.”
SKYLARK NEGRIL BEACH RESORT
Oliver Cargill, Restaurant Manager at Skylark’s Miss Lily’s Negril, highlighted the various measures taken at the resort’s food & beverage outlets to ensure the health and safety of guests. Prior to reopening, staff underwent extensive training for up-to-date best practices and buffets and bar service were eliminated in favour of table service only. Restaurants feature open-air dining, tables are now distanced six feet apart, tables, chairs and even chair cushions are steamed after each use.
This weekend, the resort is expecting to reach 75% capacity.
SANGSTER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
As the first point of contact for all travellers, Jamaica’s Sangster International Airport has put health and safety as its #1 priority since reopening to international travellers on June 15. While it is not operating at 100%, seeing just 15% of its usual traffic compared to last year and anywhere from 14-20 flights per week, it has implemented stringent protocols that include mandatory masks, plexiglass shields, safety messaging throughout, enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas such as wheelchairs and escalators, temperature checks for all staff, and thermal scanning for all passengers.
All travellers must obtain a Travel Authorization prior to departure, which can be accessed here. The Travel Authorization is designed to assess the health risks of all visitors. The Jamaica health regulations require that the Travel Authorization is issued a maximum of five days prior to arrival in Jamaica.
COVID-19 testing is not mandatory for all visitors at this time. Only non-business travellers 12 years and over from the U.S. hotspots of New York, Florida, Texas and Arizona are required to upload a negative test result.
For more information go to https://www.visitjamaica.com/travelauthorization/.
VIP EXPERIENCES – CLUB MOBAY & CLUB KINGSTON
There’s no better time to take advantage of the VIP experience offered at Club Mobay at Sangster International Airport and Club Kingston at Norman Manley International Airport, said representative Nicholas Watson. Available for US$50 for adults and $25 for children ages 2-12 (kids under two are free), each club offers a more personalized and expedited airport process, which at a time when wait times at airports are longer than ever due to enhanced safety protocols, is a welcome bonus.
New safety protocols implemented at both clubs include mandatory masks for guests and temperature checks and hand sanitization upon check-in. Tables and chairs are sanitized after each use and sanitization dispensers have been placed throughout.
VIP Experiences can be booked through hotel and tour operator partners and are commissionable to agents.
Though currently open only to locals, Mystic Mountain Adventure Park in Ocho Rios is set to reopen to hotel guests on Wednesdays starting in August. Based on demand, it will consider opening additional days to hotel guests at a later date. Capacity, which prior to COVID-19 reached a maximum 1,600 guests, has now been reduced to approximately 950, with 50% allotted in the morning (8:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) and the other 50% in the afternoon (12:30-5:00 p.m.). New health protocols include the sanitization of rides after each use, social distancing markers, temperature checks for guests, and a designated safety monitor to ensure all protocols are being adhered to.