SAN JUAN – The Caribbean is on the hunt for visitors and vaccines against covid-19 to reactivate paralyzed economies in one of the regions of the world most dependent on tourism.
Its clear waters and warm sand drew a record number of tourists in 2019, 31.5 million, but visits fell between 60% and 80% due to the pandemic last year. That was a devastating blow to a region whose countries rely heavily on tourism to generate income.
“Many countries prefer to endure hurricanes and not a pandemic,” said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, a former Bahamas tourism minister who also headed the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Tens of thousands of tourism-related jobs disappeared, including those of Nadia Kidd and her mother in Jamaica. Kidd, 31, was a waitress at a hotel and her mother worked at a boarding house. Like so many other workers, he has not yet collected his severance pay and has set up a small grocery store in his home with which he supports his mother and daughter.
“I have to take care of everything,” said Kidd, who worked at the Meliá Branco Village resort in Trelawny. “I have many loans to pay, electricity and the internet, because my daughter takes classes online.”
Desperate to create safe conditions for tourism, the Caribbean is looking to India and China for vaccines at a time when global supplies are tight and rich nations are ahead of the waiting line for vaccines. A few got fast deliveries, while others wait weeks, if not months.
Covid-19 infections rose in November, as did variants that are believed to be more contagious. 522,000 infections and 7,500 deaths have been reported in the 35 countries and territories of the region.
“The rate of increases (in infections) is alarming,” said Dr. Joy St. John, executive director of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency.
Small nations took a number of steps to combat the virus, including requiring visitors to present negative COVID-19 tests upon arrival.
Cuba, the largest nation in the Caribbean and the only one that works on its own vaccine, increased its controls as it saw that infections increased. It requires visitors to stay in designated hotels and to be tested upon arrival.
Visitors to St. Kitts and Nevis are required to stay in certain hotels and in St. Eustatius people are asked to explain their reasons for wanting to go there before being approved for admission.
Many islands ask visitors to remain isolated, although for how long and in what conditions varies by location. In the Cayman Islands and Barbados, for example, they must stay in hotels for at least a week and risk arrest if they fail to meet that requirement. In Puerto Rico, they are not required to be quarantined if they present negative evidence upon arrival and can tour the island’s beaches and forests.
Aruba, Anguilla, Curaçao, Montserrat and other islands are presented as ideal havens for those who can work from home, through the Internet, although they are severe with those who violate the restrictions associated with the virus.
At least 13 countries in the region joined the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which distributes vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.
One of them is Jamaica, which is reopening its doors to tourism despite not receiving a single dose of vaccines yet. On Sunday, however, he announced the closure of public beaches and rivers until March 22.
The government expects to receive 50,000 vaccines from India this week and 14,400 from AstraZeneca next week through the COVAX program. He also signed up to receive .8 million doses in April through the African Medical Supply Platform, a non-profit initiative of the African Union.
Alica Brown, 34, says she does not plan to go back to work in the tourism sector when the vaccines arrive. She has not gotten a job since she graduated from the resort where she worked as a supervisor last year and had to go live with her family again and use her savings.
“The pandemic was very eye-opening to me,” said Brown, who considers working in the field. “It made me understand that there is no secure job, especially in the tourism sector, when something like this happens and tourists cannot come. How will we survive?”
Others, like Cranston Calnick, say they are waiting for the hotels where they worked to reopen. Meanwhile, this 29-year-old has been picking fruit and selling it on the street. “So I survive,” he said.
Unlike Jamaica, other islands have been more fortunate and received vaccines from AstraZeneca through India’s “Vaccine Friendship” program.
Dominica, an eastern Caribbean island of 74,500 people still reeling from Hurricane Maria in 2017, received 70,000 doses last month and began vaccinations.
“I didn’t expect such a positive and prompt response to my request” for vaccines, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said. The country shared some of its vaccines with other nations, including Grenada and Saint Kitts and Nevis.
Dominica will also receive doses from China and the COVAX program.
Barbados, with 300,000 inhabitants, received 100,000 doses from India and donated 2,000 to Trinidad and Tobago, whose 1.2 million inhabitants have severe restrictions and which has requested 250,000 doses from India.
India also helps the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, but the region is far from reaching the level of vaccines necessary to achieve immunity for the herd of 18 million people in the Caribbean Community (known as CARICOM, for its acronym in English).
“We knew from our history and from human behavior that it was possible … that the big would eat first and the weaker would starve,” said Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and President of Caricom.
China, meanwhile, shipped 768,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to the Dominican Republic, a nation of 10.6 million people, which is also beginning to receive shipments from AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
Beijing promised to supply 20,000 doses to Guyana in March.
While trying to attract tourists, the islands complain that many of them ignore the restrictions derived from the pandemic.
Barbados recently fined a former British beauty queen $ 6,000 for violating virus protocols and detained a Jamaican tourist who failed to pay a fine after being charged with violating forty.
St. John, the director of the Caribbean public health agency, said that agency trained more than 8,000 hotel employees to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“You have to know how to find the balance between life and work,” he said.
Neil Walters, acting secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said experts estimate that the Caribbean will regain its normal levels of tourism in 2022 or 2023.
Visits to the region rose in November but fell in January, in part because the United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada restricted travel, according to Frank Comito of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. Also conspicuous by their absence are visitors traveling on cruise ships, which before the pandemic had reached 30 million, a record number.
Comito, however, said the US Virgin Islands had seen an increase in flights to unprecedented levels, at least temporarily, as airlines shifted their flight schedules from Europe and Asia to the Caribbean.