(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — As tourism interests gear up to take advantage of the scheduled full reopening of the country’s borders come June 15, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) Omar Robinson is urging hoteliers to seek certification from the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo) to ensure that they are compliant with the COVID-19 protocols.
Robinson’s call came minutes after last evening’s announcement by Prime Minister Andrew Holness that the country’s air and sea ports will reopen to Jamaicans starting today and non-nationals beginning mid-June.
Holness made the disclosure during a virtual press conference from the Office of the Prime Minister in St Andrew.
The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly brutal to Jamaica’s tourism-dependent economy, with 120,000 of the sector’s direct workers being retrenched and only approximately 40,000 retained.
In welcoming the Government’s decision to announce a date for visitors to return to the island, Robinson said the JHTA, which represents Jamaican hoteliers, was very pleased that the country will be open to international tourists.
“The JHTA has been working closely with the Government to design a set of protocols that will guide the safe operation of tourism entities. We realise that not all tourism entities will reopen at that time based on their own business decisions. For those entities that choose to reopen on June 15 they will now have to implement the protocols and get certified by TPDCo so that they can be ready to welcome employees back to work safely along with visitors in a safe environment,” Robinson told the Jamaica Observer.
“These entities will also ensure a trained workforce. Other entities that remain closed will take the time to implement the protocols so that they can be certified and ready at a later date. Giving us a set date is also imperative for our tourism business, as our international partners, such as airlines, need sufficient time to set their schedules and position planes accordingly,” added Robinson.
The JHTA head was supported by Sandals Resorts International Deputy Chairman and CEO Adam Stewart who also welcomed the announcement from Holness.
“It gives us an opportunity to work with our airline and travel partners to try and save as much of summer as possible. It’s been a very difficult and costly three months. There’s been a tremendous amount of fallout and suffering within the tourism industry — 350,000 people who depend on tourism out of work — so we look forward to getting back to work to let people in those countries within the bubble, as determined by the Government, know that we are open for business,” said Stewart, who is also deputy chairman of this newspaper.
He noted that Sandals was one of the first companies in this hemisphere to roll out a comprehensive set of strengthened health and safety protocols to ensure that on the reopening of the tourism sector guests will be able to enjoy their Caribbean vacation worry-free.
The protocols, which were announced to the travel trade early last month, will be demonstrated to Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett at Sandals Montego Bay on Wednesday this week Stewart said.
“The real difficult work begins now to restart the tourism engine, but Jamaicans are very resilient, and I am sure we will emerge from this stronger and better,” Stewart said.
Holness used yesterday’s media briefing to declare that the reopening of the economy is vital as he noted that the country suffered a severe setback because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister pointed to a recent report from the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) which said that there was a decline of 1.7 per cent in real gross domestic product (GDP) for the quarter ending in March.
Holness also pointed to the PIOJ’s projection of a decline of 12 to 14 per cent for the April to June quarter, and four to six per cent for the fiscal year 20/21, and noted that this represents the most significant economic decline the country has suffered in more than four decades.
“It is therefore imperative that we get our economy back to full productive capacity as quickly as possible,” the prime minister said, as he underscored that his announcement signalled the “broader opening of the economy”.
But Holness argued that getting the economy back on track needs to be done responsibly, as the country moves to contain the local spread of COVID-19.
Jamaica yesterday recorded five additional cases of the virus, moving the total to 586. There have been 21 additional recoveries bringing the total to 311. The number of COVID-19 related deaths remains at nine, while two people are critically ill.
Against that background, Holness said that the Government will be seeking to implement new controlled entry protocols that will be based on a risk assessment of the countries from which persons are seeking to enter Jamaica.
He said countries that have a similar management and profile results for the epidemic such as spread, death rate, infection prevention, control measures, and contact tracing protocols could constitute a “travel bubble” that would determine the protocols to be applied to entry from those states. Persons seeking to enter Jamaica from countries within the travel bubble, he said, “may not need to be tested on arrival”.
Travel bubbles, also called travel bridges or corona corridors, do away with that waiting period for a select group of travellers from certain countries where the coronavirus has been contained. In a travel bubble, a set of countries agree to open their borders to each other, but keep borders to all other countries closed.
“They would, however, be subjected to health status screening, including temperature checks, checks for symptoms, and everyone must go through a sensitisation programme with public health officials utilising flyers and audio-visuals.
“We’re also considering including a pledge document which everyone coming in would need to sign to indicate that they would observe the protocols here that all Jamaicans have been observing which would have served us well,” said Holness.
He said based on the health status and risk assessment by a public health officer of those re-entering the country, Jamaicans will be subjected to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period if they are not coming from a travel bubble country.
Tourists will not be subjected to this unless they exhibit symptoms of the virus, the prime minister said.
The country’s borders were closed to incoming passenger traffic on March 24 to limit the community spread of COVID-19.