Travel advisors with clients traveling to Caribbean destinations are scrambling to adapt to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s Tuesday policy change, under which U.S.-returning travelers must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of re-entry.
Caribbean destination and resort officials are also working overtime to secure testing services as the policy shift could potentially strand hundreds of vacationers in Caribbean destinations, as they seek to arrange for testing, as well as impact upcoming Caribbean bookings.
Caribbean-selling advisors say they’re frustrated by the latest pandemic-driven developments. “The new CDC requirements dealt a major blow to travel advisors,” said Kelly Fontenelle-Clarke, founder of influential travel agency group Travel Agents Selling the Caribbean. “After months of steady rebound in travel, we are once again bracing for a slow down.”
“Some advisors have already received cancellations for trips as far in advance as March,” said Fontenelle-Clarke. “Some clients fear that in the event they test positive, they may have to remain in a foreign country,” while still others are “uncomfortable with testing procedures outside of the U.S.”
Resultingly, advisors find themselves “scrambling to find information on test locations and wait times for results, in all Caribbean destinations, in an effort to salvage those bookings,” Fontenelle-Clarke said.
“There are so many unanswered questions that advisors still need clarity on,” said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations, a major Caribbean vacation seller. She points to media reports saying waivers may be considered for destinations including Antigua and St Lucia, where COVID-19 rates are significantly lower than in the U.S. and pre-testing is required for entry.
“Would they be able to get a waiver from this policy?” Doncecz asked. “Hopefully this will be updated by the CDC quickly. They made several updates throughout the night last night.” She did add she believes “destinations will be releasing locations where you can get tested” although Doncecz says she is concerned some countries may not have sufficient testing capacity “to get a 72-hour turnaround.”
Destinations may indeed find local testing capacity overwhelmed as a rapidly growing wave of travelers seek to secure coronavirus tests. “Most of the region needs additional time to rapidly build up additional capacity beyond the short time window provided,” said Vanessa Ledesma, Acting CEO and Director General of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).
“That capacity needs to consider the volume of tests needed to first serve the resident population as well as travelers,” she adds.“Data on anticipated traveler requirements is being assembled and provided to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).”
PHOTO: Sunset in Jamaica. (photo by Paul G. Smith)
Most destination officials were still formulating an approach to respond to the CDC rule changes. In Jamaica, Edmund Bartlett, the tourism minister, named a special task force to “spearhead efforts to boost Jamaica’s COVID-19 testing capacity, in light of the growing demand for such tests, fuelled by new travel requirements in key tourism source markets,” according to a statement.
While Saint Lucia’s government has yet to issue a statement, a source with knowledge of island tourism says the destination will “have options available for travelers who are required to have a COVID-19 test before returning home, including testing at their hotel or at a local testing facility.”
Still, the approach unquestionably places pressure on Caribbean countries to devise solutions to ensure testing is available.
“The new testing requirements present a tremendous challenge for most of the small countries and jurisdictions in the Caribbean,” said Ledesma. “Most jurisdictions in the region presently lack the availability and access to the volume of testing equipment, support reagents, and lab facilities which would be required to conduct massive amounts of PCR tests within very short turnaround times.”
PHOTO: COVID-19 health questionnaire. (Photo via Getty Images Plus / Stock / farosofa)
Typically, advisors are already finding ways to work around the restrictions. Doncsecz notes CDC has provided a form for travelers who have had COVID-19 and recovered within the last 90 days. These travelers would not be required to present a negative result upon returning to the U.S.
And Fontenelle-Clarke said the sudden change and resulting scramble does create an opening for advisors. “This is an opportune time for travel advisors to show their importance and how resourceful they are to their clients,” she said.
“Destinations have also come out to provide testing locations to inspire more confidence and to demonstrate that they have been doing a great job so far, in keeping visitors and residents safe.”