Commercial airlines will not resume scheduled flights to Cayman when the borders tentatively reopen in September.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell told the Cayman Compass in an interview this week that government was planning a ‘soft opening’, with stringent protocols that would enable some travel to resume.
Private aircraft and yachts will be allowed to enter the islands.
The number of government-organised flights, in partnership with Cayman Airways and British Airways, is expected to increase, depending on demand.
But Kirkconnell said government was erring on the side of caution and would not take any undue risks. He hopes to open to a wider pool of visitors with the resumption of commercial air traffic by the start of what is traditionally the high season for tourism in mid-November.
But he said the situation was fluid and a decision will depend on the advice from
public health officials and Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee.
Access to flights into Cayman from 1 Sept. will theoretically be open to anyone who applies, if they can meet the testing criteria and comply with other measures put in place by government.
But with planes running at half capacity, officials are working on a system that will give priority to Caymanians, permanent residents, work-permit holders and property owners.
Kirkconnell does not expect to see an influx of short-stay tourists. He believes some property owners or wealthy visitors may choose to come to the islands for long stays.
The border opening will also give the opportunity for people living in Cayman to visit family overseas and return to the islands.
The current plan includes options for monitored self-isolation at home, as well as isolation in a government facility. A competitive bid process for interested hoteliers to provide that service is currently being determined.
In the first phase of Cayman’s border reopening, travellers who test negative for COVID-19 three days prior to arriving on island can wear a ‘BioButton’ monitoring device and self-isolate at a residence of their choice for five days, or, if they choose not to wear the device, must quarantine at a government-managed facility for 14 days.
Those wearing the BioButton take a second PCR test five days after arrival and, if negative, will continue their bio-monitoring for a further nine days without the requirement to self-isolate.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has extended its ‘no sail order’ on cruise ships through September and is expected to continue the ban beyond that date. The Cayman government has not yet contemplated protocols that would allow ships to return. Kirkconnell said the sole focus right now is stayover tourism.
He acknowledged government’s measures were quite stringent in comparison with other jurisdictions but cautioned that several islands, including the Bahamas, had opened their borders only to be forced to close them again.
Kirkconnell believes a cautious approach now is the best strategy for Cayman in the long term – not just for the health of its people, but for the health of the economy.
He said the soft opening would give the islands a chance, during the traditionally slow months of September and October, to fine-tune procedures for processing visitors and to be ready for the ‘new normal’ when commercial schedules resume, hopefully before the end of the year.
Some of the details of how that will happen remain under review. It is not yet clear, for example, how many flights could arrive at one time or what protocols or infrastructure upgrades will be needed to allow passengers safe transit through the Owen Roberts International Airport.
Getting these measures right is imperative for Cayman’s reputation as a destination, Kirkconnell believes.
If the reopening is handled with the same care and the same success as the health crisis, he believes that will help the island in the longer term – even if it means less tourism in the short term.
“Where we want to leave ourselves is with a return on investment from how we managed this pandemic,” the tourism minister said. “We want the world to understand that because the country itself was very stable and had a diversified economy, we were able to make the right decisions and do things in a way that protected the population, and will protect business going forward.”
Kirkconnell said government would provide support for businesses struggling to make ends meet as they wait for tourists to return. More than 2,000 unemployed workers are currently receiving a monthly stipend.
A government-guaranteed loan programme is being developed to help struggling businesses survive what is expected to be a continued slow period.
The Ministry of Tourism released a report this week titled ‘RB5, the Road Back to 500K Arrivals’ – a reference to the record figures achieved in 2019. It outlines plans to enhance sustainable tourism and get more Caymanians working in the stayover sector.
The report suggests off-the-beaten-track destinations that offer peaceful vacations in nature will be in high demand as tourists shun crowds in search of privacy and tranquility.
It recommends visitor-management plans are put in place for key attractions like Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City and suggests Cayman businesses and attractions seek international certification from two recognised sustainability programmes – Blue Flag and Travelife. The report states that the priorities of the post-COVID traveller could be good for both the environment and the economy.
“A new paradigm of luxury travel that is life enriching and values-based is emerging. The good news is that it will contribute to the better world we have been imagining during this pandemic,” the report stated.
Kirkconnell believes it could take up to 36 months for visitor numbers to get close to the levels achieved in recent years.
“The industry was in a real growth spurt when we were hit by this crisis that nobody could have predicted. In a matter of a week, we went from the peak to the bottom. We are not going to get back to the peak in a week,” he said.
Despite that, he believes there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
The fundamentals that helped the Cayman Islands hit those record numbers are still in place. And Kirkconnell believes the new plan can help the islands put in place the necessary protocols and target the right customers to thrive in the post-COVID world.