‘Resort bubbles’ proposed to help bring back tourists

Angela Walters makes the beds at a suite in The Ritz-Carlton's isolation wing. Hoteliers believe some of the methods being used in quarantine facilities could be deployed to allow hotels to offer all-inclusive vacations to visitors. Photo: James Whittaker

The concept of ‘resort bubbles’ has been put forward as a possible solution that could allow tourists to return to the Cayman Islands despite the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus.

Hoteliers believe visitors could safely vacation at their resorts in an all-inclusive-type environment, without mingling with the wider community.

A presentation has been put forward by a working group of hotel managers, including representatives of The Ritz-Carlton, the Westin and Clearly Cayman, which has resorts on all three islands.

The resort-bubble concept would be an intermediate phase that could allow some tourism to resume in a controlled way, said Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton.

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He believes the methods used to protect staff and the public at government isolation units – one of which is operated in a wing of his luxury Seven Mile Beach resort – could be adapted as the basis for the strategy.

Instead of isolating in a single room, he said, a perimeter could be established around the entire resort and visitors could have a vacation based within the grounds of the hotel.

He said this would bring necessary revenue back to hotels and to the economy prior to a longer-term solution such as a widely available vaccine.

Langevin said hotels were making multi-million dollar losses each month as they continue to pay staff, with the only income coming from a trickle of staycation guests.

For the sake of the economy, he said Cayman had to take steps towards reopening the tourism industry

“We truly believe there will be a phase where potentially we could create what we call a resort bubble,” he said. “That means that visitors will come and stay, and we are locking the resort, physically or virtually.”

He said the details were still being worked out, and it is hoped that the policy could also include carefully managed excursions beyond the property – for example, through boat trips into the North Sound.

Langevin believes “calculated risks” will need to be taken to allow some tourism to return.

He said The Ritz-Carlton and other hotels had shown, through their isolation facilities, that it was possible to manage guests in a safe way. And he believes the next step should be to develop and expand on those protocols through a pilot project to allow resort-based tourism to resume.

“Maybe, at the beginning, it can be one side of the resort, and then as we feel more and more comfortable, we will be a bit more bold,” he said. “Doing nothing is also an option, but I don’t think that is going to be good for anyone.”

Sister Islands options

Michael Tibbetts, of Clearly Cayman Dive Resorts, has a presence on all three islands, through the Little Cayman Beach Resort, Cayman Brac Beach Resort and Cobalt Coast Grand Cayman.

He said the concept of bubble resorts was particularly well suited to the Sister Islands.

Tibbetts believes Clearly Cayman’s businesses, which offer all-inclusive-type stays with dining, diving, beach and water-sports access on site, would be able to offer marketable vacations to guests without them needing to leave the confines of the property.

Michael Tibbetts

Tibbetts, who is also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, said a working group of leading hoteliers was discussing what protocols would need to be in place for staff as well as partner transport and water-sports operators.

He said the same standards – including masks, social distancing, enhanced cleanliness and a higher degree of training and diligence from staff – that are now deployed in isolation facilities could be the basis of protocols for bubble resorts.

Tibbetts said his staff had indicated in surveys that they were prepared to undergo enhanced monitoring, including regular testing, if it helped tourism come back.

“It is absolutely critical for the survival of our business, for our employees and for the Sister Islands economy that we can reopen,” he said.

Government has so far indicated plans to open the border in a limited capacity in October. That is aimed largely at long-stay visitors and second-home owners and is unlikely to make much difference for resorts.

Tibbetts said hoteliers were looking ahead to the next phase and working collaboratively with government on a process that would be the “safest in the world”.

Michael Tibbetts believes the Cayman Brac Beach Resort and its sister resorts could provide an all-inclusive experience to tourists without exposing them to the community and vice versa.

“We are committed to a process that protects the local community, protects employees and offers a pathway that combines risk reduction with a feasible strategy to allow tourists to return.”

Spin-off benefits

Jim Mauer, managing director of the Westin resort on Seven Mile Beach, which remains closed for now, believes the bubble-resort concept could be something that allows hotels to take a step towards normalcy.

But he believes any plan should include strategies to involve the wider community and businesses in any economic benefits.

“My concern is that it should create opportunities for smaller operators, as well. We need to think about how we can include tour operators, retailers and others. We have to try to find a way for everyone to benefit,” he said.

Pop-up stores for retailers inside hotels and partnerships with water-sports and tour operators that meet certain standards for controlled excursions could be part of that process.

Pent-up demand

Many of the details still need to be worked out, and Tibbetts believes it is a concept that could evolve in phases, starting with vacations that are wholly confined within resort properties

Mauer said he understands the dilemma Cayman is in, after the major efforts undertaken to get COVID under control.

With Cayman's tourism industry in free fall, financial services will be relied up to see Cayman through upcoming lean times
The Westin resort has not had any guests since March and there is pent-up demand.

“Even as a hotelier that wants to open, I appreciate it is hard,” he said. “I understand the concerns completely because we have worked so hard to get where we are.”

But, with so much uncertainty about if and when the problems caused by the pandemic will end, he said, the best policy is to try to find a way to work safely in a COVID world.

For everyone, he said, getting travel up and running again is more than just an economic imperative.

“Travel feeds the soul,” he said. “It is critical that we solve this for people, as well as to make money.”

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  1. Bubbling is great if no one enters or exits the bubble. If you are going to try and bubble by moving bodies in and out of it every week or two, by tourist rotation, you have effectively killed the bubble.

    Tourism is not just the hotels on island, there are hundreds of condos which travellers want to use due to cost, personal choice, plus other reasons. Personally, I don’t like all-inclusive as they are a gathering of partiers and over indulgent drinkers (been there done that). It’s time to dive deep into Geo-Fencing bracelets, Testing documentation upon entering Country, PCR Testing on landing and PCR testing after 5 days. Leaving the island open for people to enjoy and dine and entertain themselves, where they like.

    The current Government will ride out the current situation under managed opening protocol. Any new protocols or widening of the opening will certainly fall in the hands of the new administration.

    I understand completely the fiscal pressure all the properties and property owners are under. The world economy depends on people working, not sitting at home locked down. We are honestly going to need to learn to live alongside COVID until the day we can eliminate by vaccine and therapeuticals.

    I by no means am an expert, but what we are doing now is not working, and a continuance of the same is … well, just like banging your head against the wall. Living in a world free of COVID, is like living in a world free of COVID based infections, SARS, H1N1, HIV etc, we have not achieved that harmonious sanctity, nor will we eradicate COVID-19.

    Stay strong everyone, this will pass, or subside, and we will adapt, but shutting down the world, does not seem to be answer.

  2. Providing a COVID-free environment for an entire resort full of arbitrary guests would prove a Herculean task. While effectively quarantining visitors away from the general public, there does not appear to be a plan in place to vet every guest prior to arrival and monitor their ongoing health. Visitors coming from the US comprise the greatest overnight traffic to Cayman and they have the highest and most rampant COVID epidemic in the world, literally.

    Given a choice between staying at a resort full of potentially-infectious people from the US or at a private condo with my family I’d have to choose the latter. I just can’t see unnecessarily exposing my family to so many potential carriers when I don’t have to.

  3. All presented efforts may work for a small select number of visitors but it’s not going to scratch the surface of Cayman’s economic needs. For the some that are alarmed by the number of positive cases in the US. As of Sept 15, the US is still the most tested country in the world with up to 88 million tested; 81 million testing negative and 2.5 million recovered of the 330 billion in population. According to Cayman Compass homepage, case numbers as of Sept in Caymans is 208 with a recovery is 204 in a what?, 28,000 population? Point being, the real number to pay attention to is the recovery number. Back this story, isolation from enjoying a full experience of the islands is a slow economic recovery and we need better.
    Lastly, on a similar abut different topic; Long term visitors and residents that want to get into their homes on the sister islands may not be jumping at paying an extra US $4000.00 to stay in quarantine for 16 days on GC.