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.
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.
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”.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”