Tourism business leaders are hoping that vaccination passes for visitors can allow the Cayman Islands to welcome back tourists this summer.
Marc Langevin, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said the election had put a freeze on any decisions over reopening.
But he believes one of the first orders of business for the next government will be to set a clear timeline for the return of tourism along with practical steps to make it happen.
Langevin believes the quarantine period should be reduced and ultimately eliminated for visitors with proof of vaccination this summer.
After that, he said, businesses would like to see an incremental increase in tourism.
“It has to be a gradual and controlled approach, allowing to test and evaluate protocols but I am hopeful that after the election we can talk seriously about reopening,” said Langevin, also general manager of the Ritz Carlton resort.
He believes it could be possible for Cayman to build towards a full return of tourism by high season.
Cayman’s reopening strategy is highly dependent on the national vaccination program. Currently arriving tourists, who have been tested and vaccinated, are still required to quarantine for 10 days. Those restrictions are expected to be eased once 75-80 percent of Cayman’s adult population is vaccinated.
Langevin, speaking following a meeting of CITA members last week, said there is could be a need to inject more urgency into the vaccination programme for those that may be complacent about getting the jab.
He said he was concerned that the numbers of people getting immunised were starting to plateau.
He said, “I believe government has done everything it can to protect the community; at some point, people have to be responsible.”
He said easing travel restrictions could involve a “carrot and stick” approach.
“The carrot is that if you are vaccinated you can start to travel and come back to Cayman without quarantine. The stick is that if you are on island, be aware that visitors and travelling residents are coming in and take steps to protect yourself.”
Dr. Michael Tibbetts, the vice-president of CITA and owner of Clearly Cayman dive resorts, said vaccination and testing offered Cayman the opportunity of a “very safe” reopening.
He said, CITA would like to see deadlines to get people vaccinated in sync with a timeline for reopening.
He said people in the Cayman Islands had been given free access to the best researched and likely most effective COVID-19 vaccine. But while the air and sea port remain effectively closed, he said there was no urgency to take it.
“I think at some point it has to be a choice. If someone doesn’t want to get vaccinated that shouldn’t hold the rest of the country hostage.”
He said those that might not want to get the jab could potentially be given the opportunity to “sign and decline”.
While there is no way to totally eliminate risk, Tibbetts believes that with a large percentage of the population vaccinated and a requirement that arriving visitors are tested and vaccinated, tourism can return this summer.
With most front-facing tourism employees vaccinated, he said the threat of a fresh COVID-19 outbreak would be very slim.
Both Tibbetts and Langevin believe a successful high season, staring in November, is possible. But they argue that concrete plans and timelines must start to be put in place now.
“We can’t just flick a switch and reopen,” said Langevin.
He said CITA was involved in a working group under the patronage of the Ministry of Tourism with key government agencies, including the Health Services Authority, Cayman Airways, Transportation Board, the Cayman Islands Airports Authority and WORC.
The logistics of reopening, the timing of plane arrivals and safety protocols at the airport, are among the practicalities to be hammered out.
Then there is the thorny issue of recruitment, including training local talents and the likely need for work permits.
Based on a survey of five hotels, 28 restaurants, 13 watersports businesses and 8 retail outlets, CITA estimates a minimum of 2,000 new workers will be needed.
While there are around 3,000 displaced local workers on a government stipend, Langevin estimates that figure includes between 1,000 to 2,000 people who are already in the industry. He said there were many people working reduced hours, or who had been temporarily laid off, who would be brought back to work when visitors return.
He added that some people could be retrained from other industries, but suggested the workforce dynamics of Cayman’s tourism industry had not been substantially altered by the pandemic. If anything, he said, there was less interest in tourism as a career.
“We are bringing new people into the industry but it is ones and twos. Nothing has changed in the last 12 months that means significantly more people want to work in our industry.
“We are looking for servers right now and we are not finding people.”
Langevin said the employment issue needed to be “depoliticised” because hotels and restaurants would need the co-operation of WORC and immigration officials to ramp up their staff ahead of reopening.
He said businesses needed all the support they could get to get through to reopening and beyond.
“Everybody is losing money right now, everybody is holding on with the hope of a reopening.”