The Cayman Islands Tourism Association, while welcoming the government’s announcement of a border reopening plan, has raised concerns with a number of elements involved, including the timeline and a lack of consultation with the private sector.
CITA president Marc Langevin said, now that the long-awaited reopening plan had been announced, the tourism industry could begin making its own plans for how to welcome visitors back on island, and start working on staffing and supplies arrangements.
“We are certainly happy we finally have a plan. There is no question about that. We have been waiting 15 months to hear about that plan. We appreciate that the government is adopting a phased approach, it is the only way to do it,” he told the Compass in a phone interview.
“On the disappointing side, the government did not consult CITA or anyone in the private sector on development of the reopening plan. They denied themselves the benefit of understanding some of the practical impacts on our businesses and on our employees and their families. With a little collaboration, we could have identified some creative alternatives,” he said, adding that it appeared the government was working “in a silo”.
80% vaccination rate
One of the biggest concerns, Langevin said CITA members had, was whether the government would be able to reach its target of vaccinating 80% of the population, and what contingencies were in place if that target could not be reached, within the proposed timeline of the five-phase plan.
To reach the 80% target, 56,880 people would need to be fully vaccinated before the borders could reopen. As of Monday, 13 July, 45,732 people – or 64% of the estimated 71,100 population – had received both doses of the vaccine.
Describing the government’s vaccination threshold as “not realistic” – as it relies on more than 90% of the eligible population taking the vaccine – Langevin said there would always be a proportion of the population who, for various reasons, would opt not to get inoculated.
Noting that Phase 3 of the reopening plan, which would come into effect on 9 Sept. and which involves the introduction of a limited number of tourists to the islands, was contingent on Cayman reaching the 80% vaccination target, he said, “We cannot be held hostage by those people who refuse to be vaccinated.”
He called on the government to let the public know what additional steps are being taken to ensure the 80% target is reached, pointing out that major efforts had been made in May and June to inoculate people, but the number of vaccinations being given daily now had slowed down considerably.
Between 8 May and 9 June, the government undertook a concerted campaign to encourage people to get inoculated, in a bid to use up all the vaccines on island as they neared their expiration date. That effort included entry into a draw in which 150 prizes were given away. During the ‘Vaccine Challenge’, 14,375 people were vaccinated, according to Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan.
Since 17 June, after a fresh batch of vaccines arrived on island and the vaccination clinics resumed operation, 7,922 shots have been administered.
Langevin said people holding out on getting vaccinated should not be the determining factor in reopening the borders, and urged government to have an alternative plan on hand, such as mandating vaccinations for workers in certain industries, like those working at the airport and other frontline staff.
CITA also suggested that each step in the government’s phased plan could be brought forward a month, to give tourism businesses and public sector agencies time to prepare before an influx of tourists arrive.
Langevin said the points in the timeline where more tourists will be allowed to enter Cayman coincide with times when traditionally large numbers of visitors come here, for example, over Thanksgiving or Christmas. He suggested that these measures could be implemented earlier, so that government agencies like Travel Cayman and Customs and Border Control, as well as the tourism industry, could have time to build up to the increase in tourists, rather than having to deal with suddenly being inundated with visitors.
For instance, Langevin said, Phase 5 of the plan, which comes into effect on 18 Nov., is due to be implemented just a week before Thanksgiving, when many US families usually would be planning on visiting Cayman. Under this phase, unvaccinated children under the age of 12 can accompany vaccinated parents and would not be required to quarantine.
If this phase was implemented in October, he said, it would give hotels more breathing space to ensure they were ready to deal with the increased numbers and would mean they had a month to get ready for the Thanksgiving rush, rather than just a week.
He added that CITA felt the timeline, which concludes with a decision in January as to whether quarantines and testing could be eliminated and cruise visits reintroduced, was “backloaded”, moving too slowly in the first few months and too quickly in the last two.
He asked why the government is waiting until Phase 2 on 9 Aug. to get rid of the requirement for vaccinated travellers in five-day quarantine to wear GPS wristbands, when such a change could be implemented immediately, thus reducing the resources needed to monitor those in quarantine.
“There are over 1,000 people in isolation. It takes a lot of people to continuously monitor and check them,” he said.
Addressing Phase 4, due to be implemented on 14 Oct. and which involves an increase in incoming tourist numbers, Langevin said, at that point, the demand for US tourists to travel overseas would already be rising as temperatures drop in the northern states. “Why not move that phase to September?” he asked. “September is a ‘soft’ month. … We will be able to better control the situation.”
Remobilisation of tourism industry
Since Cayman closed its borders in March last year, thousands of workers have lost their jobs in the tourism industry. Many left Cayman or moved into other sectors or are relying on government stipends to survive.
Once the borders reopen and the tourists start flocking back to the local beaches and dive sites, staff will need to be on hand in the hotels, condos, restaurants and watersports operations to serve them. This will mean the remobilisation of thousands of returning or newly-hired workers.
Langevin said the tourism industry is making a concerted effort to hire as many Caymanians as possible for those jobs, but overseas workers will also need to be hired to fill the many vacancies available.
He added that the remobilisation and recovery of the industry went hand-in-hand with the reopening plan, as it was vital that there were enough staff available to serve the number of tourists returning to Cayman.
“Those things need to be addressed simultaneously. It’s not a matter of one after the other, they must be approached together when it comes to reopening,” Langevin said.
Despite the misgivings about certain elements of the government’s approach to the reopening of the borders, Langevin said, “We welcome the fact that there is a plan. Now we have a vision and with vision, comes hope.”
He acknowledged that some operators, who have had to take out small-business loans to survive over the last year and a half, do not have enough resources to hire people at the moment and will have to wait until revenue starts coming in from the returning tourists.
“People are making plans for recruitment, though some will not recruit yet. Some operators will decide not to hire right now and deal with what they can handle as a business,” Langevin said.
He said the issue of bringing in overseas staff was a problem across the Caribbean tourism industry, due to a lack of flights worldwide.
“People are coming back and there aren’t enough employees to take care of the customers. It’s a delicate decision that every hotel and private business and boat operator is going to have to gamble on,” he said.