Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Jamaica is looking at ways to offer international visitors a medical program that would include coverage for COVID-related expenses, PAX has learned.
The insight comes after the lush Caribbean island reopened its borders on June 15th to kickstart tourism after months of shutdowns due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Part of the work we have been doing for the past month and a half includes the research of identifying a possible insurance plan that travellers to Jamaica could access when planning their trip,” Donovan White, director of tourism at the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), told PAX in a recent telephone interview. “This could include potential health care, extended hotel stays, [or] an emergency evacuation if they get critically ill.”
READ MORE: International tourism to Jamaica resumes June 15th
Introducing insurance options
While the idea is still in the early stages of development, White confirmed that he and his team have been in discussions “with a number of providers” about introducing insurance that would provide travellers with medical coverage if they, in a worst-case scenario, contracted COVID-19 while in destination.
“It is very high on our agenda,” White told PAX, hinting that an official announcement on the matter is “not very far off.”
White’s remarks come as Canadians and travel advisors continue to face many cold hard truths about international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While provincial restrictions are easing, Canadians, for one, are still bound to a federal non-essential travel advisory, as well as a legally-enforced 14-day isolation order upon returning to Canada.
Secondary to this is the fact that insurance companies do not, and likely will not, cover medical expenses related to COVID-19 for Canadians who still choose to travel abroad, despite the advisory. Many travel insurers began halting coverage in March, calling the coronavirus a “known” issue.
Cases of coronavirus in Jamaica are low, however.
As of June 19th, there were 184 active cases of COVID-19 under investigation, the country’s Ministry of Health and Wellness reported last Friday. (To put that into perspective, Jamaica has a population of nearly 3 million people).
One way the country's insurance solution could take shape is to build the option into vacation packages so that medical costs (including those associated with COVID-19) are covered, White said.
New health and safety protocols
This is one strategy Jamaica is exploring to boost tourism after the country, last week, began welcoming back international visitors – an event that was met with the introduction of several new health and safety protocols.
Nearly 300,000 people both directly and indirectly related to Jamaica’s tourism sector were financially impacted by the island’s COVID-19 lockdown, White said, which is why Jamaica’s slow, but careful, return couldn’t come sooner.
Giving locals the ability to return to their jobs and earn an income is “tremendously important to us as a country,” White told PAX.
The reopening of Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, for instance, reintegrated some 5,000 people back into the workforce, White said.
The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world, and in normal circumstances, more than 4.3 million people travel each year to Jamaica alone.
Before the threat of COVID-19, Jamaica’s tourism sector was entering into its 10th consecutive year of growth.
Following a record-breaking year in 2019, tourism receipts for January and February indicated that the sector was growing at a rate of 5.2 per cent in 2020.
As a result of COVID-19, Jamaica has suffered the most significant economic decline it has seen in four decades.
Real GDP has declined by 1.7 per cent as of March 2020 and the country is projecting a decline of 12-14 per cent for the April-June quarter.
“Our economy is driven by people,” said White. “If people are out of work and unable to meet their demands to survive, then you have a problem.”
What tourists can expect
Jamaica’s tourism restart has gone “very smooth” so far, White said.
Incoming visitors and nationals to Jamaica are subject to a range of new health and safety protocols, starting with the completion of a mandatory Travel Authorization form, which all travellers must submit up to 72 hours before their flight. (The approval is generated within about 10 minutes).
If approved, travellers are emailed a preauthorized landing certification, which they must present when boarding their flight and when passing through customs and immigration.
This form can be saved digitally on a phone and/or tablet or printed out the traditional way.
Visitors will encounter enhanced health screenings at the airport, such as temperature checks and a mandatory a nasal swab for COVID-19 if one is arriving from a high-risk country (Canada and the United States fall into this category).
Test results arrive within 24 to 48 hours, during which guests are expected to stay at their accommodations. If a traveller tests positive for COVID-19, he or she will be isolated in a designated hotel room.
Mandatory COVID-19 testing will be in place until at least June 30th and there is no charge for the test.
The introduction of screenings, combined with customs and immigration, means that processing time at the airport is about 50 to 100 per cent longer than usual, said White, depending on how many flights have landed.
However: “As we continue over the next couple of days to refine the process, it will get much faster and more effective,” he said, adding that the passengers he spoke to on opening day last week were understanding of the situation.
Taking every precaution
Still, in the midst of an active pandemic, there’s no room for cutting corners.
“These protocols are designed for us to do a safe and responsible reopening - not just for tourists, but also for workers in the tourism industry who serve the people coming in,” White said. “We want to make sure we’ve taken every precaution.”
That includes providing workers with proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer.
“Every 30 metres you walk on a hotel property, you will see hand sanitizer bolted to a door,” White said.
Hotels, which must be certified by health authorities in order to operate, feature markers on the floors to map out proper social distancing; furniture has been rearranged to offer more space, high-grade cleaning procedures have been adapted.
“Our partners have been very resilient,” White said. “They have made a tremendous investment in building safety protocols that go above and beyond what the destination would build.”
Jamaica’s COVID-Resilient Corridor
Visitors will not be able to explore all of Jamaica, at least in this first stage of reopening.
The island has cornered off what’s called a “Resilient Corridor,” a geographical region that runs from Negril to Montego Bay and through to Ocho Rios and Port Antonio.
Everyone entering Jamaica for tourism purposes will be require to stay within this corridor, and at their hotel, White said.
(Hotels in this region are all along the beach, notably).
“[The corridor] gives us greater control in managing the situation if there is a case [of COVID-19],” said White. “We know exactly where they are. We can find them, isolate them, and manage the risks as quickly as possible.”
A second Resilient Corridor is in the Kingston Business District (New Kingston and environs) which will be open to business travellers.
These corridors will gradually be extended as officials conduct ongoing risk assessments and as the island gradually moves into further stages of reopening, White said.
The road ahead
The JTB is fully aware that reopening its borders could leak new cases of COVID-19 into the island.
“Until we have mass access to a vaccine, we cannot and will not eliminate the risk entirely of that happening,” said White. “But for now, we must use all of our available resources, in a targeted way, to manage and mitigate the risks and restart our economy. This means everything that is done must be done in the safest possible way that protects lives while securing our livelihoods at same time.”
White expects the island to return to some sense of normalcy by mid-2022, going into 2023.
“Jamaica is absolutely beautiful and welcoming to travellers who have been pent-up during this time of closure and who want to start travelling again,” said White. “There are safe and responsible ways to do this and do it well. We want to be that example to the world.”
For a comprehensive FAQ on Jamaica’s reopening protocols, click here.
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