By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
THE Ministry of Tourism is recommending hotels throughout the country resume full operations and use of beaches on October 15, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said Monday.
“This will allow our land-based tourism industry enough time to slowly ramp up to benefit from the traditional Thanksgiving travel period leading into the Christmas and New Year season,” he said during a press conference.
Mr D’Aguilar said he hopes there can be full re-opening of the tourism sector by early November with tourism officials eying November 1 for the reopening of tourism attractions, tours and excursions.
Mr D’Aguilar stressed the country cannot afford a repeat of the July scenario where the decision to significantly relax travel restrictions was reversed because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“That was too traumatic for the tourism sector and significantly impacted our relationship with our travel partners,” he said. “We need a period of calm, a period of certainty and a period for those in the tourism sector to methodically plan the measured reopening of their businesses.”
Mr D’Aguilar said not only will hotels need an approved quarantine facility for the reopening, but visitors will also be required to remain wherever they lodge for no more than 14 days.
They will be required to quarantine for 14 days or for the length of their stay, “whichever is shorter,” he said.
As a marketing strategy, said the ministry is avoiding the word “quarantine”.
“Because this Ministry of Tourism recognises that messaging is critical to instilling confidence both from our local population and our international tourism markets we have carefully chosen language that communicates the act of quarantining, a rather harsh word that conjures up, in the minds of the prospective travellers, something most unpleasant especially when you state that persons entering the country have to ‘quarantine for 14 days’ and some may have to do that in a government mandated facility,” he said. “Not very tourism friendly. Therefore, I have instructed the Ministry of Tourism to stop using that word quarantine and start promoting to the visiting public the full VIP experience. VIP – vacation in place.”
Mr D’Aguilar said because hotel visitors have to be tested before arriving in the country, staff should be tested as well.
“As such, after consultation with public health, the competent authority and the hotel industry, the Ministry of Tourism is strongly recommending/actively encouraging that all hotel staff be tested prior to their resuming work and, on as-needed basis, thereafter,” he said, adding: “I recognise that testing all of a hotel’s staff, using the PCR test, can be extremely costly, over $200 per person, so public health officials see no problem with hotel properties and any other businesses for that matter using, if they wish, far less expensive CDC approved tests that have proven accuracy levels that are in striking range of the PCR gold standard test. These tests will be used for primary screening and the PCR test will be used for secondary screening, if the need arises.”
Mr D’Aguilar said results from less expensive tests will not be reflected in the country’s official COVID-19 statistics.
As for the country’s readiness to handle an influx of guests, Mr D’Aguilar said over 15,000 people have already been trained in the Tourism Readiness & Recovery Plan which includes strict health protocols and sanitation standards.
He reiterated requirements for visitors entering the country, which includes having an RT-PCR test that is no older than five days.
“Once you upload your test, a newly formed Travel Compliance Unit in the Ministry of Tourism will review the test to make sure it is negative, within the required time period and from an accredited lab. If all is in order, your travel visa is approved via email,” he said.
“Despite some initial hiccups, this system is working well, probably because visitor levels are extremely light. Once visitor arrivals start to ramp back up, however, we will need added features to speed up processing time to ensure travellers are not inconvenienced by long wait times for a travel health visa so we are actively looking at private sector solutions to allow for an almost instantaneous approval using AI, artificial intelligence. This situation is very fluid but we are actively seeking to get ahead of it.”