Will sea, sand and social distancing make the Caribbean appealing?

The Caribbean is the world’s most tourist-dependent region. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 04 June 2020

Will sea, sand and social distancing make the Caribbean appealing?

  • Officials want the new tourism guidelines to reassure travelers, without being off-putting

KINGSTON: A cluster of Caribbean islands are reopening this month for tourism, hoping to burnish their reputations as oases of tranquility after containing their COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing strict public health protocols.

The Caribbean, known for its palm-fringed beaches, turquoise water and colonial towns, is the most tourism-dependent region in the world. 

Antigua and Barbuda, the US Virgin Islands and St. Lucia are the first to reopen this week. Jamaica and Aruba are set to follow later in the month, with July target dates for the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.

While other tourist hotspots such as Greece aim to limit arrivals from countries with high infection rates, the first flights the Caribbean is receiving are from the United States, which has the world’s highest number of reported cases.

But local tourism officials say they have little choice. Americans accounted for almost half the Caribbean’s 31.5 million visitors last year.

“What are we going to wait for? A vaccine? Shut down the country for two years?” Antigua and Barbuda’s Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez asked.

Instead, those islands reopening will conduct health screening, including temperature checks upon arrival, and require or encourage the use of face masks in public spaces.

They are divided over whether to test — as recommended by the Caribbean Public Health Agency — because of cost, reliability and availability concerns. Without testing, asymptomatic visitors could be a risk.

Antigua and Barbuda will do a rapid coronavirus test of visitors upon arrival, said Fernandez. 

St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said it would require a certificate for a negative coronavirus test conducted up to 48 hours before departure.

It remains unclear if this would work, given tests are not widely available on demand in the US.

Concerns remain over reopenings in countries that do not require testing of arrivals, such as Jamaica.

“People should object, as should anyone who has done what they have done to flatten the curve of new cases,” said civil rights advocate Carol Narcisse, noting Jamaica has warned of a likely new rise in cases.

“Whose interest is the government really serving here?“

The coronavirus era has uprooted Caribbean carnival celebrations, nights out clubbing and resort buffets.

Still, the tourism industry hopes the mere appeal of sun, sea and the outdoors will suffice.

“Post-coronavirus, people want to get outside,” said Marc Melville, the head of Jamaica-based Chukka Tours.

Caribbean nations, which were quick to shut their borders and impose strict lockdowns as the pandemic spread, hope to market themselves as safe destinations. Antigua and Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands have respectively just one and two reported cases, officials said. St. Lucia has none.

Officials want the new tourism guidelines to reassure travelers, without being off-putting. Measures include sanitizing surfaces and social distancing in hotels, restaurants, tour operators and taxis.

Islands such as St. Lucia will pace their reopenings, keeping tourist sites closed in a first phase and allowing seated restaurant service only at resorts.

On his blog “One Mile at a Time,” travel writer Ben Schlappig wrote St. Lucia’s plan would make him feel safe: “The question becomes whether a visit would be any fun with all of these restrictions.”


‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

Updated 13 August 2020

‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

  • About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations

DUBAI: Just days after the enormous blast that shattered Beirut, Ali Hammoud found himself looking down on the rubble from an airplane window, leaving behind his family and hometown.

Born and raised in Lebanon’s capital, the 30-year-old IT engineer finally decided to head for Dubai after the explosion destroyed his last hopes of ever seeing Beirut prosper.

“It’s not easy at all, but I had to finally leave. I feel I’ve betrayed the city I love to death, but there is nothing left for me there except depression,” Hammoud said after arriving in the Gulf emirate.

“Now I can start a professional career, live in peace and send money back to my family,” said Hammoud, who had spent a year looking in vain for work before the Aug. 4 disaster that left more than 170 people dead and compounded Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Like many of his compatriots longing for safety and stability, the young man has applied for a job in Dubai. He joins tens of thousands of Lebanese who helped build a glitzy city that reminds them of their parents’ tales of the glamor of old Beirut — but with glimmering skyscrapers instead of Ottoman-era and French colonial villas.

Last week’s explosion of a long-neglected stock of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port ripped through the vibrant coastal city known for its rich history as well as legendary nightlife and cuisine.

The fact that Lebanese officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the Mediterranean city has served as proof to many of the rot at the core of the state apparatus.

“My aim is to overcome the guilt of leaving,” said Hammoud. “Dubai will be my new Beirut.”

Long before the explosion, Lebanon was heading downhill fast. The country was mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with runaway inflation and bank capital controls fueling angry street protests.

Political life in the country has been dominated for three decades by former warlords who exchanged their military fatigues for suits.

Among Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful force is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.

After years of systematic corruption, unsolved assassination cases, wars with neighboring Israel, and lack of basic services, many Lebanese now see the country’s elite as fighting over the spoils. They are viewed as beholden to their personal and sectarian interests, rather than the good of the nation of 6 million.

“I can’t explain how frustrated I am. I had to leave my country years ago because of those warlords. They stole from us and now they kill us?” said Firas Rachid, a 31-year-old salesman who has lived in Dubai since 2016.

Beirut, once famous for top educational and medical establishments, has lost much of its pre-civil war identity and its reputation as an oasis of enlightenment.

Millions of Lebanese, from doctors to engineers, to teachers and other professions, have emigrated over the years, seeking a better life in the Gulf and beyond.

About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations, more than 100,000 of them in the United Arab Emirates alone, mostly in Dubai.

“Why Dubai? We drive in lanes here, we don’t fear militiamen holding guns to our heads, we have basic services, and we get paid well,” said Rachid. “My parents always describe Beirut as a hub for the region in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this is exactly what Dubai is now.”

In his book “My Story,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum recalls his first visit to Beirut, years before the civil war that brought the “Paris of the Middle East” to its knees.

“In the early 1960s, its streets were clean, neighborhoods beautiful, its markets modern. It was a source of inspiration for me. I had a dream for Dubai to become like Beirut some day,” he wrote.

Decades later, Dubai has become a magnet for millions of Arabs whose countries have been ravaged by poverty and conflict.

Jordanians, Palestinians, Moroccans and others have opted to build their future in the desert city.

It does not have the history or cultural heritage of their homelands, but for many it is a fair tradeoff for peace and financial security.

At a basketball game in Dubai last year between two Lebanese clubs with different sectarian ties, there was no violence, no sectarian chants, only the slogan: “Three, two one! We are one!“