Sun | Jun 13, 2021

NO GO

Caribbean kept off UK’s green travel list

Published:Sunday | May 9, 2021 | 12:23 AM
A plane takes off from Heathrow Airport in London, England, on Friday, February 5, 2021.
A plane takes off from Heathrow Airport in London, England, on Friday, February 5, 2021.

As the British government contemplated its so-called traffic light travel list that would determine the level of restrictions placed on people returning from vacation abroad, tourism officials and policymakers in the Caribbean, as well as tour operators and travel agents in the UK who sell holidays to the region, held their collective breath, hoping the Caribbean would be placed on the green list.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that immediately after the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced the destinations that would be designated green and red on Friday, May 7, there was profound disappointment on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Of course, we’re disappointed,” was the firm reply from Frank Comito, the former Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) chief executive, when asked by The Sunday Gleaner.

“Still trying to understand the reasoning behind it. Very disappointing,” stated Lindsay Ingram, general manager of the London-based travel agency Newmont Travel Ltd, in a brief email to The Sunday Gleaner.

“In the UK, we’ve been gearing up for the resumption of tourism, and we’re very disappointed that no Caribbean destinations are currently included in the green list,” added a more cautious Carol Hay, the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) former marketing director for the UK and Europe, who now heads her own marketing representative agency, McKenzie Gayle Ltd.

INITIAL GREEN LIST

In confirming on Friday that travelling abroad for holidays would become legal again from May 17, Shapps revealed that only 12 countries – Australia, Brunei, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Singapore, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira – would be on the initial green list.

“By necessity, this initial green list must be, I’m afraid, limited,” the transport secretary explained.

London has assigned a colour of red, amber or green to countries, each carrying varying degrees of restrictions. The countries are categorised based on their COVID-19 risk, including levels of infections, the successful roll-outs of vaccination programmes and whether there are any new coronavirus variants in circulation in the destination. The list will be reviewed every three weeks by the department for transport.

Travellers returning from countries on the green list will not have to quarantine, although they must pay for pre-departure and post-arrival tests. Amber arrivals will need to quarantine for 10 days and take a pre-departure test, then a PCR test on the second and eighth day after arrival. People returning to the UK from the red list destinations will face stricter restrictions, including a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel at their own cost, pre-departure testing and PCR testing on the second and eighth day after arrival. Shapps strongly advised Brits against travelling to countries on the amber and red lists.

“Amber countries form the biggest group, and as with red countries, you should not be travelling to these places right now,” he stressed.

With the exception of Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela, which are on the red list, all the Caribbean destinations, including Jamaica, are on the amber list, and there’s optimism among the travel trade in the UK that some regional countries could be moved up to green when the first revision takes place three weeks after the May 17 resumption of international travel.

This is little comfort to Comito, the former CHTA executive, who now serves as a special adviser to the organisation. About four months ago, the CHTA reached out to the British government, arguing its case for the Caribbean’s inclusion on the green list. It also encouraged regional leaders to do the same.

Now that it’s clear that their plea fell on deaf ears, Comito told The Sunday Gleaner that now is the time for Caribbean heads to lobby their British counterpart.

“We would urge all Caribbean countries, as we did in our communication to all heads of government, to make similar appeals to their colleague prime minister, Boris Johnson,” stressed the tourism executive. “There’s enough justification with what we’ve done, the protocols we’ve followed, our incidence rates, and the fact that we still are still adhering to strong health safety protocols.”

UK MARKET IMPORTANT

The UK market remains an important one for Jamaica. No Caribbean destination welcomed more than the 225,037 Brits who visited here in 2019, according to CTO statistics. Only Barbados with 171,121, the Dominican Republic (158,085) and Cuba (122,738) came marginally close.

But with the country recording a dramatic 75.3 per cent fall in 2020 due to COVID-19, and with the authorities here lifting the ban on flights from the UK effective May 1, tourism officials and policymakers are anxious to avoid any hurdles that get in the way of any possible recovery, amid signs of growing interest in the destination.

It was only on Wednesday, on the very day that British Airways launched a weekly service from Heathrow airport to Kingston, Sean Doyle, the airline’s CEO, said during an online discussion with the CTO, that a second flight would begin on May 17.

And, travel agents who send their clients to Jamaica have also indicated that of late there’s been a steep rise in the number of people who want to book flights.

“Since the Jamaican Government announced that the borders would be open to the UK, we have been inundated with calls and we have had to take staff from furlough to handle the call volumes,” Laverne Walker, director of the London-based travel agency Sackville Travel Services Ltd, told The Sunday Gleaner before Friday’s announcement. “In fact, the first couple of flights I believe out of the UK are fully booked.”

Walker, whose agency sends an average of 20,000 to 25,000 visitors to the Caribbean each year, 70 per cent of whom travel to Jamaica, had been eagerly anticipating the list.

“We are hoping that all of the Caribbean islands are going to be on that list, where they’re permitted to travel, and so people can travel for leisure reasons,” she said.

Like Walker, Ingram, the Newmont Travel general manager, was looking forward to the announcement, hoping that at least some Caribbean countries would have been given the green light.

His agency sends approximately 40,000 people to the Caribbean each year, but he lost 75 per cent of his business due to COVID-19. In the past week, however, he has seen a sudden rise in bookings, telling The Sunday Gleaner last Tuesday that “our phones have gone bonkers today”.

“They’re so busy. I’ve not been able to speak to the staff who are on reservations to find out what all these calls are, but I can see that there’s a fair few bookings being made this morning,” revealed Ingram, who was worried that even if Jamaica and other Caribbean destinations were placed on the green list, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) would advise against travel to these countries.

“We could still have a situation next week where, let’s say Jamaica is in the green traffic light system, yet the FCO still advises against all but essential travel.”

This came to pass on Thursday, a day before the lists were disclosed, with the FCO advising Brits against travel to the island due to the growing number of COVID cases.

It became a moot point on Friday when the transport secretary advised against travel to any country on the amber and red lists.

editorial@gleanerjm.com