Sun, sand, shots: Caribbean seeks vaccines to revive economy

March 02, 2021
A view of the malecon completely empty of tourists in Havana, Cuba, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The Caribbean is hunting for visitors and vaccines to jump-start the stalled economy in one of the world’s most tourism-dependent regions.

Clear waters and warm sand attracted a record 31.5 million tourists to the Caribbean in 2019, but visits plummeted by an estimated 60% to 80% as the pandemic hit last year.

That’s devastating for a region whose countries depend heavily on visitors for income.

“Many countries prefer hurricanes compared to what has happened with the pandemic,” said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, a former Bahamian tourism minister who also led the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Desperate to create safe conditions for tourism, the Caribbean is turning to India and China for vaccines at a time when global supplies are strained and richer nations are ahead of them in line for shots from other sources. A few have been fortunate to get quick shipments, while others could wait weeks, if not months.

The Caribbean saw COVID-19 levels rising in November, along with variants feared to be more contagious. More than 522,000 cases and more than 7,500 deaths have been reported in 35 of the region’s countries and territories.

“The rate of increase has been alarming,” said Dr. Joy St. John, executive director of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency.

The small nations adopted a variety of anti-virus measures, nearly all requiring visitors at a minimum to show recent negative tests upon arrival.

Cuba — the largest Caribbean nation and the only one working on its own vaccines — choked off arrivals after seeing infections surge.

It requires visitors to stay in designated hotels and to take new tests upon landing.

International travelers to St. Kitts and Nevis must stay at certain hotels, and St. Eustatius requires visitors to register their reason for traveling before giving approval.

Many islands ask visitors to isolate, though how long and under what conditions can vary: Those arriving in the Cayman Islands or Barbados must stay inside a hotel for at least a week or face jail.

Others, like Puerto Rico, don’t require quarantine if a negative test is presented upon arrival, and tourists can roam the U.S. territory’s beaches and forests.

Aruba, Anguilla, Curacao and Montserrat and others have promoted themselves as havens for those who can work by internet from a room by the sea, although officials can be harsh on visitors who flout virus restrictions.

At least 13 countries in the region have signed up for the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, created to ensure access to COVID-19 shots for low- and middle-income countries.

Dominica, an eastern Caribbean island of 74,500 people that is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017, got 70,000 doses last month and has begun vaccinations.

Dominica also is due to receive doses from China and the COVAX program.

Barbados, with some 300,000 people, received 100,000 doses from India, and the prime minister thanked New Delhi for its “quick, decisive and magnanimous action.” Barbados donated 2,000 doses to Trinidad and Tobago.

That twin-island nation of 1.2 million remains under strict virus restrictions and has requested 250,000 doses from India.

India also has helped the Dominican Republic and Antigua and Barbuda, but the region remains far short of what is needed to achieve herd immunity for the over 18 million people in the Caribbean Community trade bloc.

Meanwhile, China sent 768,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to the Dominican Republic, a country of 10.6 million people, which is also starting to get shipments of AstraZeneca and Pfizer shots.

Beijing also has pledged to ship 20,000 doses by March to Guyana.

Meanwhile, the islands are seeing more tourists, as well as complaints about them flouting pandemic restrictions.

Barbados recently fined a former U.K. beauty queen $6,000 for violating virus protocols and imprisoned a Jamaican tourist who was unable to pay a fine after being accused of breaking quarantine.

St. John, director of the Caribbean’s public health body, said her agency has trained more than 8,000 hotel workers in measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Neil Walters, acting secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. said experts estimate the Caribbean could reach its pre-pandemic tourism levels by 2022 or 2023.

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