As tropical destinations reopen worldwide, here’s what travelers need to know

Elaine Glusac, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 28 2020 09:19 AM | Updated as of Oct 28 2020 05:40 PM

Montego Bay on the northwest coast of Jamaica, March 19, 2016. Hoping short flights and outdoor appeal will lure visitors, countries in the Caribbean and Latin America are taking different approaches to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Robert Rausch, The New York Times/file

With travel to much of the world from the US still shut down, countries in the Caribbean and Latin America are counting on their relative proximity to the United States (meaning short flights) and appeal as outdoor destinations (meaning social distancing) to restart tourism.

“We have a very interesting competitive advantage in these COVID times because we have such a natural setting, with over 30% of our land surface as protected areas,” said Ivan Eskildsen, Panama’s minister for tourism. That country reopened its borders to Americans on Oct. 12.

Most of the newly reopened destinations are requiring visitors to show negative coronavirus test results before entry. That has airlines, as well as airport-based testing services, jumping in: American Airlines announced that it will offer preflight testing for travelers bound to the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Jamaica from some airports beginning in October.

If testing is not enough to reassure tourists, the countries are using tactics like restricting visitor numbers, limiting where they can go and requiring medical insurance.

Many of the region’s resorts and hotels are relying on an old-fashioned strategy: deals, from 20% off in Mexico to room upgrades in Costa Rica. Resorts “are offering much more attractive rates, many discarding their three- to six-month cancellations and eliminating minimum stays,” said Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond, a New York City-based travel agency.

The region usually sees a slowdown in visitors in the fall, and destinations are taking advantage of the slower visitor traffic to prepare for the traditionally busy December holidays and what they hope will be a return to more normal tourist numbers in 2021.

“It gives them a runway for a soft opening before bigger crowds come in peak season,” said Rob Harper, co-owner of Namu Travel, a Panama-based agency.

The gradual approach reflects a lesson learned over the summer when the Bahamas reopened, only to backtrack as coronavirus cases spiked. Other destinations in the region are taking a piecemeal approach, including Curacao, which recently allowed in U.S. travelers from Florida, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut only. Still others, like the Cayman Islands, have not announced dates for restarting leisure travel.

Here’s how five tropical countries are handling reopening. All but Mexico have received the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travel certification for implementing public health protocols, including hotel staff training in COVID-19 prevention.

The Bahamas: Triple Testing

Across the 700 islands of the Bahamas, new rules take a cautious approach to reopening, with the focus on testing: All travelers over age 10 must submit negative results from a coronavirus test taken no more than five days before arrival and apply for a visa at a government website that includes a health checklist. Travelers must “vacation in place” at their resort or rental for up to 14 days, a restriction that will be lifted Nov. 1.

After that, the negative test must be no more than seven days old, and visitors will be subject to a rapid antigen test on arrival (or at the Miami airport for American Airlines passengers). Anyone staying longer than four days will be subject to a second and final antigen test four days after arrival.

“We do hope these new protocols will afford peace of mind for travelers seeking to book a trip for the holidays and beyond,” Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation, wrote in an email.

Still, the Bahamas’ largest resorts, Atlantis Paradise Island and Baha Mar, as well as the islands’ Hilton Hotels, have not announced reopening dates. There are deals on offer at some hotels — Hotels.com has the all-inclusive Warwick Paradise Island at half off, for about $300 a night — but the choices are limited for now.

The Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort on Paradise Island, not far from the shuttered Atlantis, never closed during the pandemic, attracting travelers via private charter flights and yachts. The resort closed two of its three restaurants and offers private dining across its 36 acres. Occupancy at the 107-room hotel, where rooms start around $800, was close to 70% in summer.

“They’re here to celebrate being alive,” said John Conway, the resort’s general manager.

Costa Rica: Medical Insurance Required

Costa Rica reopened for tourism this summer by welcoming travelers from Europe and Canada. In August and September, about 6,000 visitors arrived. By comparison, the country drew 3.1 million travelers in all of 2019 — but the government said Costa Rica had experienced no travel-related coronavirus transmission.

“Basically, tourism is about a tenth of our economy,” said Gustavo J. Segura, Costa Rica’s tourism minister. “We really needed economic reactivation. Through this gradual process, we’ve been able to prove international travel is not a problem.”

While some Americans from lower-transmission states have been able to visit Costa Rica since September, starting Nov. 1, despite the fact that U.S. cases are rising, Costa Rica will welcome all American travelers.

The government requires all visitors to complete a Health Pass online, provide negative test results taken within 72 hours of arrival, and buy travel insurance from one of two local agencies to cover accommodation and medical expenses if the traveler contracts the coronavirus (the cost depends on age and length of stay, but a 45-year-old staying two weeks will pay roughly $10 a day). Travelers with international insurance policies must provide certification from the insurer, uploaded to the Health Pass, that the policy is effective in Costa Rica and covers medical and lodging expenses related to the virus, for a total of about $50,000. After Oct. 26, a negative test was no longer required.

The country is relying on its reputation for nature-based tourism, from the volcanic interior to the coasts, to attract visitors. Of its hotels, 94% have 40 or fewer rooms, making it easier to avoid other guests.

"The government tells us we can have 100% occupancy in hotels, but in restaurants and public areas it’s 50%, so we have put a limit on being only 75% occupied at most hotels,” said Hans Pfister, president and co-founder of the Cayuga Collection, which operates five lodges in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is not the place to look for bottom barrel rates, which tend to be easier for large hotels to dangle. With similar fixed costs, most small hotels are more likely to offer an extra night free or a room upgrade.

Jamaica: Stay Within the ‘Corridor’

Jamaica was among the earliest of the Caribbean islands to reopen to tourism, on June 15, restricting travelers to what it called a Resilient Corridor between Negril and Port Antonio. Since then, it has periodically updated its entry policies, now requiring everyone age 12 and older to show negative test results taken no more than 10 days before arrival and to fill out a travel authorization form, which includes a health questionnaire.

There are now two Resilient Corridors, with the second running between Milk River and Negril. Businesses within these zones have all received government training in safe practices.

"We are pleased to note that there has been no known case of COVID-19 transmission along our Resilient Corridors, which we conceptualized and implemented in our key tourism regions specifically to keep travelers, tourism workers and residents safe,” said Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s tourism minister, in a statement.

Most hoteliers praise the corridors approach, which allows travelers to explore about three-quarters of Jamaica’s shoreline.

“What makes Jamaica a dynamic destination is seeing Jamaica, the waterfalls, the ocean,” said Adam Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts, the largest locally owned hotel group on the island, which is encouraging travelers by including medical insurance in its rates through year’s end. “The street food vendors even went under this training.”

With business down about 60% islandwide through September compared to last year, hoteliers have relied on discounts and perks to fill rooms. CheapCaribbean.com currently has three nights at the all-inclusive Grand Palladium Jamaica Resort and Spa from $450 a person, including flights.

At boutique hotel Rockhouse in Negril, occupancy has run from 60% to 90% recently, and rooms currently start at $95.

“It’s still challenging even at these relatively good occupancy levels,” Paul Salmon, chairman of Rockhouse, wrote in an email. “Nevertheless, we have been able to reemploy our full team and have been able to maintain, even when closed down for three months, health benefits and weekly payments for everyone throughout the crisis.”

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Mexico: Capping the Numbers

Though land borders remain closed to all but essential travel, destinations in Mexico are open to U.S. visitors arriving via air. Travelers are not required to show a negative COVID-19 test or produce proof of insurance.

Instead, the Mexican government has been setting capacity limits for each state, based on its assessment of new coronavirus cases, hospital occupancy and case rates, according to the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Mexico. In the state of Quintana Roo, destinations like Cancún and the Riviera Maya are limited to 60% occupancy. In Baja Sur California, Los Cabos resorts recently lifted their occupancy limits to 50%. In the state of Jalisco, home to Puerto Vallarta, occupancy is capped at 50%, while next door in Nayarit, it is 30%.

Most tourism destinations have implemented public health protocols with social distancing and ample supplies of hand sanitizer.

In Los Cabos, masks are required in public, including when entering a beach. Restaurants and activities such as boat tours are limited to 50% capacity and subject to sanitation inspections. Clubs and discos remain closed, and there is an 11 p.m. curfew that applies to resort bars as well as public ones.

Infection rates “have been a flat line in September and October, and that is encouraging us to keep the very conservative approach,” said Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board.

In Guanajuato, the town of San Miguel de Allende has underscored its public mask mandate by strapping masks on its public statues. Visitors must show a hotel or rental reservation to gain access to the city.

Across popular Mexican tourism destinations, hotel deals tend to prevail at larger resorts. Occupancy caps have helped keep the rates up at Cabo luxury resorts like Las Ventanas Al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort, where rooms in November start at $845, but in the same month the Grand Fiesta Americana Los Cabos All Inclusive Golf & Spa is offering half-off rates starting at $375 a room.

High-end resorts like Chablé Yucatán in the state of Yucatán, where rooms start at $680, have survived on a steady stream of Mexican visitors, with October and November trending 30% better than last year, even before American Airlines flights from Miami resumed service into nearby Merida in October.

Panama: Maintaining Curfew

When Panama reopened to international visitors Oct. 12, it maintained its countrywide Sunday quarantine, kept its beaches closed and retained its Monday through Saturday curfew of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Now the country has reopened its beaches and dropped the Sunday quarantine, though the curfew will remain in effect.

Before arriving, travelers must complete a health affidavit confirming that they are healthy, will provide lodging details and comply with local sanitary measures. Upon arrival, visitors must show a negative coronavirus test taken within the prior 48 hours. Passengers who have not been tested will undergo a test at the airport at their own expense ($50). All travelers will be temperature-screened, and those with high temperatures will also be tested. Those who test positive will be quarantined for seven days, paid for by the government, before another test is administered.

In Panama, face coverings are mandatory in public. Restaurant tables are separated by 6 feet. Tour operators and attractions are limited to 50% capacity.

In the run-up to the holidays, boutique hotels were offering 10% off nightly rates, according to Hotels.com, while bigger all-inclusive resorts could be booked at nearly half off, with free cancellation.