Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON – Stakeholders in the local tourism industry have given their support to recommendations made by the World Health Organisation [WHO] calling on nations to lift travel bans and mandatory vaccination for entry into countries.

The WHO, in a statement on Friday, reasoned that closed borders failed to contain the highly transmissible omicron coronavirus variant that was first detected in South Africa last November.

“The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of omicron variant to limit the international spread of omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time. Travel measures should be based on risk assessments and avoid placing the financial burden on international travellers in accordance with Article 40 of the IHR [International Health Regulations},” the WHO stated. 

It further said that the state parties should consider a risk-based approach to the “facilitation of international travel by lifting or modifying measures, such as testing and/or quarantine requirements, when appropriate.”

Since the news broke on Friday, it has been welcomed by several players in the tourism and travel industry both locally and internationally. As it relates to Jamaica, they see it as an opportunity for the country’s tourism recovery to further accelerate after it took a massive hit from the pandemic-induced shutdown of 2020 and the current disruptions to travel fueled by omicron.

Chief Executive Officer of Araya Resorts Management Company Limited, Wayne Cummings, in adding his voice to the WHO recommendations said, “Certainly in the last couple of weeks and the direction that the virus has been going in, it suggests that the lockdowns [and] all the restrictions are really serving no purpose.”

“The fact of the matter is that omicron, in particular, has been moving so quickly across the entire world that at this point, you are far more likely to get COVID of one type or another in any country than you are going to [rather] than you bringing it in,” he argued.

“So if we accept that it is everywhere, then we should start removing these restrictions and allow the free movement of people as was in place before for leisure, business, commerce and all the other good reasons. It’s about time that we start getting back to normalcy and getting back to our lives,” Cummings added.

The former Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association [HTA] president also pointed to the United Kingdom where the government has announced, among other COVID relaxations, an end to mask-wearing as of Wednesday. 

But, while advocating for a return to normalcy, Cummings cautioned that in Jamaica’s context, vaccination and following the virus prevention protocols remain relevant. 

“… Get vaccinated [and] wear the masks. Jamaica’s vaccination rate is way too low…, and we have people who are following all types of conspiracy theories,” he said.

“We need to get back to pre-COVID stability and seek to improve, but do the things individuals ought to do to make sure that they, their friends and families are well-taken care of and that involves following the COVID protocols, but it does not have to include closure,” declared Cummings in an interview with Observer Online on Saturday. s

Another former JHTA president, Omar Robinson, agreed with the WHO that travel ban should be lifted, adding that “countries can continue asking for negative COVID tests to come in, but we shouldn’t be banning travel.”

Emphasising that people want to travel, he said they should be allowed to travel freely. 

Asked whether the small hotels would benefit from the new WHO recommendations, Robinson said yes.

“We see where some of our markets… the UK, for example, which is dropping all their travel restrictions, which is good for us [in Jamaica]. The US even with their travel advisory, people are still travelling and we are grateful for that,” Robinson said.

“The reality is that based on our resilient corridor and all the measures that the hotels and the tourism entities have in place, we’ve proven that we can safely accept and accommodate visitors and ensuring that they have a good time, while ensuring the safety of our own staff,” added Robinson.

The WHO has also recommended that “measures such as masking, testing, isolation/quarantine and vaccination should be based on risk assessments and avoid placing the financial burden on international travellers.”

Robinson, who is the Chief Operating Officer of Arya Resorts Management Limited, also shared his views on the vaccination aspect of those recommendations. 

“Vaccination all goes back to individuals’ choice and we respect that choice, and we as an industry have not gone out there and said we want vaccinated persons. 

“We are taking everybody – vaccinated or unvaccinated – because we feel as many of our staff are vaccinated, and once we follow the protocols in the resorts and other tourism establishments, we can safely host and accommodate and be of service to everyone – vaccinated or unvaccinated,” opined Robinson. 

Devon Mitchell, who wears several hats in the craft industry, including vice-president of the All-Island Craft Traders and Producers Association, is also endorsing the move by the WHO to recommend a lifting of coronavirus-based travel bans.

“I personally will endorse that, because the country itself depends on foreign revenue, more so, specifically, even the people that [are] involve[d] in the tourism industry, and the craft people who are depending on people to travel to their establishments,” Mitchell explained. 

“So if they could really lift those travel bans and have more people start to come back in the country, I think that would be a good thing for the craft industry and its development,” he added.

As it relates to the easing of the vaccination requirements for travellers, Mitchell was more cautious about that approach.

“It will encourage more people to come in the country also, but at the same time, we don’t… really want it to make matters worse with the virus. So, I welcome anything that will allow the world to go back to normal, but we have to still be cautious and take the necessary precautions,” he cautioned.

Mitchell, who is also president of the Ocho Rios Craft Council and president of the Dunn’s River Craft Market, highlighted that the craft industry has been impacted “immensely” by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If indeed countries should follow the WHO advice and lift travel restrictions globally, leading to a surge in tourists to the island, Mitchell said discussions need to be held among the Government, tourism officials, and those working within the craft industry to rectify some of the lingering challenges facing that particular industry.

Among some of those challenges, he said, was the “unfair treatment” where some operators of attractions have been selling and constructing their own craft shops, virtually creating a situation in which tourists no longer see the need to visit local craft shops.

Meanwhile, in response to critics who say Jamaica should venture down the road of relaxing travel rules despite the current fourth wave of the pandemic, Robinson explained that, “The reality is tourism is the life blood of our economy, and we should be encouraging people to come to Jamaica,… as the resilient corridor can safely accept people.

“All of the criticisms out there that the tourists are bringing in COVID [is] absolute nonsense! It is the community spread that’s causing this fourth wave and not from the visitors. Yes, we have had a slight increase in the number of visitors [testing positive for COVID], but guess what? The hotels have been safely looking after the visitors who test positive. 

“The reality is our positivity rate in tourism is minimal in comparison to the rest of our society, and as such, we shouldn’t frown upon tourism. Tourism is our life blood. We need to get those 350,000 workers back to work,” Robinson charged. 

For Cummings, Jamaica must stand with the WHO on its travel recommendations, as the country “stood by them in terms of vaccination and other recommendations for our health and safety from a scientific point of view”.

“The truth is they have applied science, they have applied research and they have consistently said they never did agree with the kind of lockdowns that were being imposed, but this most recent statement is a little bit more carefully crafted, which basically speaks more to the efficiency of the current COVID virus running through the society,” shared Cummings. 

“… And given that it is being proven that getting COVID as quickly and easily, even with best efforts, means that you’re going to get some elements of, if not full immunity.

“At this point, this is the best we can hope for to get immunity through the society, but that does not negate the fact that personal responsibility of getting yourself vaccinated, or protecting yourself separately is a continued requirement,” stated Cummings.