By Gemma Handy
Airplanes bringing holidaymakers back to Antigua and Barbuda could be seen in our skies again within weeks.
The “tentative” estimate of early to mid-June for the return of international air carriers was given by government chiefs who said there was “much hope” tourists from “several source markets” would soon be back enjoying the twin island nation’s beaches.
If the timeframe pans out, it will deliver a crucial shot in the arm to the economy, allowing numerous local businesses to eke out some revenue before the peak hurricane season swings into gear.
The resumption of flights from overseas is contingent upon border restrictions stipulated by various governments.
But major carriers from Antigua and Barbuda’s two biggest source markets are taking bookings from as soon as six weeks from now.
The earliest date a flight via American Airlines from New York’s JFK Airport can be booked is June 2.
And British Airways is accepting bookings from London Gatwick from June 5.
The US accounts for the bulk of visitors to the country; almost 70,000 travelled to Antigua from US destinations including New York and Miami last year. The UK represented just under 40,000 of the 52,000 holidaymakers who came from Europe.
Minutes from a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, sent to media, revealed the topic had come under discussion.
Chief of Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, Lionel Hurst, told Observer the Ministry of Tourism had been in talks with airline representatives.
“They say early to mid-June is when they are likely to start flying,” he said.
The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1 but government is optimistic that travellers who have spent weeks cooped-up amid Covid-19 restrictions will jump at the chance of a vacation.
“We suspect we will see lots of people coming; there’s a pent-up demand,” Hurst continued. “Many people who had planned holidays to try to escape some of the pressure being exerted as a result of Covid-19 will want to come to the Caribbean.”
Airports on both ends of the journey will have strict measures in place to ensure passengers are screened for the coronavirus, Hurst said.
“They will be running tests on each and every passenger before they leave and, when they arrive here, we will do the same,” he explained.
Commercial flights into Antigua were stopped last month and anyone arriving into the country – such as students returning from overseas – must be quarantined for 14 days.
Hurst said quarantine regulations would be reviewed closer to the time of commercial flights’ return.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic late last year, governments across the globe have had the thorny task of balancing the economic impact of lockdowns against the need to protect their populations against the potentially deadly virus – and avoid a second wave.
“When airlines don’t fly and cruise ships don’t arrive, we are in terrible straits; tourism is the engine of our economy,” Hurst conceded.
But he added, “People think this thing is going to go on forever, but it can’t and it won’t.”
That stance would appear to be at odds with the narrative from some countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned yesterday that the virus crisis was “still just beginning”.
“We’ll have to live with this virus for a long time,” she told parliament ahead of an EU summit, held via video link.
How airlines which have been grounded for several weeks have fared will be another factor.
Virgin Atlantic – a long-term visitor to Antigua – reported a $534 million loss for the first quarter of 2020. Its founder, Richard Branson, has warned that without financial help the carrier may collapse. Earlier this week, he asked the British government for more than $600 million in state aid in the form of loans – even offering his private isle in the British Virgin Islands as security.
The latest travel advice from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advises British nationals against all but essential international travel. It is not yet clear when this is likely to be amended.
Lindsy Thompson, Antigua’s resident British Commissioner, told Observer, “The British High Commission is in regular contact with airlines, including BA and Virgin which are currently scheduled to resume their schedules to Antigua in early June, but that may be subject to change given the unprecedented nature of Covid-19.
“Passengers should contact their airline, travel agent, or tour operator for the latest on flight availability,” she added.