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By Gemma Handy

The first commercial flight back to Antigua is just three weeks away from touching down, tourism chiefs say. And while Covid-19 may have forever changed the way people vacation, there are “promising” signs that visitors are keen to return to the Caribbean.

From removing immigration booths when departing from VC Bird International Airport to restrictions on resort buffet dining to avoid clusters of people, a slew of measures are under discussion to lure tourists back and rekindle the nation’s economic lifeblood.

An American Airlines plane from Miami – due to land on June 4 – will be the first passenger flight to arrive in the country in 10 weeks.

It will mark the start of a slow, phased recovery for the sector and is set to be followed by Caribbean Airlines in mid-June and British Airways in July, Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez told an industry meeting held on Zoom yesterday.

Ensuring international confidence in the country’s ability to keep people safe and stave off a second wave of infections will prove crucial.

“Everything will be in place to ensure we don’t get a lot of negative press … and beaten up on social media with people questioning whether we really are ready,” Fernandez explained. He said tourism officials had been hard at work for weeks so they can “hit the ground running”.

Talks have been ongoing with ministers across the region to establish uniformed health protocols for the Caribbean as a whole, he explained.

Details are still being finalised but plans include requiring all visitors, including returning nationals, to show a certificate declaring them Covid-free before boarding aircraft.

Fernandez said health officials were confident that rapid virus tests conducted overseas will have a 90 percent accuracy rate by the end of this month.

Travellers will continue to have their temperature checked upon arrival in Antigua. Plans further down the line include filling in immigration cards digitally to reduce the risk of transmission.

“We are also looking at removing immigration booths when leaving Antigua and Barbuda so we have less interaction and less gatherings of people. The idea is to get people in and out very quickly,” Fernandez continued.

There will be training for taxi drivers to ensure thorough hygiene, while both drivers and their passengers will have to wash their hands before entering a hotel lobby.

Fernandez said resort dining rooms may be restricted to a limited number of guests while others will dine in their rooms.

All hotel staff will be tested for the coronavirus before going back to work. Uniforms will be laundered and collected on site and staff will be required to change into them on the premises before beginning a shift.

“When they finish, they will take off their uniform, leave it to be laundered, put back on their own clothes and go their merry way home,” the minister said.

There are also set to be changes to excursions with health officials expected to stipulate a maximum number of people who can board a catamaran, for example.

Tour guides will also have to be tested for the virus before resuming duties.

“Even though we can never be 100 percent, the idea is to be as rigid as possible to prevent any kind of spread,” Minister Fernandez said.

“We have been fairly fortunate in the English-speaking Caribbean to have seen a low density spread…. We believe there is opportunity for us, even though we won’t be up to 100 percent and things will be slow, to benefit this year from a robust restart to the sector.

“It is definitely looking promising in that there is still a lot of interest among people wanting to come to the Caribbean,” he added.

Loss of income will have put a dent in many people’s finances and thus their ability to travel, conceded Tourism Authority CEO Colin James, who also addressed yesterday’s virtual meeting.

That will give way to a “core cadre” of affluent travellers with the means to spend money on vacations.

The American Airlines (AA) flight set to land on June 4 is tipped to be the first in a daily route from Miami, landing in Antigua at 11pm and leaving the next day at 2.30pm, James explained.

The carrier has not yet provided a schedule for New York and Charlotte flights. With New York still a virus hotspot, that may be one of the last cities to resume flights here, James said.

“Other US airlines, for example Delta and JetBlue, have given us no confirmation but they will most likely take their cue from AA,” James said.

Flights from Canada are not expected before July. Much will hinge on when other regional destinations reopen their borders. The Cayman Islands’ recent announcement that it will not reopen until September is “governing some airlines’ decisions”, James explained.

Flights from the UK look set to depart from London Heathrow, rather than Gatwick. Discussions with Virgin Atlantic indicate service will resume “as early as July, or as late as September”.

The UK government is still advising its nationals against all but essential international travel.

Italian airline Blue Panorama is due to resume service to Antigua in November, James said. “A lot will come down to how confident people feel to travel,” he added.

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