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Tourism minister hopeful as cruise visits set to resume

Tourism minister hopeful as cruise visits set to resume
Minister of Tourism, Civil Aviation, Sustainable Development and Culture Carlos James

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ST VINCENT and the Grenadines is so far expecting roughly 224 cruise ships calls for the 2020/2021 cruise season, and it is hoped that the first vessel, docking at Port Elizabeth will arrive as early as August 7.

Minister of Tourism, Carlos James, made a number of announcements at a press conference on Tuesday, July 27, but these are not set in stone given the ever changing situation surrounding Covid-19 locally, regionally and internationally.

The Minister emphasised that the industry suffered in 2020, as a result of the pandemic, and “we had zero cruise passengers disembarking to our shores.”

“This year I don’t think any of us in the industry and when I say us, I’m inclusive of the stakeholders and the taxi operators, the vendors, the hoteliers, the persons operating restaurants and staff. I don’t think any of us can really afford to experience the difficulties we’ve had over the last year considering those numbers which we have seen moving, taking a literal dive in some instances…” he said.

They are intending an early start to the cruise season this year, and have just finalised draft protocols for the early and safe arrival of cruise line passengers to the destination. The foundation of the protocols work on a ‘bubble concept’. Anyone who goes into the bubble will be required to be vaccinated- cruise guests, crew and stakeholders alike. Passengers are also expected to travel with negative PCR tests prior to entering the bubble. Regular protocols such as temperature checks, social distancing and mask wearing will also be enforced.

“We can make a determination not to resume our cruise calls any time soon and just wait out the gloomy weather and the dark clouds of Covid-19 which are metaphorically over our heads, and hope for the best sometime in the next two, three or four years to see a resumption of cruise, or we can look at measures we can take now to implement in a very strategic way, to see the safe resumption and early resumption of cruise,” the Tourism Minister explained.

The protocols are intended to “minimise the exposure of the general population to arriving passengers and vice versa”, and further protocols for specific sites that may be accepted as capable of being part of the bubble such as the Botanic Gardens or Fort Charlotte, are being developed.

In explaining how the concept works, the Minister used Barbados as an example, as many of the cruise lines apparently intend to use Barbados as their home port.

“…Passengers are expected to fly into Barbados and then board the vessel there. Now they are expected to have a Covid-19 PCR test 72 hours before boarding the vessel and also they are expected to have, not just a negative PCR test, but also to be fully vaccinated two weeks prior to embarking on the vessel,” he noted.

These protocols are said to be as a result of discussions with stakeholders, the Government of Barbados and various Ministers of Tourism in the OECS.

Further, “…A passenger who leaves the Grantley Adams Airport goes on a specified transportation to the cruise terminal where they’re embarking on the ship, that in itself then becomes a bubble. It’s a concept which we are terming as ‘the bubble concept’ in which persons will then go into a particular bubble and for every island that they visit the bubble continues throughout the call of that particular vessel.”

When a ship enters a port such as Kingstown, it will be expected to produce its cruise manifest, maritime declaration of health, documentation of the vaccination status and the boarding negative PCR test of all passengers and crew. Vaccinations will be those accepted by the Covid-19 taskforce, which include World Health Organisation( WHO) approved vaccines and others such as Sputnik V.

In terms of how the protocols will come into effect locally, James explained, “take for instance the vessel arrives at Port Kingstown, everyone on the cruise terminal is expected to be a part of the bubble.

“…Anyone who goes onto the port to be a part of the bubble, they are expected to be, and the requirement is, that they are fully vaccinated and this is not the Minister of Tourism mandating that this takes place, this is, as I said, consultation with the cruise ships, the cruise lines, the consultations with the Chief Medical Officer, the Covid-19 task force, in consultation with other Ministers of Tourism in the sub-region,” he noted.

A taxi operator entering the bubble is considered a safe zone operator, and apart from his normal tourism license, “We will have this identifying mark on the taxis, and of course the operators are expected to also have with them their vaccination cards as they embark onto the cruise terminal.”

The passengers are not

allowed to walk around Kingstown freely, “we will identify the sites in which the passengers are able to visit and we will do this in a very controlled way,” he commented.

The Minister also encouraged that as many vendors, artisans and entertainers as possible enter the sites identified.

“When I mentioned that the passengers are not allowed to walk around and go into the general population, it doesn’t preclude vendors and artisans and craftsmen and women, and even entertainers from earning a living from the proposed bubble of the cruise passengers which we are looking to establish,” he said, but “ generally for them to be a part of the bubble there is that requirement that they comply with the protocols which also include the requirement of vaccination.”

Anyone who breaches the terms of the bubble will be ejected from it.

The Minister said that while they have 224 listed calls so far, “This is of course the early stages and we are expecting to see more calls being added…” However, he commented, “..We could be announcing this today and then in the next four, five months we are announcing that we have to go back to the drawing board and because of some development in the international market there is limited movement of people which affects the cruise calls, but so far we have roughly 224 calls listed for St Vincent and the Grenadines for this season.”

Of these calls 14 are inaugural, which the Minister said is a “tremendous achievement for our destination coming off of the Covid-19 pandemic” and the affects of the explosive volcanic eruptions.

“Some of them are larger vessels, smaller vessels but I am anticipating to welcome them, each of them for the very first time to our destination,” he said.

Additionally, he mentioned that 19 vessels are expected to arrive on the same day, “Same day calls meaning that you may very well have one or two vessels in the port at the same time simultaneously.

“Of course this is going to be a humongous challenge for us as an industry as to how we navigate in terms of getting persons off of the vessels in a safe manner, getting them through the various sites which are tourism approved, and getting them back onto the vessels,” James said.

The vessels are not likely to be coming at full capacity but rather 50% or 75% depending on the physical distancing circumstances.

So far, there are roughly 105 calls to Port Kingstown, 59 calls to Port Elizabeth, 35 calls to Mayreau, 12 calls to the Tobago Cays, seven to Union Island and two to Canouan.

Some regular vessels are returning, including the Britannia, and Azura, which will call eight and seven times respectively. The Britannia carries a capacity of more than 4000 passengers and the Azura, 3500, under normal circumstances.

The Seabourn Odyssey, a smaller vessel, is the first vessel expected to arrive on Saturday, August 7, but this date is liable to change, James noted. “…But from all indications we seemingly are prepared from our end and I am hoping that they are prepared from their end to see our first call to St Vincent and the Grenadines next Saturday,” he said.

The bubble they create for this visit is likely to be the “Plantation facility”, and the Minister said that they have been in regular contact with the stakeholders in Bequia.

In response to how many stakeholders have been vaccinated in anticipation of these calls which are expected to begin in less than a week, the Minister said, “Some of them have an appreciation of what is taking place and what ought to happen. I have been in constant dialogue with the deputy director of Grenadines Affairs who continues to work with the stakeholders there.”

He said that the first call is likely to have limited movement of the passengers, “we will try to have limited movement of the passengers so we don’t expect to see a large amount of tours on that very first call just to see how we can iron out if there are any areas we have to strengthen within the bubble concept.”

He said following the August 7 call, they will explore the possibility of further inland tours on Bequia.

The Seabourn Odyssey is hoping to make “a continuous period of calls at least every other Saturday which is at least two Saturdays per month from August until October of 2021,” the Minister said.

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