Antigua & Barbuda Balance Foreign Tourism and a Global Pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on in different parts of the globe, one island-nation appears to be setting an example on how to manage the virus not only for its citizens but for the tourists as well. Antigua and Barbuda was the first island in the Caribbean to open its borders to outsiders, according to Health Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph who spoke in our podcast.
This is partly due to the fact that the island has sustained only three covid-related deaths and currently has five active cases, all while boasting a small population of just under 100,000. For context, this translates to 31 cumulative deaths per million which is a striking comparison when you look at the United States' 641 cumulative deaths per million, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
On the surface, it appears that the country isn't doing anything different from other countries, "One of the first things we did, recognizing the manner in which the virus spreads, is to mandate that every resident of Antigua and Barbuda wears a mask. That was not an option. We also established a six feet social distancing," said Minister Joseph.
While the mandates are familiar, the country has been able to maintain a high level of compliance. "At the beginning, we had a very high rate of compliance because obviously people were concerned, they were fearful. But human behavior, when they do not see the threat as great as they did at the beginning, they then began to relax and hence the government had to intensify its information dissemination and at the same time introduce some fines for people who would violate the regulations. And that has worked."
For citizens returning to the country, they could also face a fine if they break a 14-day quarantine. The fine in question is a hefty $10,000 in Eastern Caribbean currency, which equals about $3,700 in U.S. dollars. However, that is not the only penalty for those who dare to break the rules; you can also be imprisoned for six months.
Antigua and Barbuda, like many islands in the Caribbean, is heavily reliant on tourism for revenue. According to the U.S. State Department, "Antigua and Barbuda had an estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in market prices of $1.72 billion in 2019. The economy of Antigua and Barbuda remained buoyant, driven mainly by increased tourist arrivals and ongoing public and commercial construction projects."
For many years, the island-nation has been preparing to become the commercial hub for the region after experiencing somewhat of an economic boom. Antigua has invested heavily in improving its tourism capabilities, including renovating and expanding its sole airport, VC Bird International Airport, in 2015.
In an effort to maintain the tourism efforts and keep infection rates low, visitors to the island can expect to see some changes when they arrive. "We made it a requirement that anyone coming into Antigua and Barbuda would have to go through a process of screening. The first thing that you would encounter is a friendly face welcoming you to Antigua and Barbuda. And then we would have thermal thermometers that would take the temperature of individuals coming through. The individuals would have to fill out a form and then they would be questioned and interviewed. And if all is well, they will proceed to immigration and then to customs," said Minister Joseph.
While there is no doubt that the pandemic has hit many countries hard financially, including Antigua and Barbuda, the country hopes that it will see an uptick in foreign visitors as they continue to keep their case numbers down. And with news of a possible vaccine on the way, Antigua and Barbuda have made plans to secure their doses as well, "We have already made the down payment for 20,000 doses of the vaccine and we are now in the process of establishing storage facilities in Antigua and Barbuda for the vaccines. We anticipate, no later than the end of the year, that all arrangements will be in place, if not sooner. If there is a vaccine in January, February, March, or April, we'll be ready to execute," said Minister Joseph.