Couple walking Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica
PHOTO: Jamaica is one of the Caribbean destinations spurring client interest. Pictured, Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. (photo via Debbie Ann Powell/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

As it stands now, travel advisors are on the fence as to when the Caribbean will again be fully back in business. The one thing that’s certain, they say, is that nothing is certain.

“Earlier this season, we all seemed to think the Caribbean would be the place where we could send our displaced travelers from Europe,” said Becky Lukovic of Bella Travel Planning, an affiliate of Travel Experts. “However, with the current COVID-19 situation in the U.S., some islands are changing their travel restrictions often, giving many advisors pause in even recommending them or booking them, lest our travelers suddenly be unable to travel to their destination.”

Further exacerbating the situation is that “even if the island is open for U.S. tourists to visit, the resort openings may be significantly behind the border opening dates,” she added.

For a full recovery, Lukovic believes that several things need to happen. “First, the numbers of COVID cases in the U.S. will have to decrease enough for the islands to welcome our travelers. Second, the public in the U.S. and other countries need to be willing to travel in order for the resorts to be able to financially afford to open,” she said.

“Third, there needs to be some sort of stability in the entry requirements for each island. When the entry requirements change as quickly as they been in the past few weeks, it’s a gamble to plan travel there.”

As a case in point, Holly Lombardo of Classic Travel Advisors, an affiliate of Travel Experts, relayed a travel scenario illustrating the challenges the Caribbean and its visitors face.

Lombardo’s clients canceled a trip to Greece on June 2 for travel in July because of the border closure. “On June 26, I suggested St. Barts as a tropical alternative since it has just opened to the U.S. on June 2,” she said, adding that entry requirements included arrival with a negative COVID-19 within 72 hours or alternatively taking a test on the island within 24 hours.

On June 28, Lombardo booked nonrefundable flights from Atlanta connecting through St Martin “after researching that St Martin would open to the U.S. on July 1.

On June 29, Lombardo booked the prepaid non-refundable hotel stay in St Barts for arrival a week later, on July 7.

“On July 3, St Martin announced it changed its mind and it would now not be allowing [travelers from] the U.S. in until July 15,” she said. “The hotel refused to refund monies [of] $12,000, [but] I was able to get the last two seats on a connection via San Juan on Tradewinds instead arriving on July 8 rather than July 7,” which resulted in one lost hotel night for the clients and $2,500 in lost and higher-priced airfare.

Then, on July 7, St Barts announced new entry requirements, which would take effect on July 10, requiring that travelers must arrive with negative COVID-19 tests that were administered within 72 hours—and “with no option to wait until you arrive to have it done,” Lombardo said.

On July 8, her clients were almost denied boarding by Delta because of the announcement by St Barts, which Lombardo said she thought was simply a case of employees misreading the Timatic, which verifies passenger travel document requirements.

Meanwhile, the clients were able to get the COVID-19 tests completed at the San Juan International Airport, arriving in St. Barts with negative results in hand.”

“You can see how this is an absolute mess. Literally, I thought to myself, I may stop selling any 2020 departures,” she said. “It may not be worth the liability and the heart palpitations!”

Approximately one-third of Lombardo’s business is generated from Caribbean bookings. “Because I’m an Atlanta-based agent, travelers can easily get to the Caribbean for three- to five-night getaways,” she said. “All but one of my March/April/May/June/July/ bookings were canceled by clients or refunded by hotels due to closures. Not one person has rebooked yet. They have kicked the tires and asked for extensions of rebooking deadline dates.”

Those clients with future-stay credits “generally are feeling more comfortable with the possibility of first and second quarters of 2021,” Lombardo said.

Prior to the pandemic, Time For Travel was having a huge year for Caribbean bookings, said its president, Sarah Kline. “The Caribbean was hot, and the demand was higher than ever,” adding that it’s “about 50/50” in terms of clients who rebooked versus canceled.”

For James Berglie of Be All Inclusive, “about 80 to 85 percent of our clients rebooked versus canceled.”

He predicts a full Caribbean recovery will take years. “My guess would be two to three years,” he said. “Travel will slowly return as people become more comfortable in the post quarantine world, but that will take time. The availability of a daily nonstop will be a huge determinant depending on the market guests are coming from.”

Noting that clients always prefer nonstops, “in a post -quarantine world I think it will be even more important to some people, as they want to lessen the time in planes and traveling. For us in Baltimore, that means Jamaica, Punta Cana, Aruba and Cancun.

For Kline, “we’ve had the most demand for Riviera Maya and Jamaica for 2020, but for 2021 clients seem to want less crowded destinations and we’ve had more requests for Antigua, Saint LuciaTurks and Caicos and Costa Rica.”

Not surprisingly, agents contend that Caribbean destinations that fare the best will be those with the most effective health and safety protocols.

“Generally speaking, it will be a destination where the government and resorts work together to have good health protocols in place across the board and supervision of some sort to make sure those protocols are uniformly followed,” said Claire Schoeder of Elevations Travel.