In early November, after two weeks spent quarantining at my home in Canada following an investigative trip to Cuba, I shrugged off my mounting cabin fever and started planning stage two of my mission to rediscover the world post-coronavirus.
Cuba’s reopening had been a revelation. Impressed by its high standards of hygiene and efficient COVID-19 screening system, I was keen to see how other countries were formulating safe and responsible policies to lure back tourists. After some exhaustive searching, Jamaica emerged as a viable contender.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel, and some areas are under lockdown. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
I first went to Jamaica to research a Lonely Planet guidebook in 2013. With its combination of potent coffee, skanking reggae tunes, languid games of cricket, and friendly greetings delivered in a distinctive patois drawl (Bless up, mon!), it was love at first sight, sound, taste and smell. I solemnly swore I’d go back. Little did I think it would be during a pandemic.
Jamaica reappeared on my radar through a process of elimination. By the early fall of 2020, the list of countries I couldn’t enter due to closed borders, impractical quarantines or worryingly high COVID-19 numbers was depressingly long. The best and safest options all lay in the Caribbean where small island nations with mercifully low infection rates were keen to attract visitors to re-bolster their heavily tourist-dependent economies.
Beset by ever-changing rules, travel in the time of coronavirus necessitates careful pre-planning. After searching the internet and making numerous phone calls to the Jamaican Tourist Board in Canada, I decided that a week-long trip to the sun-dappled land of irie (cool vibes) was low risk and relatively safe. Not only has Jamaica kept its COVID-19 rates well below the global average, it has also adopted a sensible approach to reopening. Tourists are currently only permitted to stay in sanctioned accommodation in a narrow "resilient corridor" that stretches along the north and south coasts. Travel within the corridor to an array of officially approved sights is permissible as long as you use authorized transportation. Otherwise, you are confined to your hotel property. A regularly updated list of available accommodation, sights, and transport can be found on the Visit Jamaica website.
Jamaica has the added advantage of minimal pre-trip paperwork. Most Caribbean countries require aspiring visitors to provide proof of a negative PCR test on arrival (such tests are difficult to procure in my home province of British Columbia). However, in Jamaica, only residents of the US, Mexico, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Panama need bring negative tests. Residents of other countries merely have to fill out an online travel authorization form up to five days before departure.
I flew into Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport from Canada refreshingly free of the paranoia that had plagued my journey to Cuba a month earlier. A recent Harvard study asserted that being onboard a plane during the pandemic is no more dangerous than going to the supermarket or eating out at a restaurant. Ventilation systems on airplanes filter out 99% of virus droplets, the report claimed. Combined with effective mask-wearing and regular sanitation, the risks of catching or transmitting COVID-19 during a flight are pretty low, particularly as many airplanes are currently running half-empty. On three of my four flights on this round-trip, I had a whole row of seats to myself.
The relative safety provided by an airplane's ventilation system is, of course, left behind as you exit the plane, but the airport arrival was reassuringly straightforward, if a little short on physical distancing. Before we hit customs or baggage collection, all passengers were ushered through a screening area where we had our temperatures taken, were asked a few basic health questions, and were told to sign an affidavit promising to abide by Jamaica’s COVID-19 regulations.
Resorting to a resort
I chose to stay in the Bahia Principe Grand Hotel in Runaway Bay on the island’s north coast where most of my fellow guests were Jamaicans complemented by a small contingent of quietly contented Canadians and Americans. While I normally eschew all-inclusive resorts in favor of diminutive local haunts, the confining nature of the resilient corridor makes big hotels better places to spread out, exercise and practice physical distancing, especially as most of them are currently operating at between 15% to 35% capacity.
The humongous Bahia had a lavish assortment of gyms, pools, and restaurants. Its COVID-19 protocols were similarly top-notch. Mask-wearing was conscientiously adhered to in all indoor spaces, hand sanitizer was ubiquitous, and guests were temperature-checked at least three times a day (including before breakfast!). Yet, thanks to Jamaica’s relaxed charm and infectious congeniality, none of this felt over-intrusive.
Anyone who has ventured abroad during the pandemic will know that travel is currently a dichotomy of irritating restrictions and serendipitous epiphanies. While I wasn’t able to stroll spontaneously into a Rasta-run beach shack for a plate of homemade jerk chicken on this trip, I did get to climb the magnificent cascades of Dunn’s River Falls (in normal times engulfed by over 2500 daily visitors) with just two people within shouting distance.
On other days, I went cycling in the Blue Mountains, drank spectacularly smooth coffee next to the plant that nurtured it, and conversed with struggling but convivial Jamaicans desperate for the pandemic to end and tourists to return. "Dah corona, it really mash up me business, mon!" lamented a lonely stall-holder at Dunn’s River.
All of these day-trips were easily organized through the hotel, but came at an extra cost. Groups were kept small (none of my trips contained more than three people) and prices ran from US$25 up to US$150 including transportation. Options ranged from cycling and scuba diving, to excursions to Rick’s Café (famous for its cliff-diving) in Negril.
So, is it really worth it?
This year has been an extravagantly weird year for travel. Once you had to parachute into a war zone to be considered intrepid. Now you just have to turn up at an all-inclusive resort. I paid the equivalent of US$850 all in (bar excursions) for my seven-day "dreadlock holiday" with Air Canada Vacations and I reckon it was worth every penny. Jamaica’s sunny disposition, thoughtful reopening policies and omnipresent reggae rhythms revitalized my soul and offered a perfect antidote to a cold, pandemic-scarred Canadian winter.
If you do decide to go, remember, when shopping around for deals, it pays to book at the last minute: both prices and restrictions can and do change rapidly. You’ll also need to take out comprehensive COVID-19 insurance and buy a good supply of masks. N95’s are my preferred type and are available at pharmacies in Canada for C$4 (US$3).
One huge caveat that has so far prevented tourism from taking off in a serious way in Jamaica or anywhere else is the compulsory 14-day quarantine many travelers (including me) face when returning home. Check your country’s rules before booking. The province of Alberta has recently introduced a pilot scheme offering returning Canadian travelers COVID-19 tests at Calgary airport. This can cut quarantine down from 14 days to just two – a huge bonus.
Aside from Air Canada, you can book flights/packages with Westjet and Sunwing from Canada, and Delta, JetBlue and American Airlines from the US. TUI will restart booking packages from the UK in December. Check their website for updates.