‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ – John Donne

Saturday August 22, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
How are different islands tackling the challenge of the loss of tourism? We investigate. 20082150 How are different islands tackling the challenge of the loss of tourism? We investigate. 20082150

Island countries have a choice of whether and how to reopen their borders – it’s a luxury that most of the world doesn’t have. So what are they doing? Jonathan Milne investigates different islands’ solutions to Covid-19.

Back in 1623, English poet John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island” – a rallying call comparing people to countries, and arguing for the interconnectedness of all people with God.

Today, island peoples are coming to understand that they may close their borders to Covid, but they can insulate their families from its economic impact.

Four hundred years after Donne penned his poem, islanders are unarguably and unavoidably part of a bigger world.

That is why the conversation about reopening Cook Islands borders may have gone quiet, but it hasn’t stopped. Health and the economy are intrinsically linked – without earning money to pay for a functioning economy, there will be no health system, no welfare payments, no fast food and fast internet, certainly no wage subsidies.

It is all very well to say human lives should be put ahead of money. Everybody agrees on that. And that is why Cook Islands needs to sell its goods and services and scenic beauty to the world, so we can pay to treat illnesses that still pose a far greater threat than Covid-19, like diabetes and cardiac disease.

That means constantly assessing and innovating new ways to reinvigorate the country’s resorts, restaurants, shops, phone and internet providers and other businesses.

That best solution today may not be the best one tomorrow. For instance, the air has gone out of the travel bubble language when it became apparent that Australia and Fiji were no longer contenders.

But Cook Islands is still talking about an air-bridge with New Zealand, if that country can eliminate community transmission. And leaders in both the public and private sector are exploring other ways to restart the tourist economy, as well as diversifying into other sectors.

Other island nations, too, are innovating – so it’s worth looking at what’s working and what’s not.

Canary Islands: Free travel health insurance

They call themselves Fortress Canaries, a “global laboratory for safe tourism”.

And the first “safe” charter flight from Spain to Gran Canaria last month served as a trial for the hi+card which, according to the Guardian, may become the blueprint for a global health passport.

The Canary Islands has introduced a novel partnership with French insurer AXA, offering national and international visitors coverage on all medical and health expenses if they test positive for Covid-19 during their stay.

It’s an effort to restore the dwindling tourist numbers, and it’s a good deal for holidaymakers – the question will be whether it provides sufficient protection for locals?

Most Canary Islands hotels have now reopened with varying capacity.

Active cases: 1584

Iceland: Heart-warming local support

This weather-scoured hunk of icy rock just outside the Arctic Circle may not seem the obvious holiday destination to most of us, but it’s quite balmy – so long as you’re warming your hands over one of its active volcanoes.

These have names that trip off the tongue like Brennisteinsfjöll, Reykjaneshryggur and Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption covered Europe with a pall of dust. It was the biggest disruption to European air travel until (you guessed it) Covid-19.

Thanks largely to those volcanoes, tourism made up 48 per cent of Iceland’s service exports last year.

To begin opening the border, the government guaranteed Icelandair’s losses if it agreed to keep flying to Boston, London and Stockholm. Inbound travellers have a choice: get tested for the virus, or undertake quarantine.

But the government’s main focus is on domestic tourism, so it’s given all adult Icelanders, collectively, 1.5 billion Icelandic króna (NZ$16m) worth of travel vouchers to spend domestically.

Now, the bars and restaurants are full. People are out enjoying themselves. Spectacular geological attractions are wide open to tourists. According to CNN, anyone visiting Iceland right now could be forgiven for thinking they've arrived in a parallel universe where the coronavirus never happened.

Scott Drummond, co-owner of Hidden Iceland, halved staff numbers during the crisis, but says things are now looking up again. “Our website traffic surged 500 per cent in a matter of days as soon as the announcement came.”

Active cases: 120

Maldives: Cloistered luxury resort islands

In the Indian Ocean, the beautiful Maldives are opening up step by step. From last month, guests were allowed to return but only to stay on secluded “cloistered” resort islands and live-aboard boats. That is a bit easier for a country that is made up of 1,200 separate atolls, each resort isolated from every other.

Then from this month, guest houses and hotels on inhabited islands were allowed to reopen. Of course, that comes with the big caveat that you still have to get there and then get back – and none of this is cheap.

Because almost every resort is its own private island, many luxury hotels charge upwards of $2300 a night – many top $5000 a night. And that’s before seaplane or speed boat transfers, which can be hundreds of dollars for a round trip. According to a Maldives Marketing statement, tourists are not required to produce any Covid certificate or test result, and nor are they required to quarantine.

Any tourist who does show Covid-19 symptoms will have to pay for a test, the statement cautions, and people with a history of contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case “are advised not to travel to Maldives.”

If you do test positive, a medical team will help you isolate in your villa. Reosrts like Soneva Jani will waive the daily room rate for the next 14 days – that’s worth $58,000 at their present discounted room rates!

Like Cook Islands, the Maldives economy is almost entirely reliant on tourism. And with some staff laid off, the World Bank says it is helping the government develop a new unemployment insurance program, improve its pension scheme, and upgrade computer systems so households on remote islands can apply for assistance.

But here’s the big difference from Cook Islands: If anyone does need to be hospitalised with Covid, there are hospitals with shiny brand-new intensive-care units.

Active cases: 2526

Macau: Clink, clink of coins

The Chinese enclave of Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, a headland with a cluster of islands hosting all east Asia’s most expensive (and trashy) casinos. And, they say, they’ve been suffering.

To be clear, we’re talking here about the three top Americn casino operators which all have significant presences in Macau: MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands. Despite its name, Las Vegas Sands has more resorts in Macau than it does in Nevada.

So you may not have a great deal of sympathy, but NASDAQ reports the casino chains have been “struggling mightily” during the pandemic, and the near-total shutdown of the Macau market is a major reason why.

So they were delighted when the Macau government began issuing tourist visas again last week – but only to visitors from the neighboring city of Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland, where Covid has been squashed.

Active cases: 0

New Zealand: Holiday at home, or else

So much for kindness. The Team of 5 Million isn’t using the carrot of subsidies and travel vouchers to persuade Kiwis to stay at home. 

Instead, it’s using the stick of public shaming (“What? You’re not supporting our local tourism operators?”) and imposing hefty financial penalties on anyone who dares consider a break to visit their cousins in the Cooks.

A couple returning to New Zealand, now, must pay more than $4000 in quarantine fees for the pleasure of being cooped up for 14 days in a hotel where they’re more likely to contract the coronavirus.

That gives Kiwis very little choice but to spend their money on the pricey attractions of Rotorua and Queenstown, instead. No doubt, that was the price of the New Zealand tourism industry’s political support in election year.

But Air NZ boss Greg Foran said Kiwis would be disappointed to not be able to travel to Rarotonga.

Active cases: 105

Fiji: A few yachts aren’t enough

So the so-called Bula Bubble looks to have deflated somewhat, with new Covid cases in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

But the country has begun welcome back tourism on a manageable scale – last month, for instance, it reopened the borders to 26 yachts, most from New Zealand.

Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya says yachts will inject $700,000 into the economy – those first yachts from New Zealand alone brought $40,000 into the local community over two days, and brought back a little bustle of life to Denarau.

Because. even though Fiji has alternative export industries like sugar that mean it’s not so reliant on tourism as Cook Islands, it’s still hurting.

Fiji Airways slashed its workforce in half in May, and in what is already a low-wage economy, there is minimal government support for those without work.

So Fiji leaders and businesspeople are still pinning their hopes on the resumption of tourism from the great golden land, Australia.

Active cases: 7

Samoa: Shutdown awaiting vaccine

Samoa is looking at the dawn of a new era, the United Nations Development Programme says.

The restrictions on international travel and public transport have triggered changes in social dynamics, suspended business operations and caused people to lose their jobs, particularly in tourism and in small businesses.

The country also relies heavily on remittances sent home from Samoans working overseas – and these too have declined.

The United Nations agency is concerned Samoa’s failure to provide alternatives like digital solutions and infrastructure puts its people’s wellbeing at real risk – but at the same time, the loss of 83 lives in last year’s measles outbreak underlines just why Samoa is being so cautious.

Samoa Observer journalist Sapeer Mayron tells us there are no plans to reopen borders to international tourism this year, or even early 2021. The government has slowed repatriation flights to one every three weeks, and suggests it will stop them entirely later in the year.

The Samoa Tourism Authority is targeting the urban Apia population with slightly higher incomes, to persuade them to spend money on staycations, and is offering discounts on the interisland ferry between Savaii and Upolu, Mayron says.

But there are also bans on going for a swim on a Sunday, and restricted opening hours for supermarkets and restaurants – making it hard for tourism businesses to stay afloat.

For Samoa, says Mayron, the hopes are for a vaccine, and soon. 

Active cases: 0

Cook Islands: Air-bridge to nowhere

A bit like the Australian island state of Tasmania, there’s just one way in, and one way out, of Cook Islands. That comparison seemed stark, when Tasmania’s gateway was Covid-stricken Victoria, and ours was Covid-free New Zealand.

But now, with a new community-transmitted Covid outbreak in the Pasifika community of south Auckland, and smug complacency has dissipated. And now, the government has closed the borders to inbound travel.

That leaves Cook Islands with very little in the way of a strategy to restart its economy; essentially, government can do little except hope and pray for recovery in New Zealand.

An air-bridge to New Zealand is still a good first option for Cook Islands – but at some point as the country’s debt servicing commitments start to become unmanageable, government will have to look again to flights from Sydney, Tahiti and Los Angeles.

That is when solutions like digital global health passports will become important.

Active cases: 0

French Polynesia: Going under

Tahiti and the outer islands of French Polynesia – our nearest neighbours – are beginning to look like a salutary lesson in what not to do.

After an initial outbreak peaked with 55 active cases in April, the country eradicated the virus. But will no money coming in and without the same cash reserves as Cook Islands, the government took the desperate decision to open its doors again to the USA.

To be fair, they set in place more precautions than they have been given credit for: visitors must pass a Covid-19 several days before boarding their flight to Tahiti, and are then given a self-test upon arrival at Faa’a International Airport.

French Polynesia also has the access to resources of the French Republic behind many of its health efforts. French armed forces provided support to remote parts of the territory during the lockdown period.

Nonetheless, almost immediately on reopening the border, a female passenger on the boutique inter-island cruise liner Paul Gauguin tested positive and things just worsened from there.

Now, the number of active cases is climbing towards 150. 

Active cases: 143

Cuba: Communist island camps

Cuba’s big plan is flying in visitors (most from Canada) on charter flights to five narrow islands that offer all-inclusive vacations and keep foreigners tested and isolated from the rest of the nation.

Hotel employees observe seven-day work-weeks followed by seven days of isolation at home.

Varadero, a popular, resort-studded peninsula less than a two-hour drive from Havana, is being divided into a section for Cubans and a section for international tourists, who will not mix with the general population, Bloomberg reports.

The state-run system was designed to reopen a vital source of economic activity without reintroducing the virus to the country’s 11 million people, where new Covid cases had dwindled to just a handful a day.

But they’re struggling, and numbers are again rising.

Like other Caribbean islands, Cuba is highly dependent on tourism, although the island's finances are highly opaque due to government secrecy and an unusual system of two currencies, neither of which holds value outside Cuba.

The shutdown of international flights in March pushed Cuba into its most severe shortages and economic stagnation in many years, Bloomberg says, with long lines forming for basic products.

The new tourism model is somewhat reminiscent of past practices. Under longtime leader Fidel Castro, Cubans were prohibited from entering tourist hotels as part of a broader pattern of isolating the communist society from outside influence.

Active cases: 583

Barbados: Inviting cashed-up remote workers

It’s as if they called him on his hotline. Because as soon as Barbados opened its borders, Canadian rapper Drake and his customized “Air Drake” Boeing 767 arrived at the airport. He was soon everywhere, all over social media.

Drake and his entourage of nine were permitted to enter only after their tests were scrutinised, according to government Covid czar Richard Carter.

Carter declined to comment on photos of Drake posing in close quarters with local fans, though he did highlight general concerns about some people neglecting Covid-19 protocols in numerous places, including “spaces of entertainment”.

But never mind tourism, in one of the more innovative solutions, Barbados has launched a one-year working visa giving foreigners right to live and work remotely during pandemic.

Enticing some foreign cash is critical, as the Inter-American Development Bank warns of increased poverty, 40 per cent unemployment and a doubling of inflation since the crisis gripped the country.

Active cases: 26

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