Statement By Premier And Minister Of Finance On Phase One Re-Opening Of The Tourist Industry

STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE

HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE

MONDAY, 26th OCTOBER, 2020

THE VIRGIN ISLANDS PHASE ONE RE-OPENING OF THE TOURIST INDUSTRY

My dear people of the Virgin Islands, a pleasant Good Day and God’s Blessings to you and your families.

Today, we engage another phase of our plan. We move another step forward in the phased reopening of our borders and our tourism industry in this COVID-19 era – in the New Regular of living and working with this unpredictable virus.

Seven months ago, without much warning, and as with the rest of the world, the blow was sudden, it is devastating and it is lasting. It decimated industries, none more so than tourism and travel. Overnight, planes were grounded, ships had to be turned back, airports were emptied, and the hospitality sector plummeted to a standstill.

Seven months ago, without much warning, and as with the rest of the world, our livelihoods were affected. We feared that the worst was yet to come. Indeed, our fears were not unfounded. This deadly COVID-19 pandemic has not only impacted our way of life, but it has cost many—too many— lives.

Thankfully, we have mostly been spared here in the BVI, in large measure because of our early and decisive action in being proactive by putting all the necessary measures in place, including closing our borders.

These decision were not made lightly, and yes, it did come with a high cost – though not as high as the alternative options.

But what choice did we have, really? For any responsible government, the answer is clear – lives come first; all lives matter.

In a period that will forever be characterised by its scientific problems, unanswered questions, unfolding trends and unpredictability, the record will show that here in the BVI, we were not rendered motionless. We moved expeditiously to protect our shores and our most precious resource—our people.

As I address you today, I am actually aware that the last seven months have wreaked havoc on many families, and it is far from over.

I am ever conscious that the road to recovery will be long and hard, but I am forever encouraged by the resilience I have seen in you, our resourceful and hard-working people.

I have seen our children, whose education was disrupted and whose social development severely impacted in their formative years, power through this period with the use of technology, and today, most appear to not have missed a beat.

I have seen businesses transform their operations overnight, to cater for remote work, and somehow, many survived, and we have also seen some thrive in this unprecedented era.

I have seen workers laid off in the hospitality sector turn their attention to agriculture and small business start-ups, honing skills that many probably did not even know they had.

I have seen innovation like I have never experienced, right here in the BVI.

We have pulled through so far, and we are still navigating our way in this New Regular, with grit, with heart and with spirit. We did it and are still doing it because of one common thread BVILOVE: love of neighbour and love of country.

As a society, and as your Government, we have been forced to try to find the balance that works for us in our particular circumstances between protecting the lives of our people – especially the vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, and persons with underlying medical conditions, who have a higher risk of dying if they contract the virus.

The BVI’s resources and infrastructure are not as vast as other countries – and even countries with robust economies and greater resources are buckling under the weight of COVID-19 in one way or another.

Those who understand this know that we could not approach COVID-19 and our economy with the same way as some other countries did, and are doing. Our steps had to be, and still have to be measured against the capability and capacity of our infrastructure.

Simply put, we have to determine what risks we can take, but more so, what risk we can manage.

One thing we have learnt is that there are no cookie-cutter solutions – no one size fits all protocol. Each country is configured differently. All countries have been learning from each other’s successes and setbacks as they search for their own protocols.

Here in the BVI, your Government has been listening to all our stakeholders, especially the professionals and experts in the respective fields. It is for this reason, with God’s help that as of today, 26th October we have zero confirmed active cases. And to God be the Glory.

Your Government, our Public Officers across the Ministries, health experts, BVI Airports Authority, border protection professionals, officials of the BVI Tourist Board and others have been working around the clock since the start of this Pandemic in March, to effectively address the various challenges of this COVID-19 era.

A lot of this work is informed by the guidance issued by international bodies based on scientific data and research. Your Government recognised that the responsible approach requires listening to scientists, professionals and experts, and this is what we have been doing, with our legal guide being the Public Health Act.

Indeed, over the past few months, we have been working across multiple agencies on the rebooting of the BVI economy in a phased, managed approach, aimed at achieving optimal balance between economic activity, social activity and protecting lives.

It is through this teamwork that we succeeded with the first two phases of our economic reboot.

The next phase, which I announced just over a month ago is the managed reopening of our borders to visitors on December 1st, 2020.

Again, our teams across multiple agencies have applied their expertise to develop a programme of protocols in a controlled, balanced, approach, supported by science and Ministry of Health expertise as well as international industry standards that will provide a high level of assurance of the minimised risks of importing the infection.

The strategies, which were approved by Cabinet in a Special meeting on 19th October, 2020, will enforce protocols which visitors and the tourism industry will follow to mitigate COVID-19 risks.

They are tailored to allow visitors to experience a safe, luxurious vacation, by deploying technology, implementing strict testing, and comprehensive protocols for tourism industry operations and accommodation units.

This is balanced with the health and safety of our people.

In the first instance, given that the COVID-19 situation is fluid commencing 1st December, 2020, entry into the BVI will be exclusive to air travel via the Terrence B Lettsome International Airport.

All arriving passengers would be required to have obtained prior approval to enter the Territory and would have agreed to abide by certain terms and conditions before boarding their flight.

These terms and conditions include periods of quarantine at approved accommodation, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing, medical travel insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage, subscription to a contact tracing system through their mobile phone, and in some cases using a wearable device, and bearing the costs associated with these measures.

Approval for travel takes the form of a BVI Gateway Traveller Authorisation Certificate which will be obtained via an online portal, called BVI Gateway. The portal is being set up at BVIGateway.BVIAA.com and is projected to be live on Monday, 2nd November, 2020.

Prospective travelers would be required to register on the BVI Gateway portal, and to upload their relevant documents. The application must be completed at least 48 hours prior to the intended flight.

Approved travelers must present their BVI Gateway Traveller Authorisation Certificate along with their negative PCR test result, at the check-in counter prior to boarding the flight into the Territory.

The negative PCR test result should be obtained at least five (5) days prior to travel. It is important to note that if the PCR testing is positive, persons will be denied approval to travel to the BVI.

This Certificate streamlines the process at the BVI’s ports of entry—both air and sea ports, and removes the need to fill out the paper versions of the same form. Immigration and Customs forms; and all supporting documentation would be readily available online to the relevant authority by merely entering the Certificate ID.

Our aggressive adaptation of technology further ensures that we operate in a low touch, high tech environment.

On arrival at the Terrance B. Lettsome Internatinal Airport, Beef Island travelers would be directed to our newly constructed welcoming centre for screening, relaxing environment which is located before the traveler goes through immigration.

This new facility which is being established at the airport will accommodate 90 passengers. It should be noted that in our continued effort to put safety first, arrival flights will be staggered so that there will be a 90-minute lag between flights, ensuring that at no time there would be two flights on the ground simultaneously. This time lapse will also allow the team to sanitise the facility and to prepare for the next flight.

Clearly, we are not going to spare any details to ensure safety.

At the screening centre, traveler will do a PCR test and we will ensure that the visitors have installed the contact tracing software on their mobile phones. After this, they would be directed to approved transportation which will take them to their approved accommodation.

For the first four days, travelers would be required to remain within the compound of their accommodation and to avoid or minimise contact with others outside of their party, as well as to keep their movement to a minimum.

The properties would be required to put measures in place to manage crowd control and social distancing, as per the mandated protocols.

On the fourth day, the traveler would be required to take another PCR test.

Once the result is negative, they would be allowed isolated movement to designated places. These would be locations that are not high-traffic or high-risk. These locations are being coordinated by Environmental Health and other Government agencies and the establishments will be notified.

A final PCR test would be administered on Day 8 and once this test also returns negative, the traveler would be able to move within the Territory, without limitation.

At all times, the traveler would be required to have their mobile device with them, with the tracing software active. This is for their own protection, as well as the safety of others.

We have to remember that like all viruses there will be carriers who would have the COVID-19, but show no symptom or trace of it. It is possible such persons can pass all the tests and then transmit the disease to others. This is a possibility.

The system will help us to effectively and efficiently conduct contact tracing where necessary and quickly alert everyone so that they can take the appropriate measures to keep themselves, their families and everyone safe.

So, in the event of a scenario like this, if someone visits a location where a positive case is traced to, we can then alert everyone so they can take the appropriate measures to keep themselves, their families and everyone else safe.

The system will also be able to facilitate geo-fencing so that if a person ventures outside of the location authorised for their movement, this can be detected.

The online BVI Gateway Portal, mobile app, wearable technology and relevant system were all developed by Amber Group Limited, which is a global technology company based in Jamaica, with operations in 23 countries, including India, parts of Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Canada.

Their system has been tried and tested in a number of jurisdictions. This system is being managed by the BVI Airports Authority, which has entered into an agreement with the Amber Group, on behalf of the BVI.

As we look forward to the further expansion of our tourism industry’s controlled, balanced and managed reopening, such as the authorisation of entry and overnight stays in the maritime industry, prospectively as of 8th December, 2020, this system will also be assisting us with the monitoring and tracing of visitors, and helping us to build our Virgin Islands Visitor Entry Database.

Our reopening, along with all the protocols, procedures and systems will be closely monitored and evaluated.

To this end, Cabinet has approved the appointment of an Advisory and Assessment Team comprising members from the Premier’s Office, Ministry of Health, BVI Tourist Board, BVI Airport’s Authority, Immigration Department and HM Customs and the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force as well as five (5) others as designated by the Premier. And this will assist us with the first December reopening, through the airport and the 8th December reopening in terms of maritime industry.

As we identify areas for improvement, we will make the necessary adjustments, because bear in mind that COVID-19 is fluid.

You would be aware that over the past three weeks, your Government, and our various agencies, have been holding meetings with our tourism industry stakeholders to share information relevant to their respective preparations for the tourism industry reopening.

At least eight (8) such meetings have been held with sub-segments, such as the large hotels and resorts, small hotels, villas and guest houses, licenced taxi operators, tour operators, shuttles and car rentals, restaurants, marinas and crewed yacht charters, spas and salons, among many, many  others.

I highlight this because while certain information about how the reopening of the tourism industry will roll out is being heard for the first time now, your Government has been providing relevant information to the tourism stakeholders in advance, so they could start putting their measures in place to be ready for 1st December.

Contrary to the few, and just a few persons who are trying to purport that the Government has no plans, it is important to note that these plans have been in place since early March and had to be adjusted based on the fluidity of COVID-19 not only in the BVI, but throughout the world. For this we want to express our profound gratitude to our many hard work public officers as the plan was spearheaded by our HEOC team.

So, in the case of hotels, accommodations, restaurant operations and other industry amenities that are critical services in the tourist industry, they have been advised of how they can create a safe environment for workers and guests.

Included in the approved policy for the reopening of the tourism industry is that tourism businesses must be certified to receive visitors.

I repeat, included in the approved policy for the reopening of the tourism industry is that tourism businesses must be certified to receive visitors.

The criteria for receiving permission include that tourism businesses must be BVI Tourist Board-H. Lavity Stoutt Community College Gold Seal Certified.

HLSCC, Culinary and Hospitality Studies Department have designed a programme to prepare workers to re-enter the Tourism Industry with health and safety at its core in the New Regular of living and working with COVID-19. Participants must attend all online sessions of the programme to be eligible to receive internationally recognised certification.

Businesses must also be certified by the Environmental Health Department, and must obtain permission for reopening from the Premier’s Office, through the BVI Tourist Board, based on having achieved the necessary certification.

In order to facilitate efficient and effective contact tracing, all businesses would be required to check the temperature and record the name and contact details of all visitors to their establishments.

I want to emphasise that the BVITB-HLSCC Gold Seal certification is not just for our internal purposes. On the one hand, it helps us to establish controls in terms of ensuring that visitors are not being put at risk, that they get quality treatment, and that we have an organised system for contact tracing.

But further to that, by achieving certification, it conveys to the prospective visitor that your property or your business has met the requirements to provide some assurance for their safety.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a tourist in this uncertain time of COVID-19, no doubt you would prefer the property or service provider that has some kind of certification or accreditation over the ones that do not have it – not just locally, but when choosing a country for your trip.

In order to maintain the standards in how we apply the protocol and procedures, particularly in our tourism establishments, the BVI Tourist Board is establishing a compliance unit tasked with conducting checks on establishments. This will ensure that our Gold Seal businesses are keeping Gold Seal standards.

As we endeavor to live and work with COVID-19 under the New Regular, we must accept that many things have changed regarding how the world operates, and how business operates.

Persons seeking economic opportunities and those seeking leisure must bear in mind their responsibility to their own selves and each other, and to each other’s families, colleagues, friends and neighbours, as well as the safety of the people and economy of the BVI.

We do believe that there is room to create amazing experiences in the space where all the interests come to a balance.

It is important that I also emphasise that for the reopening of our tourism sector to be successful, we need all hands on deck, working in tandem, and we must be vigilant to minimise any room for error.

We only have one shot at getting this right because in this COVID-19 era, safety is our most important selling point.

We will recover economically once we get the COVID-19 managed.

Visitors will be paying to come here for the usual reasons of our lovely sailing waters, diving and sunsets, but also because they believe this is a COVID-safe destination—A destination where there is BVILOVE.

And, therefore we must, in a customer-friendly way, ensure that everyone plays their role in minimising the contraction and spread of COVID-19.

From the staff at the BVI Airports Authority, Port Health, Immigration, baggage handlers, Customs, Taxi Operators, accommodation, owners operators and staff, restaurants and other businesses, charters and tour guides – every one – we have to be dutiful in our roles.

I am speaking also to every person on each of our islands, whether you have a job directly in the tourism industry or not. You must play by the rules of the New Regular – no large gatherings, wear your masks, sanitise your hands, and maintain physical distancing, and adhere to all social distancing measures.

The tourism industry and the rest of the economy is depending on you. Our BVI tourism brand, BVILOVE, is at stake. Our reputation as a safe destination is at stake. We must be united, and we must be resolute in our efforts.

Maintaining a safe environment for our visitors means our businesses can remain open and persons can have an income. So, let us stay focused, laser focused with unity of purpose.

I thank all of our dedicated health workers and public officers across the various ministries, departments and agencies for your hard work over the past seven months, and for your continued support, as we look towards the reopening of our tourism industry in a matter that will not compromise our safety.

I wish to thank our hard working Cabinet members and my elected colleagues for their commitment. We are truly in this together.

To our business community and our citizens and residents, I know it has been a tough, stressful and frustrating few months, and I sincerely thank you for your patience and understanding of this global threat to our livelihood and health.

My dear people of the Virgin Islands, this is a defining moment in our history and in our growth. How we manage this coming period will be the story on which generations build their success. We must choose to be successful. We cannot become complacent.

I believe in the resolve of the people of our Territory to stand as a beacon of what can be achieved when a nation works together.

We have been here before. Adversity has been at our door before. And every time, we emerged, we overcame, and we became stronger and stronger.

So, whether it is the force of nature, or a health pandemic, or a fiscal downturn; our core, our heart, and our strength have always shone through because God is with us.

Our brand is BVILOVE, so let us put our best foot forward, let us be diligent and let us give our visitors positive experiences that will imprint happy memories for them to take back home to their families and friends.

As we embark on the reopening of our tourism industry, in this first phase for the next few months, let us continue to thank God for watching over our Territory, and we pray for His continued guidance and protection.

Now let us move forward together with an even greater purpose.

I thank you.

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