Bold Tourism Experiment of a Caribbean Island

Every day at noon, a melodious bell resonates on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. For nearly two months, Krystal Bajkor, a visitor from North Carolina, thought it was time to tick.

“I thought it was a cute feature of the little island,” said Ms. Bajkor, a former financial analyst who is now writing a children’s book.

Then in June, her husband, a management consultant, learned that the sounding “clock” was actually a daily test of the volcano warning system. The Soufriere Hills volcano, which buried much of the island in rocks and ash in the late 1990s, remains active and produces a cloud of hot gas suspended above its crater.

The meaning of the bell is one of the things Ms. Bajkor might have missed had she been a typical tourist. Before the pandemic, most visitors to Montserrat would swim, perhaps anchoring their sailboats in or out of the harbor for a day. escape the ferry for a walk before returning to nearby Antigua for the night.

Now a tourist must pass strict background checks and earn at least $70,000 a year to set foot on Montserrat’s black sand beaches. Until recently, he also had to commit to staying here for at least two months. In return, visitors get almost exclusive access not only to beaches, but also to an alternate reality, roughly the size of Manhattan without the coronavirus.

British lands soon after few cases of coronavirus It closed its borders to tourists in March 2020. It cautiously reopened in April 2021 with a remote work program, requiring both vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors to quarantine for two weeks before exploring the island, followed by a coronavirus test. 21 travelers from seven families have participated so far.

The island is certainly not alone in developing creative ways to lure visitors during the pandemic. Countries around the world have devised and re-created a wide variety of systems to try to keep money flowing without jeopardizing the health of the local population. Malta bans unvaccinated tourists more than 30 countries, but provides hotel coupons From September 19, Israel began allowing tourists to be considered safe, but Only they are vaccinated and travel in groups of more than five people.

Numerous Caribbean islands have sought to attract remote workers with “digital nomad visas” that allow a visitor to stay for a year or more.

But Montserrat’s program stands out even in a sea of ​​unconventional experiments, as the island has chosen to reverse the standard visa duration – the maximum length of stay one can stay – on its head and instead requires minimal visits. It’s also unusual because while other islands have highlighted how easy they want to make it easy for remote workers to visit, Montserrat seemed to pride itself on making it harder to join the roughly 5,000-person balloon, where very few people wear masks or lock their doors.

“They’re very picky about who they let in,” he said. David Cort, a travel risk analyst, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who worked with his wife and daughters for three months in Montserrat.I was told they were turning people away.”

Whether the program benefits the candidate depends on who you ask. What everyone agrees on is that the risks are high. The primary driver of the economy is not tourism, but exports of volcanic sand. Still, “It’s always a challenge when there aren’t enough people on our island,” said Rose Willock, a broadcaster whose home was lost to the volcano. Before the pandemic, local businesses relied on 18,000 to 21,000 tourists a year, according to the tourism authority.

But more urgent is, of course, the virus. According to the Ministry of Health, as of September 15, 33 people tested positive in the last 18 months. In April 2020, long before tourists were allowed to visit, an infected person died. Given that only about 23 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, there is a widespread understanding that if the virus bounces all over the island, the medical system won’t be able to handle it. If that happens, it could set Montserrat back years. The volcanic eruption removed two-thirds of the population from the island. It’s getting better but slowly.

“We cannot afford to let the pandemic take over our situation,” said Ms Willock.

Ms. Bajkor’s family was the first to join the program. They’re still there five months later.

“I remember towards the start of the pandemic, dude, I wondered if there were any places in the world that didn’t deal with any of this madness,” Ms Bajkor said. He believes he has found such a place in Montserrat. She can breathe luxuriously unmasked at art shows and leave her two children in kindergarten with little fear of the virus.

“There’s nothing here that can kill you except the volcano,” he concluded.

For the first two weeks, the visitors stayed in the villas they rented. Patrick Bennett, whose family visited in May and June, said you cannot access a rental car until the quarantine is complete.

“Themtofuck off,” he said. “Every once in a while you hear a car go by slowly.”

He said he didn’t feel trapped, considering that he, his wife, and their 7-10-year-old children came from a 1,200-square-foot apartment in New York City. Now all of a sudden they have a huge veranda.

He runs a travel site called Mr. Bennett. Uncommon Caribbean, focusing on off-the-beaten-track locations. Even for him, being on an island without tourists was new. What he found even more interesting was the locals’ devotion to the island. They were the ones left after the volcano had driven thousands of people away.

He added that the two-month minimum does not feel excessive. By the second month you are “starting to go with the flow of everything”.

Sociology professor Dr. Cort agreed that the minimum stay was part of the charm. (His family remained there for three months.)

Normally a Laurel, Md. resident, Dr. “This pandemic is giving people the opportunity to get to know people and places better,” Cort said.

Being the only customer in restaurants also had its benefits. “You just talk to the owners and they tell you their stories,” he said.

In the evenings, the family wandered around Little Bay, which was planned to become the new capital of the island as the volcano destroyed the original. “It would be pretty deserted,” said Mr Cort.

But there are worse things than low population density during a pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say it was a huge success,” said Clover Lea, who runs Gingerbread Hill, a small hotel. He admitted that the fact that he doesn’t host any remote workers colored his response.

Andrew Myers, a scuba shop owner, wondered why only those who earned more than $70,000 were invited. (Technically the primary applicant must earn $70.00, but later family members may earn less.)

“I don’t think it’s the best choice,” he said. By lowering financial standards, perhaps the island could attract more applicants. Still, he said it was “working well” in the sense that “Montserrat stays safe”.

It’s unclear how safe it is. According to Cherise Aymer, Spokesperson for the Prime Ministry Tourism Department, as of this week there were five cases of coronavirus on the island, but all were in quarantine. Beyond the 21 tourists, tech workers and Montserrat residents have also come and gone during the pandemic. The Department of Health declined to say whether any remote workers tested positive.

Tourists said residents seemed pleased to see new faces. However, Dr. Cort also met the Montserratians, who complained that family members could not visit the nearby islands because the island had stopped ferry services. (The remote workers flew.)

The parameters of this experiment will soon change. Come October 1, all tourists — if they are vaccinated – will be welcome on the island. The remote worker program will continue with no vaccination requirement. Aymer said the region has not recently required a minimum stay of two months, although authorities have not publicly announced the change. This means that the island will never have to face the question of what to do if a tourist tries to leave before their time expires.

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