IN MID-FEBRUARY, when a cold snap set in across much of America, Tami Irons, a system administrator at a hospital network in Painesville, Ohio, chased the sun to St. John, the smallest and lushest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. She and her husband have been vacationing on St. John annually since 2005, and not even the continuing pandemic was going to stop them. “Getting out of the snow and the cold always makes us breathe a little better,” said Ms. Irons.
Bermuda is even more fastidious: Visitors must wear a ‘Traveler Wristband’ for the first 14 days of their stay.
But this year, even though she booked a private villa that could be canceled anytime, the weeks leading up to the flight proved unnerving. St. John—as well as neighboring St. Thomas and St. Croix—require all arrivals to show proof of a negative result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours of landing. The couple made appointments at a medical clinic, then waited nervously for the all-clear. Reports of other islands implementing curfews or, in the case of St. Barts, suddenly banning visitors triggered even more unease. “I did not stop worrying about the trip until I was on that plane,” said Ms. Irons. “Anything could have happened.”
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To pandemic-beleaguered sunseekers craving sand, sea and warmth this spring, the Caribbean might seem like the promised land. And, indeed, most Caribbean islands welcome American tourists, but the many entry requirements vary widely and are constantly in flux. “Anybody traveling has to realize that this is fluid,” said Michele Rishty, a travel consultant in Bedminster, N.J., who frequently books Caribbean vacations. “Every day it changes.”
Until it changes again, here’s a snapshot of the hurdles you’re likely to face, and guidance on which islands are the easiest—or most challenging—to visit.
There Will Be Tests
In most of the region’s countries and dependent territories, you’ll need to show proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test even before you set your sandaled foot on the tarmac. How soon before your trip you must take the Covid-19 test varies by country. If you’re going to the U.S. Virgin Islands, you only need to take that one test. But if you’re heading to any other islands—outside the U.S.—you’ll need proof of a negative viral test to get back to the mainland. Many of the hotel resorts are starting to offer on-site testing for that express purpose.
Some destinations, including Anguilla, the Bahamas and Jamaica, insist on a second Covid test after arrival. Bermuda is even more fastidious: Visitors must wear a “Traveler Wristband” for the first 14 days of their stay, undergo twice-daily temperature checks and submit to additional Covid-19 tests on the fourth, eighth and 14th days of their stay.
By comparison, the Dominican Republic’s testing protocols are far more relaxed. Instead of requiring visitors to show documentation of a negative Covid-19 test before arrival, local authorities randomly administer rapid tests to a small percentage—between 3% and 15%—of incoming passengers.
What if you’ve already been fully vaccinated against Covid-19? For now, inoculation won’t get you out of the testing requirements.
A Paper Trail
Most islands also ask visitors to fill out a health questionnaire before or after arrival. And some, such as Bermuda and Turks and Caicos, also ask tourists to come armed with health insurance—or buy it there—that will cover them should they fall ill while on vacation.
Kristi Mackedanz, a travel adviser at KM Travel Designs in St. Petersburg, Fla., advises prospective travelers to check tourism board websites for insurance requirements and associated costs. From there, she says, pore over the policies to make sure they cover you if you do test positive and need to quarantine on the island for 10 days to two weeks. “Every destination is just so different,” she warned.
Track and Shield
Among the islands that enforce more rigorous travel restrictions, Barbados tops the list, according to Tara McCoy, a travel adviser from Columbia, S.C., who spent a few days on the British Commonwealth island in December. After a notable spike in cases just after the Christmas holiday, the local government issued a curfew (lights out at 7 p.m.) and tightened other Covid-inspired rules. “One by one, the requirements for traveling there got stricter,” said Ms. McCoy. How strict? The tourism website (visitbarbados.org) specifies the exact type of Covid test needed to enter the country. Before travel, visitors are instructed to download an app to their phones; as soon as they arrive, they’re given an electronic wristband that tracks their movement. The first five days on the island must be spent in the confines of a resort or vacation rental—straying too far incurs hefty fines. On the fifth day, travelers are retested and only if they get the green light are they free to explore the island. The British Virgin Islands have a similar tracking device system in place, with a mandatory four-day quarantine.
Anguilla’s house rules are equally stringent. Visitors must present negative results from a PCR test completed three to five days before arrival, then take a second one after arrival. Vacationers staying less than two weeks can only stay in government-approved hotels and villas, as well as go to approved restaurants and on specified activities and excursions. Quincia Gumbs-Marie, the honorable parliamentary secretary of tourism, describes this tourism bubble as “a bunch of businesses who become certified and undergo training on how to maintain our safety protocols.” Ms. Gumbs-Marie also noted the islandwide mask mandate for tourists. “If you are anti-mask…it will be very difficult for you in Anguilla. All of our guests are required to be masked up.”
St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Lucia all restrict tourists to certain areas. The latter employs a 7 p.m. nightly curfew.
In February, as the new variants of the coronavirus were taking hold in Europe, the French government closed its overseas territories—including the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Barthélemy—to all tourists from non-European Union countries. The U.S. State Department also issued a level-four travel advisory to the entire French West Indies, advising Americans to steer clear due to “Covid-related conditions.” The Cayman Islands are also currently verboten to tourists, with the exception of homeowners, students, relatives and other specially approved visitors.
After All That, Is Life Really a Beach?
Once you get past the hurdles, the islands feel relatively normal, said Ms. Rishty, though with far fewer tourists and half empty hotels.
executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International, said occupancy at the 11 all-inclusive Sandals Resorts currently open hovered between 55% and 65% last month, down from 83% last year at the same time.
Ms. McCoy who spent five days on Jamaica in February, welcomed the slower pace. “It was easy, comfortable and sunny,” she said, adding that the Covid-19 restrictions were similar to those in the U.S. “It was really no different than here in South Carolina. Mask-wearing and social distancing.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Sandals Resorts currently has 11 resorts open. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it had six resorts open. (Corrected on March 11)
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