Montserrat’s bold tourism experiment during the coronavirus pandemic

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A melodic carillon sounds every lunchtime on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. For almost two months, Krystal Bajkor, a visitor from North Carolina, assumed it was a clock that tells the time.

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

In June, her husband, a management consultant, found out that the pleasant-sounding “clock” was actually a daily test of the volcano warning system. The Soufriere Hills volcano, which buried large parts of the island in rocks and ash in the late 1990s, is still active, producing a hot gas cloud that appears to float over its crater.

The meaning of the chimes is one of the things Ms. Bajkor might have missed if she had been a typical tourist. Before the pandemic, most visitors to Montserrat might hover for a day, dock their sailboats in port, or scurry off the ferry for a hike before returning to nearby Antigua for the night.

For a tourist to be able to set foot on the black sand beaches of Montserrat, she has to pass a strict background check and earn at least $ 70,000 a year. Until recently, she also had to commit to staying 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 where the coronavirus doesn’t seem to exist.

Shortly after the UK’s territory discovered the first coronavirus cases in March 2020, it closed its borders to tourists. In April 2021, it cautiously reopened with the remote worker program, which puts both vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors in quarantine for two weeks and then given a coronavirus test before exploring the island. So far, 21 travelers from seven families have participated.

The island is certainly not the only one developing creative ways to attract visitors during the pandemic. Countries around the world have developed and rebuilt a variety of systems to try to keep the flow of money going without endangering the health of local people. Malta bans unvaccinated tourists from more than 30 countries, but does provide hotel vouchers for safe visitors. Israel has been admitting tourists since September 19, but only if they are vaccinated and travel in groups of more than five people.

Numerous Caribbean islands have tried to lure remote workers with “digital nomad visas” that allow a visitor to stay for a year or even longer.

But Montserrat’s program stands out even in a sea of ​​unconventional experimentation because the island has chosen to turn the standard length of a visa – the maximum length of stay – on its head and instead require a minimum visit. It’s also unusual because while other islands have emphasized how easy they want to make it easy for remote workers to visit, Montserrat seems proud to make it difficult to join its roughly 5,000-person bubble, where few wear masks or lock their doors.

“They are very picky about who they let in,” said David Cort, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who worked three months with his wife, a travel risk analyst, and their daughter out of Montserrat.I was told that they actually turned people down. “

Whether the island’s program helped depends on who you ask. Everyone agrees: there is a lot at stake. The main driver of the economy is the export of volcanic sand, not tourism. Still, Rose Willock, a broadcaster who lost her home to the volcano, remarked, “It’s always a challenge when not enough people come to our island.” Before the pandemic, local companies expected 18,000 to 21,000 tourists a year, according to the tourism authority.

But of course the virus is even more urgent. As of September 15, 33 people had tested positive in the past 18 months, according to the Ministry of Health. 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 the medical system could not handle it if the virus ricochets across the island. Should that happen, it could set Montserrat back years. The volcanic eruption drove two thirds of the island’s population off the island. It has recovered, but slowly.

“We cannot afford the pandemic to overtake our situation,” said Ms. Willock.

Ms. Bajkor’s family were the first to participate in the program. Five months later, they’re still there.

“I remember thinking at the beginning of the pandemic, man, I wonder if there are places in the world that don’t deal with this craziness,” Ms. Bajkor said. In Montserrat she thinks she found such a place. She was able to breathe luxuriously mask-free at art exhibitions and drop her two children in daycare without fear of the virus.

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

For the first two weeks, the visitors hid in their rented villas. They couldn’t access a rental car until after the quarantine was completed, said Patrick Bennett, whose family was visiting in May and June.

“They control you,” he said. “Every now and then you can hear a car slowly driving by.”

He didn’t feel trapped, he said, as he, his wife, and 7- and 10-year-olds came from a 1,200-square-foot apartment in New York City. Suddenly they had a huge veranda.

Mr. Bennett runs a travel website called Uncommon Caribbean, which focuses on remote locations. It was also new for him to experience an island without tourists. He found the local people’s commitment to the island even more interesting. They were the ones who stayed after the volcano displaced thousands.

The two-month minimum doesn’t feel excessive, he added. Only in the second month “do you start to get going”.

Dr. Cort, the sociology professor, agreed that the minimum stay was part of the appeal. (His family stayed here for three months.)

“This pandemic gives people the opportunity to get to know people and places better,” said Dr. Cort, who usually lives in Laurel, Md.

There were advantages to being the only customers in restaurants. “You can just talk to the owners and they’ll tell you their stories,” he said.

In the evening the family strolled through Little Bay, which is to become the new capital of the island because the volcano has wiped out the original one. “It would be pretty deserted,” said Mr. Cort.

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

“I wouldn’t say it was a huge success,” said Clover Lea, who runs the small hotel Gingerbread Hill. She admitted that her answer was tinged by the fact that she wasn’t hiring remote workers.

Andrew Myers, who owns a dive shop, wondered why they only invited people who made more than $ 70,000. (Technically, the lead applicant has to make $ 70,000, but his family members can make less.)

“I don’t think that was the best choice,” he said. By lowering financial standards, the island might have attracted more applicants. Nevertheless, he stated that it “worked well” in the sense that “Montserrat stayed safe”.

How safe is unclear. There have been five coronavirus cases on the island this week, but all of them have been quarantined, according to Cherise Aymer, a spokeswoman for the premier’s tourism department’s office. In addition to the 21 tourists, technical workers and residents of Montserrat have come and gone during the pandemic. The Ministry of Health did not want to say if remote workers tested positive.

The residents seemed pleased to see new faces, the tourists said. But dr. Cort also met Montserratians who complained that family members from the nearby islands could not visit because the island had stopped ferry service. (Remote workers flew in.)

The parameters of this experiment will soon change. On October 1st, all tourists – if vaccinated – will be welcome on the island. The teleworker program will continue without a vaccination requirement. And while authorities did not publicize the change, the territory recently did not require a two-month minimum stay either, Ms. Aymer said. That means the island never has to wonder what to do if a tourist tries to leave before time runs out.


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