Montserrat’s bold tourist experience during the coronavirus pandemic

Every day at noon, a melodic chime echoes across the Caribbean island of Montserrat. For nearly two months, Krystal Bajkor, a visitor from North Carolina, assumed it was a clock marking the hour.

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

Then, in June, her husband, a management consultant, learned that the pleasant-sounding “clock” was, in fact, a daily test of the volcanic warning system. The Soufriere Hills volcano, which buried large swathes of the island in rocks and ash in the late 1990s, continues to be active, producing a cloud of hot gas, which appears to hover overhead from its crater.

The meaning of the chime is one of those things Ms Bajkor might have missed had she been a typical tourist. Before the pandemic, most visitors to Montserrat floated for perhaps a day, anchoring their sailboats in the harbor or leaving the ferry for a hike before returning to nearby Antigua for the night.

Now, for a tourist to set foot on the black sand beaches of Montserrat, she must pass a rigorous background check and earn at least $ 70,000 a year. Until recently, she also had to commit to sticking around for at least two months. In return, visitors have almost exclusive access not only to beaches, but also to an alternate reality, roughly the size of Manhattan, where the coronavirus does not appear to exist.

Shortly after British territory detected its first cases of coronavirus in March 2020, it closed its borders to tourists. In April 2021, it cautiously reopened with the remote work program, forcing vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors to self-quarantine for two weeks, then take a coronavirus test before exploring the island. So far, 21 travelers from seven families have participated.

The island is certainly not alone in devising creative ways to attract visitors during the pandemic. Countries around the world have designed and redesigned a wide variety of systems to try to get money in without endangering the health of local people. Malta bans unvaccinated tourists from more than 30 countries, but provides hotel vouchers to visitors deemed safe. As of September 19, Israel began allowing tourists to enter, but only if they are vaccinated and are traveling in groups of more than five people.

Many Caribbean islands have attempted to attract remote workers with “digital nomadic 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 experiences, as the island has chosen to reverse the standard length of a visa – the maximum length of stay for a person -, requiring a visit instead. minimal. It’s also unusual because while other islands have emphasized how much they want to make it easier for remote workers to visit, Montserrat has seemed proud to have struggled to reach its bubble of around 5,000, where few carry masks or lock their doors.

“They are very selective about who they let in,” said David Cort, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who spent three months working at Montserrat with his wife, a risk analyst. trip, and their daughter.I was told that in fact, they refused people.

As to whether the program benefited the island, it depends on who you ask. What everyone agrees is that the stakes are high. 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, noted: “It’s always a challenge when we don’t have enough people coming to our island.” Before the pandemic, local businesses counted between 18,000 and 21,000 tourists per year, according to the tourism authority.

But the most urgent is, of course, the virus. As of September 15, 33 people had tested positive in the previous 18 months, according to the health ministry. In April 2020, long before tourists were allowed to visit, an infected person died. Since only around 23% of the population has been fully vaccinated, it is widely believed that if the virus ricocheted across the island, the medical system could not handle it. If that happens, it could delay Montserrat for several years. The volcanic eruption wiped out two-thirds of the island’s population. He recovered, but slowly.

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

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

“I remember around the start of the pandemic, I was like, man, I wonder if there are places in the world that don’t deal with this madness,” Ms. Bajkor said. In Montserrat, she believes she found such a place. She was able to take luxurious maskless breaths at art exhibitions and drop her two children off at daycare without fear of the virus.

“There is nothing that can kill you here except the volcano,” she concluded.

During the first two weeks, visitors retreated to their rented villas. You couldn’t access a rental car until the quarantine ended, said Patrick Bennett, whose family visited in May and June.

“They are watching you,” he said. “Every now and then you hear a car go by slowly.”

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

Mr. Bennett runs a travel website called Uncommon Caribbean, which focuses on places off the beaten path. Even for him, living on an island without tourists was a novelty. What he found even more interesting was the commitment of the locals to the island. They are the ones who remained after the volcano ousted thousands of people.

The two-month minimum did not seem excessive, he added. It is only from the second month “that you start to get to the heart of the matter”.

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

“This pandemic gives people the opportunity to know people and places more intimately,” said Dr Cort, who normally resides in Laurel, Maryland.

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

In the evening, the family took a walk in Little Bay, which is expected to become the island’s new capital because the volcano wiped out the first. “It would be pretty deserted,” Cort said.

But there is worse than a low population density during a pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say this has been a huge success,” said Clover Lea, who runs Gingerbread Hill, a small hotel. She admitted that her answer was influenced by the fact that she had not hosted any teleworkers.

Andrew Myers, who owns a dive shop, wondered why only people who won over $ 70,000 were invited. (Technically, the principal applicant must earn $ 70,000, but their family members may earn less.)

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

The degree of security is not clear. As of this week, there have been five cases of the coronavirus on the island, but all were people in quarantine, according to Cherise Aymer, spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office of the tourism division. Beyond the 21 tourists, technical workers and residents of Montserrat have also come and gone during the pandemic. The Department of Health declined to say whether remote workers tested positive.

Residents seemed delighted to see new faces, tourists said. But Dr Cort also met some Montserratians who lamented that family members could not come from neighboring islands because the island had cut ferry service off. (Remote workers have arrived.)

The parameters of this experiment will change soon. On October 1, all tourists – if vaccinated – will be welcome on the island. The teleworker program will continue without compulsory vaccination. And although authorities have not widely announced the change, the territory has also recently stopped requiring a minimum stay of two months, Ms Aymer said. This means that the island will never have to wonder what to do if a tourist tries to leave before the end of their time.

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