THE Department of Tourism is as concerned as everyone else about the rise in the number of COVID cases nationally and the nervousness about the increasing evidence of a COVID presence at hotel properties, but its Permanent Secretary is urging caution in arriving at conclusions and inviting Saint Lucians to also do much more to observe protocols while the ministry doubles-down on ensuring adherence to implementation and enforcement across the tourism industry.
Indicating the current January spike is likely to increase following the several protocol violations during the Christmas and new year holidays, Chief Medical Officer Dr Sharon Belmar George had earlier noted there were 1,429 persons in institutional and home quarantine in December, but there were also many violations during the holiday period, which helped contribute to the current rise, leaving the possibility of a steeper rise as the month continues.
Permanent Secretary Donalyn Vittet said the ministry shared the national concerns, but wanted each citizen to see himself or herself as part of the fight because it involves everyone and not only visitors and guests at hotels.
She told the national COVID update on Thursday that her department had upgraded its related actions with unannounced “spot checks” being made on approved properties, which were also required to have special emergency rooms available for caring for positive cases among visitors and staff.
She said too that there was “a high level of cooperation from the hotels regarding surveillance and protocols adherence”, but “no new guests” are being allowed at the property concerned and those there are unable to leave unless heading to the airport for flight out.
Vittet also noted, however, that apart from the hotel sector, others in the industry were equally guilty of breaching protocols, including tourism taxi drivers taking guests to unapproved locations, one of the reasons the car rentals sector and tourism taxi driver operations have not yet been approved for resumption. But in all cases, she assured, the reported breaches were addressed.
She said her ministry was equally concerned about hotel workers’ safety as visitors and measures being implemented were “very strict”, announcing that “bio stickers” and other instruments will soon be available to help in the COVID fight at hotels and everywhere else.
But the PS also had some very good news, indicating that more visitors were coming despite the crisis, with 14,000 arriving in December, representing a 45% increase over the same period last year, which she said is the result of Saint Lucia’s popularity as a destination and its entry protocols.
She said too that the industry is also making a remarkable revival with 7,252 tourism sector workers back on the job and at least one property – Blue Hotel – adding 76 new rooms to the closed property now being renovated for opening later this year.
The Permanent Secretary said there was also increasing interest from Saint Lucians in the Diaspora in investing in tourism here, with many also inquiring about entry protocols for locals returning home or persons wanting to remain on island for more than 14 days.
Vittet said her Department appreciated the national anxiety for a return to normalcy, but urged Saint Lucians to understand that in this situation, “it’s not only about livelihoods, but all about lives,” which is why “we have to be sticklers in our insistence on obedience to the protocols.”