Adina Eigen made her maiden voyage to the British Virgin Islands in December 2020. Around that time, it had one of the world’s lowest Covid rates among islands that had reopened.
The 42-year-old mother of four from Sands Point, New York, has since returned twice and checked infection rates and vaccination statistics before her travels.
“Oil Nut Bay staff are fully vaccinated,” she said of the luxury resort where her family stayed. “The property is not accessible by land and is being watched very closely by sea.”
The British Virgin Islands are part of an increasing number of Caribbean destinations that are attracting vaccinated travelers, while proving less attractive to unvaccinated people.
Along with Barbados and St. Lucia, the British Virgin Islands will only allow unvaccinated travelers if they are quarantined for a specified period of time. Evidence shows that few are willing to do so, especially when they have other options in the Caribbean that don’t require quarantine or vaccine certificates.
The relative strictness or flexibility of entry requirements in the Caribbean is changing travel trends in the region. Unvaccinated travelers flock to the islands that let them in, while the vaccinated want places that keep unimmunized people out.
Vaccinated travelers only
At least seven Caribbean countries and territories have announced mandatory vaccination policies for inbound adult travelers: Anguilla, Grenada, St. Barts, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, as well as the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands are planning to admit vaccinated travelers from September 9 to October 13 during the third phase of the structured reopening. After that, the territory will be allowed to let in unvaccinated travelers if they are quarantined for 14 days.
Security is cited as the main reason for the requirement, but such a policy can also be good for business.
Marketing technology firm Zeta Global analyzed site traffic to several islands’ major tourism websites after they announced vaccine-only policies, said Eric Bamberger, senior vice president of hospitality at Zeta Global.
After the announcements, travel interest increased among all:
- Grenada – up 25%
- St. Kitts and Nevis — an increase of 26%
- Cayman Islands – 44% higher
- Anguilla – up 59%
The data showed two trends emerging in the Caribbean, Bamberger said.
“People are more interested in traveling to islands where vaccination protocols are in place,” he said. “And their interest among other islands without vaccination protocols is waning.”
Data from travel marketing company Adara points to enthusiasm for vaccine-only entry policies. Searches and bookings surged when Trinidad and Tobago announced it would reopen only to immunized travelers — and when the policy was implemented.
Adventure travel company Intrepid Travel sees a preference for more restricted destinations, said Matt Berna, the company’s president for North America.
“We have found that our customers are more interested in traveling to Caribbean destinations with stricter and stricter policies and travel restrictions related to Covid-19,” he said.
For example, one of the most popular trips booked by North Americans, “none of our trips in Mexico are in the top 20,” he said. Mexico has mild Covid protocols, but Intrepid Travel does not. Beginning Sept. 1, all travelers and tour guides at the company must be vaccinated, Berna said.
Eigen told CNBC that she considered going to Mexico at one point, but found it “scary” to visit a country with few restrictions.
“I have been vaccinated and would like to go to an island where only vaccinated people are allowed,” she said, a view echoed by several travelers who spoke to CNBC.
Caribbean authorities respond positively to the policy.
“Our arrival figures are consistent and occupancy rates continue to improve,” said Petra Roach, the CEO of Grenada Tourism Authority.
Turks and Caicos prepared for mixed feedback when it announced its policy earlier this month, said Jamell R. Robinson, the island’s minister of health and human services.
“However, we have received a tremendously encouraging overall response from new and existing visitors,” he said. “We expect this to have a positive effect on bookings in the long term.”
No vaccine needed
Unlike islands that have relatively strict policies, places like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the US Virgin Islands have admission policies based on testing rather than vaccines.
Data from Adara suggests that interest in travel to the Dominican Republic was highest before other Caribbean islands introduced vaccination mandates early this summer. Most travelers to the Dominican Republic are not required to present a negative test, but some will be subjected to Covid-19 breath tests on arrival.
As vaccination coverage increased in the island’s main markets, namely the United States and Canada, travel interest declined. The number of Covid infections in the Dominican Republic fell from June to August, but interest and searches did not recover accordingly.
Site traffic increased in June and July to the top tourism websites for Jamaica and the Bahamas, but visitors spent less time searching and clicking on fewer pages, says Bamberger of Zeta Global.
“These trends show that … travelers still have hesitant feelings about traveling to areas without vaccination policies,” he said.
Similar sentiments may apply to travelers’ desire to fly. A study by the financial website FinanceBuzz published this month indicates that more people would fly (48%) if airlines required vaccinations than the number that disapproves of such a policy (27%).
Line in the sand
These figures suggest that islands with lenient protocols — i.e. islands without quarantine or vaccine mandates — are likely to attract unvaccinated travelers and deter vaccinated travelers.
“Vaccinated people want to vacation in places with stricter requirements so they don’t mix with unvaccinated people,” said Carolyn Corda, Adara’s chief marketing officer.
CNBC asked the Dominican Republic, Bahamas and Jamaica about the percentage of inbound travelers who have not been vaccinated. The Bahamas said they could not provide that figure. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have not responded to CNBC’s request.
Puerto Rico’s tourism authority, Discover Puerto Rico, has said the island has a vaccine mandate, although it does not have one.
Discover Puerto Rico’s website says “vaccinations are required” for guests and employees in the hotels, vacation homes, restaurants and bars. Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO separately confirmed the vaccine “mandate” to CNBC.
But a closer look at Puerto Rico’s restrictions shows that a Covid negative test on arrival and weekly negative tests after that are sufficient without a vaccine. Asked for clarification, a Discover Puerto Rico representative told CNBC that “the ‘mandate’ refers to the need for vaccination or frequent negative tests.”
Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO Brad Dean said vaccination rates among travelers to Puerto Rico rose from 9% in May to 58% in August.