Statement by Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
Premier of the Virgin Islands and Minister of Finance
3rd September, 2021
Cruise Passengers and BVIGateway Entry Protocol Update
Good day and God's Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands and beyond.
We are now 18 months into the worst pandemic to hit the world in over 100 years. And by the Grace of God, and the cooperation of all our people – our public officers, our health personnel, persons in law enforcement and other agencies, the business community, and other members of the public – and with the support of many persons and agencies outside of the Territory, the Virgin Islands has been able to manage through the COVID-19 crisis thus far.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on our economy and our people. During the course of the pandemic so far, we have seen more than 2,600 recorded infections in the Territory and 37 tragic deaths – driven in particular by a recent spike that involved community spread.
Again, we continue to offer our sympathies to those who have lost loved ones and we continue to pray for them.
We also continue to offer our prayers for the now 66 persons currently battling COVID-19 and the seven persons who are hospitalized. We wish them a speedy recovery. While this Government does not intend to make vaccinations mandatory, we strongly recommend everyone to be vaccinated.
Our active positive COVID-19 cases are beginning to rise once again. We encourage everyone to do their part and adhere to all approved health and social measures at all times.
We encourage all persons who are not vaccinated to urgently do so. Please take your first or second jab at the regular approved vaccination sites on all the islands. Also take advantage of the drive-thru this Saturday on the festival grounds from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Let’s all play our part and play it well. Only through these efforts can we contain this virus.
As your Government, we have always emphasized that one of the greatest challenges of this pandemic has been balancing lives with livelihoods. We have made all our decisions on the basis of the advice of the medical professionals and the technical officers in the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies.
Our goal has always been to minimize any burden and inconvenience to all our residents, Belongers, Virgin Islanders and our valued visitors.
Vaccines, protocols and restrictions, are all part of the toolkit for facilitating economic activity while managing the health risks under the New Regular of living and working with COVID-19, which is not over and which did not come with any playbook.
As the scientific and technological breakthroughs are made, like all countries, we have been able to continuously adjust our COVID-19 management strategy to facilitate the increased reopening and re-expansion of business activity.
Of course, as the COVID-19 situation evolves with outbreaks in other countries and on our shores, and also with the emergence of variants of concern, we – like everyone else – have had to adjust our protocols and measures accordingly.
Your Government and all our Departments and Agencies have always been mindful of our economy’s - and our people’s – dependence on tourism; and in providing convenient and friendly access to our visitors who are the life-blood of our tourism industry and our economy.
We have also been mindful of the needs and constraints of our citizens and residents who also need to travel abroad for various reasons.
Again, we have always tried to make the process for travelling in and out of the Virgin Islands as comfortable and affordable to everyone while ensuring that everything necessary and reasonable is done to balance the public health risks.
We do not want our residents and citizens to get sick from COVID-19 or to lose their life or their health. We do not want our visitors to come to the Virgin Islands and feel or be unsafe. And at the very same time, we want the economy to fully reopen and become fully re-energized.
Throughout it all, your Government has been listening to all our stakeholders in all the industries across all our islands – from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke.
We have taken the positive feedback, and we have also embraced negative feedback as valuable information for continual improvement. Negative comments and complaints, to us, are constructive criticism because that is the only way you can find out what is working for the people we serve and the users of our systems and processes. Therefore, this feedback is vital for identifying what, and where improvements must be made.
Additionally, as you know, we have been in discussions with our partners in the cruise industry. We can all appreciate the complexity of bringing large numbers of persons into the Territory and having them moving to the various locations, entering business places and taxis, and interacting with persons.
By now, we are all fully aware of the increased risk that persons who are partially-vaccinated and unvaccinated may be exposed to generally and specifically as it relates to welcoming large numbers of visitors.
We are also all fully aware that a large segment of our population and many of our businesses depend directly and indirectly on tourism as a whole and on cruise tourism as a sub-sector. We are also aware that our economy and Government revenues depend heavily on tourism as a whole and on cruise tourism as a segment.
Finally, we are also aware that global and regional tourism is highly competitive – and has been growing increasingly more competitive even before COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic on economies has further heightened the competition among destinations.
The situation therefore means that we have choices to make and we must try and strike the balance where there can be livelihoods and where lives are protected. And we have to do that while balancing the positive benefits for the economy while mitigating against the risks to the economy.
Our cruise partners have expressed to us what the dynamics of their industry dictate. Certain things, they say, are just not viable.
On our side, as a country and an economy, there are things that are viable and things that are not.
Our challenge is to find the combination of measures that can work for everyone.
Our cruise partners have put forward their perspective of how certain COVID-19 testing protocols can work and how others cannot work. In looking at what they have said, we in the Virgin Islands have relied on the advice of our health and other technical officers who are guided by the science and the best practice in their respective fields.
Your Government has considered the proposals and positions put forward by all the stakeholders – local and abroad; again relying heavily on the professional advice of our health and other technical officers.
We are also very careful to note that some of what has been proposed only works when all the rules and guidelines are followed and when everyone does what they are supposed to do.
In considering all the facts, all the information and the advice received, Cabinet met on Wednesday, 1 September, 2021 and agreed to a revised policy for amending the Arrival Testing Requirement for Cruise Tourism.
In arriving at the revised policy, your Government has consulted with stakeholders and we have considered the practical aspects as well as customer experience which is critical for successful operation of our tourism industry.
By Memo No. 347/2021, Cabinet decided on 1 September, 2021, as follows:
- to amend Statutory Instrument No 67 of 2021 Covid-19 Control and Suppression (Entry of Persons) (No. 3) (Amendment) 12 June, 2021 to remove the requirement for rapid testing for fully-vaccinated Cruise ship Passengers and Crew visiting the Territory for less than 24 hours, subject to enhanced COVID-19 protocols, including passenger bubbles and enhanced COVID-19 monitoring and enforcement.
- to assign a Task Force, headed by the Director of the BVI Tourist Board to develop, implement and enforce a Cruise Ship Bubble Operation Plan and to report its contents to the Cabinet in one (1) week.
- that cruise liners in transit to the Virgin Islands, that subject their fully-vaccinated passengers and crew to rapid tests within 24 hours of arrival, would not be subjected to the bubble protocol and would be allowed to move freely within the Territory.
I repeat – only fully-vaccinated passengers and crew who have tested negative with a rapid test within 24 hours of arrival in the Virgin Islands would be allowed to move about outside of the bubble protocol.
Cabinet also agreed:
- that cruise ship passengers wishing not to be a part of the bubble and be allowed to move freely within the Territory will be subject to an approved rapid test with results available within five (5) minutes.
- that as a matter of precaution, all Cruise Ships prior to entering the BVI and being cleared to berth at the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park or any other designated anchorage at one of the Sister Islands, must report any passengers on board the ship who are ill, especially with COVID-19 symptoms, or have tested positive prior to arrival.
- that the BVI Ports Authority, BVI Tourist Board, the Taxi and Livery Commission, Environmental Health Division, along with other Government Agencies be tasked to ensure that all Government protocols are adhered to by all disembarking passengers, taxi operators, all business operators especially those at the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park.
- that the BVI Tourist Board, in collaboration with the BVI Ports Authority, develop and implement a vigorous public relations campaign to heighten the vigilance of the public and to keep them informed.
- that every two weeks from the arrival of the first cruise ship during the restart of the cruise ship season, all taxi operators and businesses and Government agencies that interact with the passengers and crew of the ships who participated in the bubble or free-flow will undergo a rapid test, the cost of which shall be borne by the Government of the Virgin Islands as a pilot for a period of three (3) months, in an attempt to secure the safety of our residents while balancing lives with livelihood.
- that the Ministry of Health and Social Development instruct the Attorney General's Chambers to draft the amendment to SI No 67 of 2021 Covid-19 Control and Suppression (Entry of Persons) (No.3) (Amendment) in accordance to the item (a) and (b) above.
We must bear in mind that the crew and passengers on these vessels are fully-vaccinated and undergoing regular COVID-19 testing including less than 24 hours before arrival and disembarkation in the Virgin Islands. This in itself presents two levels of screening before these passengers arrive in the Virgin Islands.
We must also remember that, as I have said, we will be using a bubble system, which will have its benefits; and that passengers who do not wish to participate in the bubble will be required to be tested on disembarkation.
I must also remind all our establishments, all our taxi and tour operators and all our frontline staff that it is important to follow the recommended protocols such as regular sanitizing of vehicles and frequently touched surfaces, wearing of masks, social distancing and so forth.
We all want this to be a success. We do not want any incident that will force us to roll back our revised policy. We want the industry to remain open. We want our people back to work in as safe an environment as humanly possible.
We would all recall that cruise calls resumed in June 2021, but had to be halted when we experienced the major outbreak in June-July, and we had to reintroduce curfews and restrictions.
Let us all do our respective parts to ensure we do not have to go through that again for any reason.
Additionally, over the past recent weeks, persons have petitioned your Government that the BVIGateway Portal – which is the online system for obtaining approval to enter the Virgin Islands by air or sea – was cumbersome.
I want to reassure you that we appreciate your feedback and your patience.
Your Government listened to what you, the public, had to say and we committed to doing whatever is feasible to improve the convenience and the experience of gaining approval to enter the Virgin Islands.
We met with the various stakeholders in the approval process including the developers on the entry portal and health authorities, on 23 August, 2021, and charted a way forward.
The way forward involves making some changes to the BVIGateway Portal which we hope will improve the ease of use of the system for our residents and visitors.
We agreed to immediately remove the Custom and Immigration forms from the BVIGateway entry portal. This would reduce the amount of time persons spend completing their applications.
We are progressing to automate the process for fully-vaccinated persons to get their approvals. The relevant officials have already taken steps for the modifications to be made to the portal.
Under the previous system, all applications – for fully-vaccinated travelers, partially-vaccinated travelers and unvaccinated travelers – were processed manually by a team of persons from various Departments.
Over the past few months, the volume of applications from persons wanting to travel into the Virgin Islands has increased significantly, and this would have contributed to longer processing times on occasions.
One major contributor to delays in the system has been where some travellers would upload incorrect or incomplete information and documents. There have been a high volume of instances where persons submitted travel insurance that did not show coverage for COVID-19.
A high number of persons submitted results for COVID-19 tests that are not approved such as saliva and antibody tests. We have had problems with persons submitting the incorrect vaccination cards or claiming to be fully-vaccinated when they were not. These are just some of the issues that slowed down the system.
Delays would be caused when members of the BVIGateway team would have to spend additional time assisting these persons to correct their documentation.
And may I point out that members of the BVIGateway team have been going above and beyond to assist persons – whether residents and Virgin Islanders or foreign visitors – to obtain travel authorization so that they can return home or come to the Virgin Islands for vacation.
Now, with the application process for fully-vaccinated persons being automated, fully-vaccinated persons will be able to get their Travel Authorization Certificate automatically once they have uploaded their documents correctly at the time of registration. The system will automatically generate the Travel Authorization Certificate instead of it being done manually as was the case in the past.
I must emphasize that although the system is automated for fully-vaccinated travellers, random review of approved applications will be made to further verify documentation. If any discrepancies are found, the approval will be immediately revoked.
Additionally, travelers must note that they are required to present proof of vaccination, negative result for a valid and approved COVID-19 test, and their Gateway Travel Authorization upon arrival.
Failure to provide authentic documentation will result in penalties of up to $10,000.
Remember, fully-vaccinated persons must have a negative result for an approved rapid antigen test or RT PCR test that is no older than 5 days upon their arrival in the Virgin Islands.
Unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated persons will still be processed manually within an 8-hour window but these represent only 5 to 10% of the overall traffic through the Gateway.
Therefore, once the unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated passenger has submitted all the required documents to complete their application, they should be able to get a faster turnaround on their application within eight hours. Unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated persons must have a negative result for an approved RT PCR test that is no older than 5 days upon their arrival in the Virgin Islands.
I urge all intended travelers to complete their applications in a timely manner.
To further improve the user-friendliness of the BVIGateway Portal, pop-up boxes will be integrated on the site for passengers to verify that they have the requisite documents.
Again, I must re-emphasize that a penalty notice will be issued to persons for uploading false or fraudulent RT PCR test results, vaccination cards or other documents. The penalty for submitting false or fraudulent documents is still US$10,000.
We are working to ensure that all systems are streamlined so the entire process is easy to use. All Government agencies are coordinating to improve logistics at our ports of entry.
We will support these efforts with a robust public relations and awareness campaign on the usage of the portal.
With the above measures in place, I wish to reiterate that the Virgin Islands continues to remain a welcoming destination.
All these adjustments are being worked on with the greatest of urgency. By next Monday evening, I would be able to give a further update, especially on the projected timeframe for the completion and implementation of each area of adjustment mentioned, plus additional areas that may arise.
It is your Government’s sincere hope, as I am sure it is for all residents and citizens, that these adjustments, both for cruise passengers and local and foreign air and sea travelers, will improve the convenience and ease of travelling into the Virgin Islands, and that they will help our tourism industry and the rest of our economy, to push into overdrive – especially with the new tourist season around the corner.
I also urge everyone to continue working together and doing their respective part to keep the Territory moving forward with the rebooting of our economy and our industry under the New Regular of living and working with COVID-19.
I know we all want the economy to fully reopen, for all persons to be able to earn their livelihood and for all our businesses to rebound and recover. So let us all recommit ourselves to making this a success.
I thank you and may God continue to bless and protect these beautiful Virgin Islands and her people.