By Mickey from Casual Swinger for ASN Lifestyle Magazine
July 1, 2020
“We just want to work.”
This refrain is something heard repeatedly from around Jamaica when talking to citizens you encounter, including Edward, a contractor who took an odd job to stain a table in need of repair. “We stay at home for three month(s), waiting, but no virus come. No people come. We have no work without visitors. My table is empty,” he said. Edward and thousands of others like him supporting the immense tourism industry of Jamaica found themselves rendered idle once the COVID-19 crisis found its way to their shores.
Jamaica closed its borders to international travelers on March 21, 2020, slamming shut the doors of a country renowned throughout the world for its hospitality. A country of just shy of 3 million people, Jamaica is incredibly reliant on tourism for its ongoing prosperity. More than 25% of Jamaican citizens work in tourism, contributing 34% of the nation’s overall Gross Domestic Product. The resulting furloughs, spike in unemployment, and ongoing nature of COVID-19 have resulted in huge losses in virtually every category for the nation, it’s businesses, and citizens alike. While official data hasn’t been released, business owners like Harry Lange, CEO & owner of Hedonism Resorts, believe the impact has been severe. “I think it (the Jamaican economy) retracted more than the US or other countries, as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if unemployment jumped by 30% or more. Luckily the government recognized it of course, and they’re pushing hard to try to help us reopen, which we appreciate,” said Lange. While Lange’s Hedonism II resort generously provided a stipend covering much of employees' pay during the crisis, many Jamaicans were left to their own devices when the government’s 40% stipend ran out fairly shortly after it began. “When it closed for the COVID, everything get flatfooted, none of my guest come in,” said “Shell Boy,” a local entrepreneur selling shells and marijuana on the beach. “I have coconut in my yard, breadfruit, mango, I have lime. That is what I feed on waiting for my people to return.”
Jamaica's COVID-19 Stats & Conditions
In an interview with the IMF Country Focus, Jamaican Minister of Finance and the Public Service, Nigel Clarke, said, “As with most economies around the world, the Jamaican economy has been significantly impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy is expected to contract by over 5 percent this fiscal year. Furthermore, government revenues are expected to decline by double digits even as emergency health expenditures, as well as social and economic support expenditures, rise.” Jamaica requested assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the form of emergency financing in order to shore up cash reserves in support of the CARE program. CARE provides assistance to affected individuals, businesses, and employers who meet specific criteria in addition to providing necessary care for sick, elderly, and disabled persons already in distress prior to COVID-19.
Through diligence, public cooperation, and an aggressive campaign to educate and ensure compliance with directives, the island of Jamaica has recorded encouragingly low numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths. At the time of this article, only 684 cases were confirmed in Jamaica, with only 10 deaths. Of those cases, only 50 were in the tourism-heavy parishes of Westmoreland, St. James, and Hanover. As a result, on June 15, 2020, Jamaica re-opened its borders to international travelers, albeit with some significant restrictions. Per the United States Embassy, Jamaica’s requirements for entry and exit are as follows:
- Visit the Jamaica Tourist Board website to fill out a Travel Authorization Form. (https://www.visitjamaica.com)
- Visitors to Jamaica will be required to undergo a health screening and risk assessment. This will include:
- Checking the individual’s temperature
- Observation of symptoms
- Interview by health officer
- Visitors should expect to complete a COVID-19 test upon arrival. If the test is positive, or if visitors develop COVID-19 symptoms during quarantine, they should expect to be placed in mandatory isolation.
- Visitors to Jamaica are required to remain within the “COVID-19 Resilient Corridor,” a defined geographical area within Jamaica designed for tourism purposes.
- Visitors originating from New York, Texas, Florida, and Arizona are required to have a qualifying COVID-19 test within the previous 7-day period.
Upon entry, travelers' risk level is evaluated, and a potential 14-day quarantine is enforced (or for the duration of your stay, whichever is shorter). During that quarantine, guests are limited to the property they’ve registered with the government and asked not to travel off property for shopping, excursions, or meals. Travelers to Jamaica could also conceivably fall ill during their stay, and in those cases, tourists are asked to contact the Ministry of Health. In addition, they’ll be quarantined for the duration of their illness, ideally, in the same hotel, they’ve booked in areas designated for quarantine. At Hedonism II, those rooms are conveniently located on the far side of the resort, distant from the largest density of guests. “Guests who get sick during their stay will be moved to the quarantine rooms, which are the rooms on the prude side of the resort, furthest from the primary gathering areas. Those guests will be limited to their room and balcony, and food and drink will be delivered to them. Obviously, we hope we never need them, but we are making them available just in case,” said Lange.
The U.S. Embassy also provides information regarding potential quarantine, should it become necessary:
- Any travelers arriving to Jamaica and tested for COVID-19 will be asked to remain in quarantine at their hotel/resort until the test results are returned.
- Any travelers testing positive for COVID-19 will be isolated either at their hotel/resort or in a government facility as determined by health authorities.
Despite the potential challenges, guests are already flocking back to the island to celebrate and relax after a long shutdown in the United States. Before boarding her flight, Shelby from Florida stated, “We were supposed to go on a cruise in April. We booked Grand Cayman, and that got canceled. At that point, we were just looking for somewhere with open borders. We own a plumbing business; we needed a break. I know the government says to avoid non-essential travel, but we haven’t been on vacation in 14 months; I need to get out of this house… this is essential.” According to Angelica, a Miami based representative for American Airlines, flights to the island are running near-maximum capacity, with American Airlines introducing an artificial limit on occupancy at 85%. During flight 2994 from Miami to Montego Bay, this resulted in several empty middle seats, but unofficially, most were visibly occupied. In addition to compulsory face coverings on all American Airlines flights, these precautions have led to some unfortunate run-ins with angry customers. “There is no rhyme or reason to whether people comply with the new guidelines without a fuss. They have to understand that these measures are necessary for regular life to resume,” said Angelica. American Airlines has also taken the additional step of banning anyone refusing to wear a mask from future flights.
Some international passengers arriving may be familiar with the “Club MoBay” VIP experience. This service provides a staff member to escort you as a VIP throughout the arrival experience, customs, and a departure lounge with complimentary food and drinks. “We want to make sure the airport experience is seamless, flawless, and we want to make sure people are comfortable, relaxed, engaged, and have someone to help them navigate throughout the processes. We are the first and last impression of the island,” said Shelly-Ann Fung-King, CEO of Club MoBay & Club Kingston.
According to a June 30th report from the Jamaica Observer, on average, this month, 20 flights are expected into Jamaica, bringing a total of as many as 1,680 passengers, a vast increase over the 4-7 flights carrying roughly 400 passengers per day. Roughly 8,000 tourist applications have been processed via https://www.visitjamaica.com, with around 5,300 arriving for vacation. However, these numbers are due to spike as there are only four incoming flights on June 30th into Montego Bay, but 12 flights on July 1st and escalating to a maximum of 20 daily flights by the end of the month. This massive influx of travelers necessitates a change to the government's initial measures to best protect both travelers and the citizens of Jamaica.
The comments and actions taken on June 30th by the Prime Minister now include a number of additional measures starting July 10, 2020, for any travelers originating from “hot” states, specifically New York, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. These travelers will be required to upload a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or “nasal swab” test performed within the past seven days in order to be authorized for travel. In a short Q&A with an airport official, they stated that travelers on a layover in a hot area are not subject to the testing requirement, only passengers originating from these locations. In an interesting comment, the Prime Minister was careful to point out that a negative test does NOT guarantee entry into Jamaica for residents originating from these “hot” areas. This could potentially leave the door open for additional measures to be enforced against travelers from these zones, including possible prohibition, but Fung-King offered another possibility. “Passengers arriving who might have tested negative beforehand could arrive suffering from symptoms. Having that extra flexibility by reserving the right to deny entry may be an added layer of protection,” she said.
If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 shutdown in Jamaica, “Mr. Reasonable” transport operator and entrepreneur Linley Grant certainly seems to have found it. “One of the good thing(s) that happens to me with COVID is that I get to reunite with my community, and even with my family a little bit better. See, I never used to have that time with them because of work. It really damage(d) a lot of things from a financial perspective, but with a social point of view, it really helps me to unite back with my family, friends, and community,” said Grant. The reopening of Jamaica to international tourism will undoubtedly change the landscape for entrepreneurs like Mr. Grant and others, particularly when the most famous of Jamaica’s resorts, Hedonism II, reopens on July 1, 2020.
A Return to the Garden of Eden
In 1976, the Government of Jamaica invested 10 million dollars, unheard of at the time, to build a luxury resort with the intention of attracting visitors to the island. For six years, the resort operated under the name “Negril Beach Village,” before changing in 1982 to the name now known around the globe, Hedonism II. “There are lots of stories about how Hedonism II got its name. Early on, they ran an ad for Negril Beach Village that included a large headline reading, ‘Hedonism,’ with its definition below a woman's suggestive image. According to the poster, it means ‘Pleasure seeking as a way of life in a hidden Eden in the Caribbean,’” said Chris Santilli, author of The Naked Truth About Hedonism II. Another legend suggests that upon touring the lush, beautiful property early on that, a member of the Issa family (original owners of Hedonism II) suggested that “If God created the Garden of Eden, this must be Hedonism, too.” It’s a reasonable supposition that this legend holds some weight given that there was never a Hedonism I, despite many suggestions to the contrary. Today ownership of the resort rests primarily with Lange, longtime guest and frequent resident of this piece of paradise. “I can’t get enough of this place,” said Lange.
This modern-day Garden of Eden, despite being in paradise, was not immune to the shutdown and closed its doors on March 21st, 2020, in response to the border closing. “I was on one of the last flights out and one of the first flights in. I was concerned about the staff, but fortunately, we were able to pay over 250 of our full-time employees, 90% of their base pay,” added Lange. The resort enjoys a number of repeat guests who have been coming to Hedonism II for many years. One such guest, Howard Harinstein, has been coming for more than 39 years and took it upon himself to assist with ensuring the staff’s ability to endure.
A GoFundMe started by Harinstein’s fellow longtime guest Eric Henley raised $50,000 for food and resources for contractors and part-time staff members during the crisis. “Eric worked the front line for the pandemic, so I decided I would help. I had many friends working at the hotel since I was a multiple repeat guest for over 39 years. I kept posting articles every day, featuring the funds' need since the (contract) employees were not paid after March 18th. In the first 3 weeks, we raised almost $20,000. Our final total with direct deposits was around $50,000,” said Harinstein. Joe Canino, founder of the largest Facebook community dedicated to the resort, “Our Favorite Jamaican Vacation Place,” added his support to the effort early on as well. “They love our staff just like I do,” said Lange. He continued on, saying, “I’m going to continue this for another month or two out of my own pocket to make sure people get back on their feet. I want to do what we think is right.”
Despite the efforts, reopening the resort won’t be an immediate return to normal life, with many employees working only three days per week and some employees not returning to work until September. “We have to give thanks; we are back to working even though it’s not full-time. Something is better than nothing; we have to stay positive and be ready to welcome our guests back to Jamaica,” said Paulette, a longtime bartender for Hedonism II. The summer months are typically among the slower months at Hedonism, with the exception of July due to some larger groups seizing the opportunity for summer vacation. Hedonism General Manager Kevin Levee suggested the rest of the summer will be slower as Jamaica determines the impact of reopening their border to visitors on their nation’s health. Around the globe, swinging lifestyle and other guests weigh the risks of international travel. He also expressed optimism in his belief that things would return to normal by the September-October timeframe in terms of overall guest volume.
Transports to Hedonism II have long been a revered part of the experience. Tales from the bus include stories of friendships that begin as wary passengers eyeball each other, wondering which resort they’ll hop off at or if they’ll join the “zoo” that is Hedonism II. Trips back to Montego Bay are often filled with tales from the week’s festivities and the more than occasional “Oh my god, did you see when…?” “The bus is a big part of the Hedo experience,” said Tricia-Ann Bicarie, Director of Sales & Marketing for Sun Holiday. “It’s the first time you get to meet some of the people you’ll be spending some of the best days of your life with here in Jamaica,” she said. Sun Holiday has been hard at work achieving government certification for cleanliness and operations for all of their buses pending reopening. “All of our buses are cleaned before and after carrying passengers, and drivers wear masks for their and our customers' protection,” said Bicarie. Some guests prefer to use a private carrier such as Mr. Reasonable, not only for their personal service but for enhanced insurance in the event of a mishap. “I carry much more insurance than the law requires,” said Grant. “I want my customer to know I make sure there will be no problem in the event of an accident. I carry 2 million dollars in coverage with Nationwide,” he continued.
Walking up the steps to the guest arrival area has historically been a celebratory experience, with guests greeted by throngs of smiling employees bellowing “welcome home” as they cheerfully greet friends new and old. Future guests will observe an equally enthusiastic team of employees, instead donning masks and a friendly elbow or fist bump in lieu of the customary hug. The arrivals desk is festooned with plastic shields, dividing the employees and guests a bit further. “We smile with our eyes,” said Resort Manager Donna Grant. Peppered throughout the resort are sanitation stations filled with hand sanitizer, encouraging guests to look out for their own safety by maintaining clean hands. The dining room tables are spaced evenly at six feet distances, and table seating has been reduced at the three premium restaurants around the resort to encourage social distancing. “It’s still Hedo,” said Lange. He continued, “People will be encouraged to socially distance in the gathering areas, maintain clean hands, and will be given the option to wear masks. But it IS Hedo, and when you find someone you want to get close with, we won’t stop you.”
In light of the government's protocols, certain aspects of life at Hedonism II will be different from experiences of the past. Massage & spa services, for example, will be provided by staff members wearing masks, including the Kama Sutra Palace. Beds in the palace used for classes are already placed at six-foot distances and don’t require additional considerations. Other Hedonism staples such as the Piano Bar are open as usual, including the all-new marijuana dispensary opening July 1st. Still, guests will notice occupancy limits posted on all indoor spaces. Early guests to Hedonism II will see a litany of construction projects still underway, including a multi-use deck being constructed in the waterslide's former location, between the cool pools and cabanas just off the main dining room. Tiles have been replaced in all pools, and years of paint are being removed from the floors in many areas, to be replaced by non-slip paint on all surfaces. “We set aside $500,000 US for projects that we’d really have had a hard time completing with guests on property. Things like paving the pathways between areas of the resort, which were really rough. Coffee, pastry, and luggage carts moving about the resort in the mornings won’t make nearly so much noise now, and it’s far easier on your feet,” said Lange.
Around the island, tourists seeking the thrill of adventure have been found wanting in light of the prohibition on activity companies, which was recently extended to July 30, 2020. Companies like Urban Development Corporation, owner and operator of Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, remain closed pending approval from the government to resume operations. These prohibitions don’t affect Hedonism’s ability to offer their legendary “Cat Cruises,” which are catamaran cruises at sunset, operated by Island Charter Company, LTD. (ICC). “We are still able to offer cruises as long as they begin and end at Hedonism,” said Brandon Paxton, Operations Manager for ICC. “We’re excited to welcome guests back to Jamaica and show them our hard work during these difficult months. We’ve been painting and repairing our boats, and even replaced two of the engines on ‘Tortuga,” one of our large catamarans,” he added. Watersports at Hedonism are the ultimate form of social distancing, with the wide-open spaces of Orange Bay, a sprawling playground for adventurous Hedonists. While no additional prohibitions exist on watersports due to COVID-19, snorkeling and SCUBA diving trips may see a reduction in occupancy limits to allow for social distancing on the boats.
The Days Ahead
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on commerce, health, travel, and lives around the planet. The proud, passionate people of Jamaica are no different. Still, they’re furiously preparing for the guests' return their legendary reputation for hospitality is built upon, albeit as safely as possible amidst the ongoing pandemic. From Montego Bay to the tourist village of Negril, all the way to Kingston, officials and employees alike are working to ensure protocols are followed while still allowing you to enjoy a long overdue vacation to the beautiful beaches, beautiful culture, and storied history of the island nation of Jamaica. While the situation is still evolving daily, government officials seem committed to providing honest guidance regularly, not only to help travelers decide to return to Jamaica but to know what is expected of them so they can do so safely. During these early days, it’s safe to suggest that delays will be commonplace in the airports, resorts, and activities as everyone becomes acclimated to the protocols, ideally becoming more efficient as time goes on.
More than anything, the days ahead will tell another story for travelers and the people of Jamaica; a story of resilience, positivity, love, and loyalty as travelers near and far return to Jamaica and Hedonism II to escape the tribulations of daily life, family, and social discourse. At Hedonism II, they’ll find passion, kindness, service, and sometimes fantasy, all part of the legendary reputation the resort has earned over 40 years in the making.
Jamaica’s visitors will come back to re-discover a world once again as it should be, where “one love” conquers all.
Mickey is co-host of The Casual Swinger Podcast, a bi-weekly entertainment broadcast celebrating the lifestyle, sex-positivity, and better relationships. Tune in anywhere you listen to podcasts or visit them on the web at https://www.casualswinger.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of ASN Lifestyle Magazine.