With travel to much of the world from America still shut down, countries in the Caribbean and Latin America are counting on their relative proximity to the United States (meaning short flights) and appeal as outdoor destinations (meaning social distancing) to restart tourism.
“We have a very interesting competitive advantage in these Covid times because we have such a natural setting, with over 30 percent of our land surface as protected areas,” said Ivan Eskildsen, Panama’s minister for tourism. That country reopened its borders to Americans Oct. 12.
Most of the newly reopened destinations are requiring visitors to show negative coronavirus test results before entry. That has airlines, as well as airport-based testing services, jumping in: American Airlines announced that it will offer preflight testing for travelers bound to the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Jamaica from some airports beginning this month.
If testing is not enough to reassure tourists, the countries are using tactics like restricting visitor numbers, limiting where they can go and requiring medical insurance.
Many of the region’s resorts and hotels are relying on an old-fashioned strategy: deals, from 20 percent off in Mexico to room upgrades in Costa Rica. Resorts “are offering much more attractive rates, many discarding their three- to six-month cancellations and eliminating minimum stays,” said Jack Ezon, the founder of the New York City-based travel agency Embark Beyond.
The region usually sees a slowdown in visitors in the fall and destinations are taking advantage of the slower visitor traffic to prepare for the traditionally busy December holidays and what they hope will be a return to more normal tourist numbers in 2021.
“It gives them a runway for a soft opening before bigger crowds come in peak season,” said Rob Harper, the co-owner of the Panama-based agency Namu Travel.
The gradual approach reflects a lesson learned over the summer when the Bahamas reopened, only to backtrack as coronavirus cases spiked. Other destinations in the region are taking a piecemeal approach, including Curacao, which recently allowed in American travelers from Florida, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut only. Still others, like the Cayman Islands have not announced dates for restarting leisure travel.
Here’s how five tropical countries are handling reopening. All but Mexico have received the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travel certification for implementing public health protocols, including hotel staff training in Covid-19 prevention.
The Bahamas: Triple testing
Across the 700 islands of the Bahamas, new rules instituted this month take a cautious approach to reopening, with the focus on testing: All travelers over age 10 must submit negative results from a coronavirus test taken no more than five days before arrival and apply for a visa at a government website that includes a health checklist. Until Oct. 31, travelers must “vacation in place” at their resort or rental for up to 14 days, a restriction that will be lifted Nov. 1.
After that, the negative test must be no more than seven days old and visitors will be subject to a rapid antigen test on arrival (or at the Miami airport for American Airlines passengers). Anyone staying longer than four days will be subject to a second and final antigen test four days after arrival.
“We do hope these new protocols will afford peace of mind for travelers seeking to book a trip for the holidays and beyond,” Joy Jibrilu, the director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation, wrote in an email.
Still, the Bahamas’ largest resorts, Atlantis Paradise Island and Baha Mar, as well as the islands’ Hilton Hotels, have not announced reopening dates. There are deals on offer at some hotels — Hotels.com has the all-inclusive Warwick Paradise Island at half off for about $300 a night — but the choices are limited for now.
The Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort on Paradise Island, not far from the shuttered Atlantis, has been open since July, attracting travelers via private charter flights and yachts. The resort closed two of its three restaurants and offers private dining across its 36 acres. Now occupancy at the 107-room hotel, where rooms start around $800, is nearing 70 percent, a high figure in the off-season.
“They’re here to celebrate being alive,” said John Conway, the resort’s general manager.
Costa Rica: Medical insurance required
Costa Rica reopened for tourism this summer by welcoming travelers from Europe and Canada. In the months of August and September, about 6,000 visitors arrived. By comparison, the country drew 3.1 million travelers in all of 2019 — but the government said Costa Rica had experienced no travel-related coronavirus transmission.
“Basically, tourism is about a tenth of our economy,” said Gustavo J. Segura, Costa Rica’s tourism minister. “We really needed economic reactivation. Through this gradual process, we’ve been able to prove international travel is not a problem.”
While some Americans from lower-transmission states have been able to visit Costa Rica since September, starting Nov. 1, despite the fact that cases in the United States are rising, Costa Rica will welcome all American travelers.
The government requires all visitors to complete a Health Pass online, provide negative test results taken within 72 hours of arrival and buy travel insurance from one of two local agencies to cover accommodation and medical expenses if the traveler contracts the coronavirus (the cost depends on age and length of stay, but a 45-year-old staying two weeks will pay roughly $10 a day). Travelers with international insurance policies must provide certification from the insurer, uploaded to the Health Pass, that the policy is effective in Costa Rica, and covers medical and lodging expenses related to the virus, for a total of about $50,000.
The country is relying on its reputation for nature-based tourism, from the volcanic interior to the coasts, to attract visitors. Of its hotels, 94 percent have 40 or fewer rooms, making it easier to avoid other guests.
“The government tells us we can have 100 percent occupancy in hotels but in restaurants and public areas it’s 50 percent so we have put a limit on being only 75 percent occupied at most hotels,” said Hans Pfister, the president and co-founder of the Cayuga Collection, which operates five lodges in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is not the place to look for bottom barrel rates, which tend to be easier for large hotels to dangle. With similar fixed costs, most small hotels are more likely to offer an extra night free or a room upgrade.
Jamaica: Stay within the ‘corridor’
Jamaica was among the earliest of the Caribbean islands to reopen to tourism on June 15, restricting travelers to what it called a Resilient Corridor between Negril and Port Antonio. Since then, it has periodically updated its entry policies, now requiring everyone age 12 and older to show negative test results taken no more than 10 days before arrival and to fill out a travel authorization form, which includes a health questionnaire.
There are now two Resilient Corridors, with the second running between Milk River and Negril. Businesses within these zones have all received government training in safe practices.
“We are pleased to note that there has been no known case of Covid-19 transmission along our Resilient Corridors, which we conceptualized and implemented in our key tourism regions specifically to keep travelers, tourism workers and residents safe,” said Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s tourism minister, in a statement.
Most hoteliers praise the corridors approach, which allows travelers to explore about three-quarters of Jamaica’s shoreline.
“What makes Jamaica a dynamic destination is seeing Jamaica, the waterfalls, the ocean,” said Adam Stewart, the deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts, the largest locally owned hotel group on the island, which is encouraging travelers by including medical insurance in its rates through year’s end. “The street food vendors even went under this training.”
With business down about 60 percent island-wide through September compared to last year, hoteliers have relied on discounts and perks to fill rooms. CheapCaribbean.com currently has three nights at the all-inclusive Grand Palladium Jamaica Resort and Spa from $450 a person, including flights.
At the boutique hotel Rockhouse in Negril, occupancy has run from 60 to 90 percent recently and rooms currently start at $95.
“It’s still challenging even at these relatively good occupancy levels,” Paul Salmon, the chairman of Rockhouse, wrote in an email. “Nevertheless, we have been able to re-employ our full team and have been able to maintain, even when closed down for three months, health benefits and weekly payments for everyone throughout the crisis.”
Mexico: Capping the numbers
Though land borders remain closed to all but essential travel, destinations in Mexico are open to American visitors arriving via air. Travelers are not required to show a negative Covid-19 test or produce proof of insurance.
Instead, the Mexican government has been setting capacity limits for each state, based on its assessment of new coronavirus cases, hospital occupancy and case rates, according to the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Mexico. In the state of Quintana Roo, destinations like Cancún and the Riviera Maya are limited to 60 percent occupancy. In Baja Sur California, Los Cabos resorts recently lifted their occupancy limits to 50 percent. In the state of Jalisco, home to Puerto Vallarta, occupancy is capped at 50 percent, while next door in Nayarit, it is 30 percent.
Most tourism destinations have implemented public health protocols with social distancing and ample supplies of hand sanitizer.
In Los Cabos, masks are required in public, including when entering a beach. Restaurants and activities such as boat tours are limited to 50 percent capacity and subject to sanitation inspections. Clubs and discos remain closed and there is an 11 p.m. curfew that applies to resort bars as well as public ones.
Infection rates “have been a flat line in September and October and that is encouraging us to keep the very conservative approach,” said Rodrigo Esponda, the managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board.
In Guanajuato, the town of San Miguel de Allende has underscored its public mask mandate by strapping masks on its public statues. Visitors must show a hotel or rental reservation to gain access to the city.
Across popular Mexican tourism destinations, hotel deals tend to prevail at larger resorts. Occupancy caps have helped keep the rates up at Cabo luxury resorts like Las Ventanas Al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort, where rooms in November start at $845, but in the same month the Grand Fiesta Americana Los Cabos All Inclusive Golf & Spa is offering half-off rates starting at $375 a room.
High-end resorts like Chablé Yucatán in the state of Yucatán, where rooms start at $680, have survived on a steady stream of Mexican visitors, with October and November trending 30 percent better than last year, even before American Airlines flights from Miami resumed service into nearby Merida in October.
Panama: Maintaining curfew
When Panama reopened to international visitors last week it maintained its countrywide Sunday quarantine, kept its beaches closed and retained its Monday through Saturday curfew of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
This week, the country plans to reopen its beaches and drop the Sunday quarantine, though the curfew will remain in effect.
Mr. Eskildsen, the tourism minister, called the approach “conservative” in order to evaluate protocols as arrivals increase.
Before arriving, travelers must complete a health affidavit confirming that they are healthy, will provide lodging details and comply with local sanitary measures. Upon arrival, visitors must show a negative coronavirus test taken within the prior 48 hours. Passengers who have not been tested will undergo a test at the airport at their own expense ($50). All travelers will be temperature-screened and those with high temperatures will also be tested; those who test positive will be quarantined for seven days, paid for by the government, before another test is administered.
In Panama, face coverings are mandatory in public. Restaurant tables are separated by six feet. Tour operators and attractions are limited to 50 percent capacity.
In the run up to the holidays, boutique hotels were offering 10 percent off nightly rates, according to the deals site Hotels.com, while bigger all-inclusive resorts could be booked at nearly half off, with free cancellation.
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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.
The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.
The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.
“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.
GDP number just announced. Biggest and Best in the History of our Country, and not even close. Next year will be FANTASTIC!!! However, Sleepy Joe Biden and his proposed record setting tax increase, would kill it all. So glad this great GDP number came out before November 3rd.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2020
The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.
Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.
“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”
Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.
“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.
Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.
The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.
Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.
Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.
“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”
The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.
The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.
“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.
Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.
“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.
Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.
As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.
“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.
“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”
The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.
The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.
More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.
These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.
The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.
Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”
“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.
Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.
The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.
After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.
China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.
Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.
“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”
China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.
Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.
A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.
People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.
The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”
Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”
But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.
“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”
The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.
Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.
The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.
“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.
First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.
Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.
Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.
China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.
Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.
Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.
In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.
More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.
Ana Swanson contributed reporting.
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