After nearly two years, the sunshine, powder sand and crystal clear waters of the Cayman Islands are beckoning back visitors ready for a relaxing Caribbean vacation– if you are fully vaccinated.
With a CDC vaccination card (and booster) in hand and a bit of anxiety after initially reading through the list of requirements, I navigated the lengthy checklist to enter. My diligent efforts were rewarded when I arrived over the New Year’s holiday to find an idyllic island with a high vaccination rate, few fellow visitors and plenty of space to socially distance while enjoying the beautiful beaches.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added the Cayman Islands to its Level 4: “Do not travel” locations on November 8. The designation is supposed to indicate a destination with high levels of COVID-19.
But here's the situation on the ground. When the pandemic started, the island had a strict quarantine requirement —in a government facility or with an ankle bracelet monitoring and check-ins from a government-issued cell phone — in effect for most of the pandemic. One local told me during her quarantine, her government-issued phone grew low on charge and they called her to tell her to charge it.
Meanwhile, 80% of the Cayman Islands are fully vaccinated and 24% have had a booster. Though they have had cases of Omicron including 62 recorded cases of positive COVID-19 tests from travelers, those numbers don't seem to have shown up in hospitalizations. As of January 5, the Cayman Islands reported only 4 current hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
While the people of the Caymans are anxious to welcome visitors back to the country, the Cayman Islands slowly started to reopen November 20, with similarly strict requirements for entry.
The country allows fully vaccinated visitors who can show securely verified proof of vaccination to skip the mandatory quarantine. Non-securely verified proof (i.e. the US CDC vaccination card) is allowed from countries where the vaccination rate is higher than 60% for the first dose. The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom all meet these standards.
The requirement to be fully vaccinated to skip quarantine is very strict. Currently, even children who are not able to qualify for vaccination cannot skip it. Unvaccinated travelers can apply for permission to enter but must quarantine for 14-days.
What you need to enter the Cayman Islands
Before you travel, you’ll need to fill out the online application for a Travel Declaration in advance for approval to travel to the Cayman Islands. The website doesn’t state this but once you fill out the form, the confirmation email says it can take up to 5 working days to get approval. So, make sure you fill out this form in advance.
Along with that form with a QR code, you’ll need to show proof of full vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 24 hours prior to the departure of your flight. The test can be a certified rapid test.
You must also certify that you either have travel insurance that covers expenses and medical care related to COVID-19 (including if you need to quarantine) or can self-pay for these things should you test positive for the virus.
How entering the Cayman Islands actually went for me
I never received notification that my form was approved. I had to log back into my account a couple of days after I filled it out. Thankfully, it was there.
I also purchased insurance coverage for $60 USD with the mindset that if I tested positive, at least I would get reimbursed for the cost of quarantining.
The toughest hurdle for me was figuring out where to get my test 24 hours in advance. There are limited flight options to get to the Caymans right now –only Cayman Airways and JetBlue have nonstop flights from the United States. American is scheduled to resume non-daily flights from Miami in February. Southwest is scheduled to resume flights from Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale starting in early March.
British Airways is flying from London. (Canadian carriers Air Canada Rouge and West Jet were flying from Toronto but Air Canada recently announced it would suspend flights due to COVID-19)
The limited schedule meant I had to fly into Fort Lauderdale the night before to catch the flight to Grand Cayman the next morning. Thus, I had to complete my COVID-19 test upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale. I thought this might be pretty simple to do since, for a fee of $59, there’s a clinic near baggage claim in Terminal 3 in Fort Lauderdale. I made an appointment in advance.
That apparently made no difference since everyone was grouped into the same long line to suffer a 2.5 hour wait in the sun to finally get tested. Like everywhere, there were not enough staff to deal with the demand for travel tests.
With a negative test in hand (and a bit of a complex about the lack of social distancing in the line), I was able to board my fairly empty flight to the Cayman Islands on New Year's Eve.
Cayman Islands Arrival COVID-19 testing
Once you enter the Cayman Islands, your COVID-19 testing isn’t finished. You’ll need to undergo a rapid lateral flow test (antigen test) on day 2, 5 and 10 of your stay. You’re also responsible for the cost of the test which is $30 USD.
Compared to many other places I’ve traveled to during the pandemic, finding a test was relatively stress-free once you arrived in the Caymans. At customs, they hand you the card you need stamped at your subsequent testing as well as a list of testing centers. The resorts on Seven Mile Beach also had a rotating schedule of when tests were administered and you could go to any of the sites. Registration is done online and results came back in 15 minutes.
If you test positive, the Caymans say you will be required to isolate at additional expense.
Some restaurants and establishments may also ask for this card to allow you to enter. I didn’t have anyone ask for it but keep in mind the testing requirement comes with a fine of $10,000 Cayman if you skip it.
I wish I’d know these requirements before booking flights. Due to the timing, I had to do a third test (and spend an additional $30) the day after my day 2 test in order to meet the timing requirements to get back into the United States.
My overall experience visiting the island
Did anticipating all of these requirements did cause a lot of anxiety? Yes. Did I get nervous about whether I had missed one of the guidelines? Yes. Did I worry somewhere along the way I'd test positive and have to stay in the Cayman Islands? Well, yes, but only the first day.
With fewer visitors willing to brave the checklist and cruise ships not currently porting on the island, it was far from the bustling tourist vacation destination of the years before the pandemic. There was plenty of space to stretch out and relax. It was really enjoyable to go down to the beach and be some of the few visitors there.
Though it was buzzing over the New Year’s holiday, many of the visitors to the hotel were locals taking advantage of the fact that the absence of visitors allowed them to actually get a reservation on Seven Mile Beach when usually these spots would be booked well in advance. That meant we were able to strike up meaningful conversations with locals and get their take on everything from how the pandemic has impacted their community (most said they felt like life continued as normal, but closed off from the outer world) to ideas of things to do and restaurants to visit.
We were easily able to snag reservations to popular restaurants like Tillies even as many restaurants closed due to the lack of visitors. The island is facing some staffing shortages like most of the hospitality industry is facing worldwide, so check to see if your desired location is open before you head out. Consider making reservations in advance.
But, generally, the tourism industry folks –and even the locals –seemed eager to welcome people back to their island.
Rarely were we inside. We sat outside for all of our meals. You will be required to wear a mask when you are indoors but you likely won’t notice this much if you plan to spend a lot of time at the beach.
If there are places you want to go like Stingray City or scuba diving, you might want to make these reservations in advance as a lot of the tour companies don't have the robust staff they used to. The tour guide for a Discovery Scuba tour we took told me his company went from 10 staff members before the pandemic to just 3 now.
To me, COVID-19 testing requirements are going to be part of going on vacation for a while. And though the Cayman has several boxes to check, in the long run, those requirements combined with the country's high vaccination rate made me feel safer visiting the island, enabling me to relax and enjoy my Caribbean holiday.
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