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Thursday, Sep 24, 2020

Luxurious quarantine: Rich travellers are self-isolating in five-star resorts, beachside suites & private islands

Luxurious quarantine: Rich travellers are self-isolating in five-star resorts, beachside suites & private islands

As countries around the globe close borders, suspend international flights, and enact mandatory quarantines in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, most travelers are hunkering down at home. Some are scrambling to return home. And then there are a few outliers. These are people who are sheltering in place, exactly where they were when the news started to ripple around the world - in intimate, remote, five-star hotels.

Mexico
“Many of our guests have chosen to extend their stays by one week, two weeks, or until further notice, ” says Kevin Wendle, owner of Hotel Esencia in Riviera Maya, Mexico. That started even before the announcement on Friday, March 20, that the U.S. and Mexican governments would limit border travel. Now, he explains, travelers who were wary of navigating crowded airports on their way home have been practically forced into staying on vacation.

With just 43 rooms spread across 50 acres, Hotel Esencia has a reputation for being a favorite hideaway of Hollywood A-listers. As of Friday, 30 of the 35 guests currently staying at Hotel Esencia were planning to remain indefinitely, according to Wendle. The hotel, which normally goes for upward of $1,000 a night, is offering a 30% discount to those who extend and 40% off if they extend beyond a week.

Adriana Ching, a 34-year-old lawyer from New York, extended her stay after hearing about the U.S. State Department’s recent Level 4 travel advisory. “I’d rather be here than my home in New York City,” she says. “I feel safer and more secure in this natural paradise, away from it all.” (Mexico has thus far logged 316 confirmed cases of coronavirus; the country has yet to establish concrete testing or containment strategies.)

Toronto resident and return guest Ryan Cook has decided to stay indefinitely with his wife and three children aged 11, 14, and 16, noting that school has been canceled and he is able to do his job, in artificially intelligent health care, remotely. “A statement from a world leader saying, ‘Come home now or you might not get home,’ incites hysteria in people,” he says. “Rushing to a jam-packed airport when we’re being told to practice social distancing seems like an irrational and emotional decision. It feels more responsible to not travel right now.”

Antigua
Jumby Bay, a 40-room, all-inclusive luxury property on a private island two miles off the coast of Antigua, where beachside suites start at $1,895 per night, has seen confirmation of long stays of up to 30 days, according to Julie Debas, head of sales and marketing. “Clients want to hide from all that is going on in the world,” she says. And Steppes Travel, a travel agency currently working to bring clients home from destinations as varied as South America and Southeast Asia, has had numerous clients decide they’d rather not bother; instead, they aim to stay put in such places as Cape Grace in Cape Town. The team at Coastline Travel Advisors, a boutique travel agency in Southern California, meanwhile, has clients hunkered down at the One and Only Palmilla, in Los Cabos at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California.

For Will Oakley, the general manager of Cobblers Cove, a 40-suite property in Barbados, the idea made sense—until recently. “Going home means quarantine,” he rationalizes, “and if guests can sit it out here longer, even if it’s a couple of months, they will.” (With nightly rates in the $450 range, that could cost upward of $13,500 before counting food and other expenses.)

For Will Oakley, the general manager of Cobblers Cove, a 40-suite property in Barbados, the idea made sense—until recently. “Going home means quarantine,” he rationalizes, “and if guests can sit it out here longer, even if it’s a couple of months, they will.” (With nightly rates in the $450 range, that could cost upward of $13,500 before counting food and other expenses.)

The idea that warmer temperatures might suppress the spread of the virus was another arrow in Oakley’s quiver as he prepared to harbor guests for the long term. But the Government of Barbados decided on Friday to mandate a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals from the U.S., the U.K., and Europe, and the hotel experienced a wave of cancellations. Now it’s working to get guests home so it can shut down.

The fact that such hoteliers as Esencia’s Wendle are holding on is both a dodged bullet and a huge responsibility. While the U.S. hotel industry is taking a hit of $1.4 billion a week, the lucky few still operating are running at standard low-season levels. But it’s on their shoulders to safeguard both guests and staff.

To protect everyone on the property, Wendle has instituted several rules. All high-touch areas, from door knobs to luggage, are disinfected hourly; when guests arrive at the main restaurant for dinner, a server squirts their hands with Purell. (Wendle has hoarded 1,000 bottles of the hand sanitizer, he was so fearful of running out.) To help with social distancing, he’s cut staffing, from 250 to 175, by asking employees to take a voluntary vacation week each month, rather than resorting to layoffs.

Whether that sufficiently heeds the call of the moment is questionable. Though Wendle says he’s reduced the five-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, the cuts he’s made preserve those numbers, given that there are fewer guests. And though he’s instituted daily health inspections for staff—those who fail are sent home with pay—that doesn’t account for the fact that they need to commute to work or that the Covid-19 coronavirus can be spread asymptomatically. It’s a risk that protects 200-or-so jobs, he says. And he’s not alone in taking it.


Bahamas
At the Island House, a 30-room luxury hotel in Nassau, the Bahamas, the general manager is also trying to navigate a new era of five-star service. “Guests normally want to walk into a room and smell bamboo or bergamot, but yesterday one person told me the smell of Clorox brought him peace of mind,” says James Wyndham. Of 15 travelers staying indefinitely, most are declining turndown service, abiding by a no-handshake policy, and shouting their dinner orders to waitstaff, who stand no less than six feet away.

His argument? “Nearly half of our [gross domestic product] is tourism related. If we can keep guests safe while also helping the economy, it’s a win win.”

A Swiss hotel is selling a luxury quarantine with a $500 coronavirus test
Le Bijou, a luxury Swiss hotel brand, has set up “quarantine apartments” which include in-room health services, such as coronavirus testing.

A stay in one of these apartments ranges from $800 to $2,000 per night. Facilities include food delivery and a personal chef, as well as a private gym, in-room spa treatments and a home office.

Previous guests at Le Bijou include the “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

In addition to COVID-19 testing, which costs $500, guests can also pay for other coronavirus health services such as twice-daily nurse visits for $1,800 and an around-the-clock nurse for $4,800 a day.

Le Bijou introduced the quarantine service after its CEO, Alexander Hübner, noticed fewer of the typical three-night bookings and more reservations for 14 days or more. When asked why guests were extending their stays, many said they were specifically booking the apartment for quarantine.

He then decided to adapt its traditional services to make the apartments fully automated, including extending its digital services with a virtual butler called James, removing the need for human contact at check-in and check-out, for example.

Le Bijou is also offering free stays for health-care workers, working overtime to help cope with the virus outbreak, as well as for people “in great need.”

‘Irresponsible’

René Frey, CEO of travel guide publisher Rough Guides, left his company’s headquarters in London to head back to his home in Switzerland for lockdown nearly two weeks ago.

While the Swiss government has kept hotels open, he believed that it was “irresponsible, unethical and commercially wrong” for Le Bijou to be operating in such a way during the pandemic.

Switzerland has implemented social-distancing measures similar to many other countries around the world, including the closure of its borders to people from high-risk countries, banning gatherings of more than five people and encouraging people to stay at home.

According to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, 16,605 have so far tested positive for COVID-19 and 433 people have died from the virus in the country.

Frey said that he thought it was irresponsible to take new bookings in the current situation, adding that it showed a “lack of solidarity with all the small shops closed by federal law.”

Besides food shops and other outlets selling essential everyday items, such as pharmacies, other stores and markets have been closed down by the Federal Council.

Frey also criticized Le Bijou for charging $500 for coronavirus tests, pointing out that the Swiss government has said the diagnostic test will be paid for by its compulsory health care insurance. The Federal Council said it would pay 180 Swiss francs ($187) for the cost, according to a translation of the announcement on its website.

A spokesperson for Le Bijou said that the $500 covers the cost of a certified health-care provider privately administering the COVID-19 test in guests’ rooms. The spokesperson said that Le Bijou hosts a lot of non-Swiss citizens, who may not be covered by the government’s health insurance.

The spokesperson said the hotel has no common areas. So guests come into contact with someone only when they request it, such as a health-care professional or a personal chef.

“We are a family-run SME trying to survive and save jobs for around 60 people, without filing for a government bailout,” the person said.

The spokesperson added that it therefore did not make sense to shut down when Le Bijou could provide “safe and comfortable accommodations for those seeking it away from home and for local healthcare workers who need a place to rest free-of-charge.”

Egypt, Jordan pay for luxury quarantine to rein in coronavirus

Egyptian hotels and resorts, which are feeling the pinch as tourist arrivals stopped with the suspension of flights, may target self-quarantining guests to make ends meet. Egypt suspended all flights as of March 19 as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19. On March 24, it extended the suspension for two more weeks.

Some hotels and resorts may also bank on Egyptians who choose to self-isolate as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus across the country.

Something similar took place in Jordan, where hotels and resorts in the Dead Sea area were turned into places of quarantine for citizens during the lockdown.

The total registered cases of coronavirus in Egypt and Jordan stood at 1,560 and 358, respectively, as of April 9.

“Le Meridien Cairo Airport and other hotels were selected to be places of quarantine for Egyptians coming home from all over the world. The government paid for their quarantine through Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt) Fund. In Alexandria, some hotels served as quarantine for foreigners on board stranded ships in the Mediterranean,” Bassem Halaka, president of the Travel Agents Trade Union, told Al-Monitor.

Minister of Information Osama Heikal said April 1 that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had instructed the government to pay for forced quarantine at hotels from the Tahya Misr Fund.

Rami Fayez, owner of a resort in Marsa Alam, 660 kilometers (410 miles) south of Cairo, told the Sada Elbalad news portal April 4 that 275 passengers coming from the United States are now quarantined for 14 days in his hotel. He did not, however, reveal figures on Egyptians who are quarantined at his resort.

Fayez said residence would be free of charge for Egyptians wishing to quarantine in his hotel, but those who are only seeking self-isolation would have to pay. The Tahya Misr Fund would cover those who returned home and were forced to quarantine to protect fellow Egyptians from infection.

“Foreigners who refused to fly home are also staying at some hotels and resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada as a measure for self-isolation. However, for the man in the street, most people prefer staying at home. When their income is at stake, common Egyptians tend to save money and stockpile food commodities,” Halaka said. He said Egyptians had withdrawn roughly 30 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.9 billion) from banks in March.

Central Bank governor Tarek Amer was quoted as saying by the Youm7 news portal March 29 that individuals had withdrawn 30 billion pounds over three weeks.

Halaka said some Egyptians would go to their own chalets or stay at resorts in Sinai and in Hurghada along the Red Sea. “Hotels have very limited areas, while resorts are spacious by nature. Distances between housing units and open landscapes make resorts the perfect place for quarantine,” he said.

So far, there are no official figures on the number of rooms in resorts that have been booked by Egyptians.

In Jordan, the authorities took similar measures. However, geography played a key role in view of the isolated location of the Dead Sea. Distances between hotel units and open landscapes made it advantageous to use Dead Sea hotels and resorts as quarantine facilities, said Khalaf Tahat, the dean of the Mass Communication Faculty at Yarmouk University in Jordan.

“The Jordanian government paid all expenses, i.e., full-board residence, medical service, medications and transportation. The quarantined people did not pay a penny,” Tahat told Al-Monitor.

“These resorts and hotels are away from any residential districts and human gatherings, so it was easy to declare a military zone in order to control access to the area. The whole Dead Sea area was closed by the military. Jordan has carried out a kind of institutional quarantine to combat COVID-19,” Tahat said.

The first step was to rein in the coronavirus infections by meticulously registering cases of infections, the media professor said, noting that a crisis management team was formed.

“All necessary measures were taken to ensure that the quarantined people would get the best accommodation conditions at the Dead Sea resorts. The capacity of quarantine facilities in the Dead Sea area totals 5,000 people,” Tahat said, adding that all of the quarantined people were released and sent home.

There are no quarantined people in Jordanian hotels at present.

“From the very beginning, the authorities here took a pragmatic move favoring the health of the Jordanian people at the expense of political relations. All non-Jordanians coming from COVID-19 infected countries such as Iran, Italy, China, South Korea and Spain were denied entry. Only Jordanians returning from these countries were provided 14-day quarantine,” Tahat said.

The authorities suspended all flights at Jordanian civil airports as of March 17 until April 13.

“The crisis management team, supervised by King Abdullah, and the Ministry of Health increased the number of epidemiological investigation teams to 60 across the country. These teams were deployed to security squares — are areas that were isolated where infections were reported. Irbid, the second-largest city in Jordan after Amman, was isolated and run by the Jordanian army,” he said, adding that infected people were transferred to the places of quarantine along the Dead Sea.

Tahat said any people living in a household where someone tested positive were quarantined as well. “More than 15,000 tests have been conducted since the beginning of the crisis,” he said.

Australia

“Excuse me, miss, you can’t go home. You’ll have to follow us and get on this bus.”

As a general rule, this isn’t the type of personal greeting one wants to hear in the airport after a 19-hour long-haul international flight. But that’s exactly what happened to Los Angeles-based songwriter Veronica McCluskey Monday when she landed in Brisbane, Australia, where her elderly father lives.

McCluskey told TPG that, mere hours before her flight departed, the Australian government amended its restrictions yet again to require all incoming travelers complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine in government-funded facilities. “The information was very unclear,” McCluskey said. “We weren’t told where we were going.”

Upon arriving in Brisbane, McCluskey told TPG that “there were people with masks and biosecurity hazard gear everywhere.” After clearing customs and immigration, she boarded a bus with her fellow travelers, “still with no idea where we were going.” McCluskey said that there were rumors amongst fellow travelers that the government would use detention centers or RV parks to house incoming travelers in whatever accommodations they could find.

Thus, McCluskey was pleasantly surprised when the bus pulled up in front of the Rydges Hotel South Bank, where the hotel upgraded her to a junior suite. “I could stay here for two weeks, four weeks, six months: however long the government wants to pay for me to stay here,” McCluskey joked in her Instagram stories.

“All of my food is covered here as well,” she told TPG. “I’m going to live it up and hopefully not eat too much!”

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, returning citizens are not allowed to self-isolate at home. Instead, they are taken directly from the airport to dedicated hotels in order to keep their communities safe. But isolation isn’t all that bad: The Saudi government has treated its quarantined citizens to luxury accommodations.

The first 300 citizens to enter Saudi quarantine were hosted in a five-star hotel for two weeks; other travelers have been given similar VIP treatment. None of the hotels have been named in the news, but a Facebook video from Afrene Bege shows quarantine footage from Le Park Concord in Arar, a city in northern Saudi Arabia.

The video depicts a gleaming marble lobby with a worker dressed in protective gear manning a health check-up booth, as well as plastic-wrapped trays of fresh fruit and other individually packaged refreshments being delivered to quarantined guests by employees wearing face masks. (TPG reached out to Le Park Concord for confirmation, but had not heard back as of publication time.)

Jordan

More than 5,800 people have been quarantined in hotels across Jordan after the country declared a state of emergency in mid-March and imposed a mandatory 14-day period of self-isolation for all incoming travelers on March 16. Nearly three dozen hotels have been repurposed for quarantine facilities, including 23 four- and five-star hotels in Amman as well as resorts by the Dead Sea, according to Middle East Eye.

The travelers bunking by the Dead Sea enjoy stunning views but are not permitted to leave their rooms. Occasionally, they communicate with each other from the balconies.

Saad Jaber, Jordan’s Minister of Health, told Jordan TV that daily costs for each person in quarantine averaged between $169 and $253 per day, including the expese of ensuring that hotel staff have adequate supplies as well as protective medical gear. In comparison, Jordanian officials said, treating the average coronavirus patient costs around $1,690 per day.

The government has asked quarantined travelers to self-isolate for an additional 14 days upon their release out of an abundance of caution.

Maldives

This cluster of islands is synonymous with bucket-list luxury and impeccably attentive service, so the country’s quick response to COVID-19 containment is unsurprising. As of late March, the Republic of Maldives has 1,158 rooms (2,288 beds) dedicated to quarantined visitors across 10 resort locations, according to the minister of tourism.

One of those locations is a repurposed resort on the island of Villivaru, in the Kaafu Atoll, about 15 miles north of the capital city of Malé. The property was a popular luxury resort in the 1980s and 1990s, but it has been abandoned for years. After the government implemented quarantine measures in mid-March, a crew of 50 workers set to work getting the property ready, completing renovations in a scant 10 days.

Each of the quarantine facility’s 30 air-conditioned rooms comes with a flat-screen TV and fully stocked minibar, according to the South China Morning Post. The resort stay also includes free medical care as well as three room service meals a day. But no visitors are allowed and, presumably, guests can’t leave their rooms.

San Francisco

In anticipation of the impact of rising numbers of coronavirus cases, the city of San Francisco issued a request for proposals from local hotels willing to house COVID-19 front-line workers, first responders, overflow hospital patients and SRO occupants who are exposed to the virus.

The Palace Hotel, a Marriott Category 7 hotel from the Luxury Collection and the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel are two of the many hotels that have offered “quarantine rooms” in a bid for the city’s business. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that more than 30 hotels responded with proposals after City Hall requested the short-term housing.

The city had identified 84 hotels that would meet its needs, based on ADA compliance and robust ventilation systems that would prevent further spread of disease. The city will pay $213 per day for isolation rooms for sick patients, which would include three daily meals delivered directly to the room to minimize spread of disease.

Meanwhile, the city would pay $164 per night for rooms for health care workers and first responders, which would not include meals. Finally, the city would pay $79 per day to hold empty rooms that aren’t in current use, according to the Chronicle.

Cruise ships with no cases of coronavirus

As horror stories spread of cruise ships with coronavirus aboard, a number of destinations quickly closed their ports to cruise ships, leaving thousands of travelers unavailable to go ashore. However, not every cruise ship turned into a floating hospital; some had no cases of coronavirus on board.

The 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel was forced to modify its original 23-day Australia and French Polynesia itinerary after the ship was turned away at various ports because of coronavirus concerns. Everyone on board was tested for COVID-19 as a precaution and all tests came back negative.

As a result, one passenger told TPG that “we are now actually the safest self-contained area in the whole world.” The traveler noted that the ship had yet to run out of toilet paper and passengers were still allowed to access the gym and other facilities because of the low risk of coronavirus infection.

The Norwegian Jewel finally docked in Honolulu on March 23 and passengers were escorted directly from the ship to the airport to board chartered flights back to Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Vancouver and Frankfurt.

Passengers aboard the similarly stranded Holland America’s Maasdam also tried to maintain a stoic optimism.

“If our destiny is to stay on the ship, we will make the best of it!” Tamara Koperda of Atlanta told The Points Guy’s senior cruise and travel reporter, Gene Sloan. “We are a healthy ship, for which we are most grateful,” Koperda said. “We had a guest and staff talent show last night that was truly funny. There were poems about being out of lettuce but please don’t run out of booze.”

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