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HEALTH

French Caribbean islands in dire straits as new Covid rules hit

It's February and the palm-fringed beaches of French islands in the Caribbean should be dotted with mainland tourists on mid-term holidays.

French Caribbean islands in dire straits as new Covid rules hit
An empty touristic village at Sain-Gilles de la Réunion. Photo: AFP

But the annual influx has slowed to a trickle in Guadeloupe and Martinique following a government decision to ban non-essential travel outside of the EU over the Covid-19 pandemic.

The move, part of a series of restrictions announced to stave off a third nationwide lockdown, caused dismay in the islands that have been part of France since the 17th century and rely heavily on tourism from the mainland. 

The government insists the islands must be protected from the new, more infectious coronavirus strains that are sweeping France.

So far they have been relatively shielded from the pandemic, with Guadeloupe recording 159 deaths, Martinique 45 and the rate of new infections described by the health ministry as stable.

“We have to do everything to protect them from this new risk,” Minister for Overseas Territories Sebastien Lecornu tweeted on January 28th. 

But travel restrictions are a blow to the economy of islands that had hoped to profit from the closure of French ski resorts – a popular destination in February – to sell more winter sun holidays.

French travellers to Guadeloupe, an archipelago of nine inhabited islands that are home to 390,000 people, and Martinique, an island of 370,000 inhabitants, must now show a “compelling” motive for their trip.

This could be visiting a dying relative or a child of which the traveller has shared custody.

They also have to present a negative PCR test taken less than 72 hours before departure, self-isolate for a week on arrival, and, since last week, present a negative PCR test before returning to the mainland.

Cancellations hit 90 percent

The measures do not apply to islanders travelling to mainland France.

Francois Baltus Languedoc, head of the tourism committee on Martinique, which received more than 100,000 holidaymakers from the mainland in December, said the new measures spelt “an end to the tourist season, pure and simple”.

Patrick Vial-Collet, president of the chamber of commerce of Guadeloupe, where he heads a hotel group, predicted a “collapse” of the local tourism sector.

Vial-Collet said 90 percent of the hotel rooms booked in Guadeloupe had been cancelled and predicted many establishments would go bankrupt.

Car rental companies are also counting their losses.

“In a single weekend, we had €60,000 ($72,000) worth of cancellations, which is about 80 percent of all reservations,” said Laetitia Theleme, head of the Sixt rental agency at the airport of Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe's biggest town which hosts the island's international airport.

The Gustavia harbour on Saint-Barthelemy island. Photo: AFP

Restaurants open but empty

Disappointment was also in store for local restaurants and bars, which had been hoping to fill up with Covid-weary patrons from the mainland, where bistros and cafes have been shut since October 30th.

Rudy Nainan, president of Guadeloupe's federation of restaurant owners, described the measures as a cold shower, coming just as businesses were beginning to enjoy renewed activity after the end of a second national lockdown in mid-December.

“We had just gained some breathing space in January, without infection numbers rising,” he complained.

The blow was even heavier for Saint-Barthelemy, a smaller French island to the northwest of Guadeloupe, which had been relishing the prospect of its best tourism month in memory.

Americans in particular had been eyeing up the pristine island as a safe haven from a pandemic that has killed almost 450,000 people in the United States.

“People were booking because they saw Saint-Barthelemy was a safe zone in the face of Covid-19,” Nils Dufau, president of the territory's tourism committee, explained.

The presidents of Saint-Barthelemy and the French part of the nearby island of Saint-Martin have written to the government in Paris to demand that the restrictions be lifted.

“With tourism being the engine of our economy and only two months of high season left, it's a matter of survival for our businesses, some of which will not recover if the new restrictions remain in place,” they wrote.

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COVID-19

France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

France's public health body outlined how Covid-19 rules changed starting on February 1st, including an end to compulsory self-isolation after a positive test result.

France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

Starting on February 1st, Covid rules relaxed in France as the country brought an end to compulsory isolation for those who test positive for the virus.

However, those travelling from China to France will still be required to agree to a random screening upon arrival and to isolate in the case of a positive Covid-19 test result. Travellers aged 11 and over coming from China must also provide a negative test result (less tan 48 hours) prior to boarding and those aged six and over must agree to wear a mask on board flights. These regulations – which was set to last until January 31st – is set to remain in place until February 15th.

The French public health body (The Direction générale de la santé or DGS)  announced the change on Saturday in a decree published in the “Journal Officiel” outlining the various ways the body will loosen previous coronavirus restrictions.

READ MORE: What Covid rules and recommendations remain for visiting France?

Those who were in contact with someone who tested positive – ie a contact cases – will also no longer be required to take a test, though the public health body stressed that both testing after contact and isolating after receiving a positive test remain recommended.

Previously, even asymptomatic people who had been in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 were required to test on the second day after being notified that they were a “contact-case”.

These changes took effect on February 1st.

READ MORE: What changes in France in February 2023?

The DGS also said that website SI-DEP, which records test results, will remain in operation until June 30th, however starting in February it will only collect personal data with the express permission of the patient.

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Additionally, the French government announced that sick leave procedures for people with Covid-19 would return to normal starting February 1st – this means that those who test positive for Covid-19 now also have the three-day wait period before daily sick benefits are required to be paid, as is usually the case. Previously, people with Covid-19 could expect daily sick benefits to begin at the start of their sick leave period (arrêt maladie in French).  

READ MORE: How sick leave pay in France compares to other countries in Europe

Covid tests are still available on walk-in basis from most pharmacies are are free to people who are fully vaccinated and registered in the French health system. Unvaccinated people, or visitors to France, have to pay up to a maximum of €22 for an antigen test of €49 for a PCR test. 

If you recently tested positive for Covid-19 in France – or you suspect you may have contracted Covid-19 – you can find some information for how to proceed here.

In explaining the changes that began at the start of February, the French public health body also noted a drop in Covid-19 infections in the past month. As of January 30th, approximately 3,800 people in France had tested positive in the previous 24 hours for the coronavirus – which represents a decrease from the averages of 20,000 new cases per day about one month ago.

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