- St. Barts, a Caribbean island known for attracting billionaires and socialites, reopened for tourism on June 22.
- As of late July, the island had just eight reported COVID-19 cases, none of which were fatal.
- All visitors are allowed entry onto the island as long as they present a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test from less than 72 hours before departure.
- Business Insider spoke with several villa rental companies on the influx of US and European travellers in late June, July, and August. Luxury villa rentals are surging, with many guests staying for up to six weeks, compared to the average summer stay of five to 10 days.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In a villa perched high on a hill overlooking the sea, a family lounges poolside with their children. A mother is practicing yoga on the teak patio, taking cues from a private instructor, while a private chef wearing a mask and gloves cooks breakfast in the villa’s open-air kitchen.
It’s mid-July, and the family has been on the glamorous island of St. Barts for nearly three weeks. Per Stiles Bennet, President at Wimco Villas, which operates 375 luxury properties on the Caribbean island, it’s not an uncommon sight in 2020. Where families averaged five- to 10-day stays for their summer vacations in previous years, vacations this year are stretching considerably longer.
As the coronavirus pandemic made its way across the globe, St. Barts shut down its borders on March 16. Borders reopened on June 22, and many of those who have since arrived on the island feel it hasn’t changed much.
The white-sand beaches are open. The gourmet restaurants and buzzy beach clubs serve customers as usual. Designer shops – Louis Vuitton, Prada, Cartier, Hermès – still welcome patrons. Like many other parts of the world, St. Barts now requires masks to be worn indoors. Outside, you can remain mask-free, though social distancing is encouraged. If not for the masks, it would be easy to feel like this sliver of paradise has gone unscathed – and in some ways, it has.
How paradise responded to a pandemic
St. Barts is an overseas collectivity of France located in the French West Indies that’s known for attracting a glamorous, jet-set crowd. It’s not uncommon to see billionaires lounging on superyachts or socialites dancing until the early morning at VIP beach clubs. It’s a see-and-be-seen type of place, but people also flock to St. Barts for its verdant landscape, seemingly untouched beaches, and craggy coastlines.
The nine-square-mile island, which takes roughly 20 minutes to drive around, is home to 9,880 full-time residents. Tourism is the island’s largest industry; in 2019, St. Barts welcomed 295,000 tourists. The island’s peak season is December through March, though many still come in the low season, April through August.
When the pandemic hit, France’s President Emmanuel Macron ordered the island’s borders shut on March 16. Residents were ordered to quarantine at home. In total, to date, there have been just eight cases of COVID-19 on the island and no fatalities.
“We reacted very quickly, and the island shut down right away,” Sabine Masseglia, Director of the St. Barths Tourism Committee, told Business Insider. “It helped us to make sure the island became clean as soon as possible.”
The island budgeted €2 million ($US2.35 million) towards its COVID-19 response, part of which helped purchase advanced testing machines, ventilators, and set up dedicated active airport and port checkpoints. There is also a clinic that is capable of handling most serious medical emergencies, but for more serious complications, patients are airlifted to larger hospitals on Martinique or Guadeloupe.
Now that borders are open, upon arrival, visitors must show proof of a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test result from less than 72 hours before arrival in order to gain entry to the island. Visitors from any country are welcome as long as they have a negative test; COVID-19 antibody tests are not accepted.
“We are being careful,” Masseglia said. “We don’t want to jeopardize the fact that we’ve been COVID-19 free. We want to make sure the people coming in are healthy for both them and us, the local population.”
The low number of cases, coupled with the precautions taken by France and St. Barts’ local government, has made the island a desirable destination for travellers this summer. Americans and Europeans are now travelling to the “France of the Americas” for several weeks at a time, especially as Americans can’t travel to Europe.
Travellers are booking villas for extended periods of time
Many of the island’s five-star hotels, including Eden Rock St Barths, Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, and Le Barthélemy Hotel & Spa, are closed due to COVID-19. While some smaller four-star hotels remain open, many people are opting to rent villas and staying anywhere from two to six weeks.
“It’s not unusual for someone to go to St. Barts for two or three weeks and then extend their trip,” Peg Walsh, Founder and President of St. Barth Properties, told Business Insider of traveller habits right now. “There’s no rush back.”
This year, villa companies are seeing guests booking July and August trips after having been forced to cancel their vacations in April, May, and June.
“Since the island reopened on June 22, we are seeing more rentals than we expected, and a lot of the rental activity is last minute,” said Bennet. “People have cabin fever and want to get away.”
Staying in a villa ensures peace of mind in terms of cleanliness and privacy.
“A private villa gives you more flexibility, as well as having your own kitchen and space,” said Anne Dentel, Head of Eden Rock Villa Rental, the hotel’s villa rental business. “People feel secure. Villa rental has always been a big thing in St. Barts, but now it’s a really big business. More and more people are considering it, especially when you stay a long time, you want to cook your own food, and when you have children, you want your own pool.”
Wimco Villas says clients are booking plenty of in-villa services, including butlers, private chefs, grocery pre-stocking, and yoga lessons and massages, plus requests for private boat excursions and water sports. “There’s probably a little more in-villa food, too. Not that people are hesitant to go to restaurants, but maybe they’re not going out every night like they would have,” Bennet said.
Families also want to keep up with a routine, including booking private fitness classes at their villas and arranging activities for their children to keep them occupied, especially as many summer camps back home are cancelled.
“People are coming with their kids, and they look for activities they can enjoy,” said Walsh, who organizes stays for several repeat clients with very specific requests. Walsh’s concierges have organised birthday parties, fishing excursions with children, and tennis lessons for the kids as well as the adults.
She added that when some people extend their trips, it’s not their typical vacation. Instead, many travellers are using the opportunity to work remotely on the island, as many offices back in Europe or the U.S. are closed.
While villa rental companies aren’t at liberty to discuss their clients’ spending, Wimco Villa’s rates during the summer season range from $US3,000 per week for a one-bedroom hillside villa to more than $US60,000 for a 6-bedroom villa on the beach.
On top of that, families can expect to pay $US6,000 or more for add-ons like private chef services, grocery shopping and delivery, private boat charters, personal trainers, yoga sessions, and butler service.
St. Barts anticipates a busy peak holiday season, though it’s still too early to guarantee
Each year, St. Barts virtually closes down in September and October as locals take their vacations or go back to France. This year, all hotels on the island are set to reopen at the end of October.
“The island is learning how to manage tourism right now, so this is a good trial run,” Bennet said. “It’s definitely going to be a management challenge when peak season comes, because there will be more demand for restaurants and bars and certainly more people coming into shops and boutiques.”
While Masseglia said it’s too soon to predict what the holiday season will bring, as the number of COVID-19 cases and restrictions are constantly changing, she has no doubt that clients will come back.
“St. Barths still remains a place where you feel safe and secure,” she said.