Montserrat's mask-free life

Every day at noon, a melodic chime reverberates across the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

For nearly two months, Ms Krystal Bajkor, an American visitor, assumed it was a clock marking time. "I thought it was just an adorable feature of the small island," said the former financial analyst who is currently writing a children's book.

Then in June, her husband, a management consultant, learnt that the pleasant-sounding "clock" was, in fact, a daily test of the volcano warning system.

The Soufriere Hills volcano, which buried large swathes of the island in rocks and ash in the late 1990s, continues to be active, producing a cloud of hot gas, which appears to hover over its crater.

The meaning of the chime is one of those things she might have missed had she been a typical tourist. Before the pandemic, most visitors to Montserrat floated in for maybe a day, anchoring their sailboats in the port or scurrying off the ferry for a hike before returning to nearby Antigua for the night.

Now, in order for a tourist to even set foot on Montserrat's black sand beaches, he or she must pass a rigorous background check and make at least US$70,000 (S$94,800) a year.

Until recently, tourists also had to commit to sticking around for at least two months. In exchange, they get almost exclusive access not only to beaches, but also an alternate reality, roughly the size of Manhattan, where the coronavirus does not seem to exist.

Soon after the British territory detected its first few coronavirus cases in March last year, it closed its borders to tourists.

In April this year, it cautiously reopened with the remote worker programme, requiring both vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors to quarantine for two weeks and then take a coronavirus test before exploring the island. So far, 21 travellers from seven families have participated.

The island is not alone in devising creative ways to lure visitors during the pandemic.

Countries around the world have crafted and recrafted a vast array of systems to try to keep the money flowing in without endangering the local population's health.

Malta bans unvaccinated tourists from more than 30 countries, but provides hotel vouchers to visitors deemed safe.

As of Sept 19, Israel began allowing tourists in, but only if they are vaccinated and travelling in groups of more than five people.

Numerous Caribbean islands have tried to lure remote workers with "digital nomad visas" that allow visitors to stay a year or even longer.

But Montserrat's programme stands out even in a sea of unconventional experiments because the island chose to flip the standard term of a visa - the maximum amount of time someone can stay - on its head, requiring instead a minimum visit.

It is also unusual because while other islands have emphasised how easy they want to make it for remote workers to visit, Montserrat has seemed proud of making it hard to join its roughly 5,000-person bubble, where few wear masks or lock their doors.

"They're very selective in who they let in," said Mr David Cort, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, who spent three months working from Montserrat with his wife, a travel risk analyst, and their daughter.

As to whether the programme has benefited the island depends on who you ask. The primary driver of the economy is exporting volcanic sand, not tourism.

Still, Ms Rose Willock, a broadcaster who lost her home to the volcano, noted: "It's always a challenge when we don't have enough people coming to our island."

Before the pandemic, local businesses counted on 18,000 to 21,000 tourists a year, according to the tourism authority.

But more pressing is, of course, the virus.

As of Sept 15, 33 people had tested positive in the previous 18 months, according to the Ministry of Health. In April last year, one infected person died.

Given that only around 23 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, there is a widespread understanding that if the virus ricocheted across the island, the medical system could not handle it.

Should that happen, it could set Montserrat back by years.

Ms Bajkor's family was the first to participate in the programme. Five months later, they are still there.

"I remember towards the beginning of the pandemic, I was, like, man, I wonder if there are places in the world that are not dealing with any of this craziness," she said.

In Montserrat, she believes she has found such a place.

She has been able to take luxuriously mask-free breaths at art shows and drop her two children off at daycare with little fear of the virus. "There's nothing that can kill you here except the volcano," she concluded.

For the first two weeks, the visitors holed up in their rented villas.

You could not access a rental car until quarantine was complete, said Mr Patrick Bennett, whose family visited in May and June.

"They check on you," he said. "Every once in a while, you hear a car slowly drive by."

He said he did not feel trapped, given that he, his wife and his seven-and 10-year-olds were coming from a 1,200 sq ft New York City apartment.

Now, suddenly, they had a huge verandah. Mr Bennett runs a travel website called Uncommon Caribbean, which focuses on off-the-beaten-track locations.

Even for him, experiencing an island without tourists was novel.

Still, it is unclear how safe the island is. The Ministry of Health declined to say whether any remote workers had tested positive.

The parameters of this experiment will soon change.

Come Friday, all tourists - if they are vaccinated - will be welcome on the island. The remote worker programme will continue without the vaccination requirement.

And though the authorities did not widely announce the change, the territory also recently stopped requiring a two-month minimum stay.

That means the island will never have to confront the question of what to do if a tourist tries to leave before his or her time is up.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2021, with the headline 'Montserrat's mask-free life'. Subscribe