Stir-crazy Dutch holidaymakers set to descend on Caribbean island
Hague Letter: Festive crowd in sandals, shorts and Ambre Solaire a Covid threat
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands on a visit to Willemstad, Curacao, some years ago: The former Dutch colony is essentially a customised playground. Photograph: Patrick van Katwijk/Getty
Nobody wants to lock down for Christmas, but the idea that the Netherlands is about to allow a surge of its holidaymakers to take off in pursuit of winter sun on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, where there have been just three deaths from Covid-19, must be questionable at best.
The former Dutch colony is essentially a customised playground, where the capital is named Willemstad, the streetscapes are colourful copies of Amsterdam’s tall thin canal houses and, for self-evident reasons, the busy flight path to Schiphol is known colloquially as “the cocaine highway”.
Now part and parcel of the Netherlands, it’s branded a free-and-easy island escape, where the Dutch language and food are key elements in a family-friendly experience that also has its not-so-hidden adult side, as befits an infamous pirate stronghold of the 17th century.
As anyone who knows Curaçao will tell you, it’s home to Campo Alegre – aka Le Mirage – the largest open-air brothel in the Caribbean, originally established, in true Dutch fashion, by the island’s government but long ago spun off to enterprising private sector operators.
If this is beginning to sound like a travelogue, well, that’s exactly why the Dutch like it: it’s the perfect no news-no shoes antidote to their high-pressure working lives as part of a population of 17 million in a country roughly the size of Munster.
So imagine their delight when, having been warned by prime minister Mark Rutte earlier this month that foreign travel would remain banned over Christmas, they then found that Curaçao was exempted because, as a “yellow” destination, travel is allowed as long as visitors observe local rules.
Tour operators are dismayed at the official advice to avoid ski locations this year, but for Curaçao it has been a bonanza. There’s been a spike in last-minute bookings. “It’s pretty much the only place left to go,” said an industry spokesperson.
The problem is that according to the government’s own behavioural surveys, the Dutch are not the most fastidious when it comes to observing social distancing or wearing masks – preferring a more sanguine “it can’t happen to me” approach that clearly hasn’t worked.
That casualness towards safety was well illustrated twice during the summer by the unfocused “we-don’t-seem-to-get-it” behaviour of the royal family, and even more notoriously by justice minister and law professor Ferd Grapperhaus, fined for breaking his own Covid-19 rules at his own wedding.
While the Dutch campaign against the virus started well, it lost momentum due to an ideological unwillingness to lay down the law in the face of just the sort of “aw shucks, it’ll be fine” attitude that we all like to adopt on summer holiday – and that’s now in danger of being repeated on Curaçao.
The difference though is glaring: the Netherlands has so far had between 10,000 and 11,000 coronavirus deaths – and Curaçao has had just three.
As it happens, holidaymakers who have already booked their pandemic getaway may be in for something of a rude awakening as they fly in over the island’s limpid blue-green waters on cut-price package deals offering eight nights, with flights, for as little as €589.
While Willemstad and other popular coastal resorts have always been known for their open-all-hours nightlife, they’ll find that a 9pm coronavirus curfew was introduced recently, meaning restaurants and bars must now close by a fun-busting 8pm.
At the same time, the masks the Dutch opposed so vehemently until a second wave was looming in September are now compulsory in shops and on public transport on Curaçao – which registered 79 new cases in a single day last week, the highest daily tally to date, bringing the total to 1,561 cases last Friday.
In another precaution echoing the Netherlands and European countries, the island – which has a population of about 160,000 – has just suspended day-to-day hospital procedures, apart from emergencies, because of the high infection rate among medical staff and concern about the spread.
There are, of course, safeguards. Dutch tourists travelling to Curaçao will have to have tested negative no more than 72 hours before take-off.
On the island, epidemiologist Dr Izzy Gerstenbruth says contact tracing has found that only one of the cases reported so far involved someone not resident there. “From that, we can see that the virus is being transmitted among our own population, not among tourists.”
Whether that fine distinction can survive aircraft after aircraft of stir-crazy Dutch holidaymakers arriving in sandals, shorts and Ambre Solaire next month, only time and an increasingly fragile healthcare system will tell.