After months of coping with challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Anouk Richard decided it was time to get away from it all.
The Mont-Tremblant, QC, resident had a lot on her plate, after all, raising a big family – she has seven (seven!) kids shared between her and her partner, Eric.
The pandemic was also starting to take a serious toll on her mental health at her job, working at a support home for the elderly.
So, Miss Richard did what so few Canadians have dared to do in these turbulent and uncertain times: she booked a vacation.
“I needed a rest,” says Miss Richard, who usually takes two vacations annually in normal circumstances. “We haven’t travelled for a year.”
Miss Richard and her partner were among the first group of Canadians to join Sunwing on its first flights since March last Friday (Nov. 6), taking off from Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau (YUL) and landing at Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) in the Dominican Republic.
Sunwing’s Toronto Pearson (YYZ)-Punta Cana service also resumed on that same day, which marked the operator’s official return to travel after grounding its fleet for more than 230 days.
(The company has, notably, been flying customers south since August using third-party carriers).
Sunwing is currently offering one flight from YYZ and YUL to PUJ on Fridays and an additional one from YYZ on Sundays. It has also resumed service from YYZ and YUL to Cuncun and Montego Bay.
“It’s been a special experience,” said Miss Richard, speaking to PAX on location at the all-inclusive Royalton Bavaro Resort and Spa, where she booked her stay. “Everything has been so clean and wonderful.”
“They’re really happy to see us back.”
"I feel safer here than at home"
PAX is currently in the Dominican Republic, getting an on-the-ground look at how vacations have (or haven’t) changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re also sharing our first-hand take on what resorts are doing to keep guests safe.
As we witnessed last week at two all-inclusive properties in Punta Cana – Secrets Royal Beach and Dreams Macao Beach – enhanced health and safety measure are of paramount importance, not only in restoring consumer confidence, but also in keeping COVID-19 out of the picture.
Collective mask wearing, capping capacities at venues, scrubbing out touch points and promoting social distancing are actions that resorts, here in the DR, are taking seriously, and the properties run by Sunwing Travel Group (such as Royaltons) are no exception.
“There’s sanitizer stations everywhere you go – there’s a bottle in our room,” Richard told us, listing off the protocols she saw that gave her peace of mind. “They disinfected our luggage, they’re taking our temperature when entering restaurants, which are only 50 per cent full.”
“I feel safer here than at home.”
Safe with Sunwing
PAX can echo Richard's account after staying at the Royalton Bavaro from Nov. 8-10 – just over a week after the property reopened following a seven-month-long shutdown – so we could see for ourselves what health and safety actually looks like.
Among the things we saw at the 730-suite resort included a reinvention of the buffet – plexiglass barriers now separate guests from mask-wearing staff, who assemble plates and serve food to you.
This barrier was seen at check-in, too, and is now, generally speaking, an industry must-have.
Everything is linked to a program called Safe With Sunwing, a company-wide commitment to health and safety that covers all aspects of the travel experience.
The program is supported by a partnership with healthcare leader Medcan, specifically Dr. Peter Nord, Chief Medical Officer at Medcan, who recently hosted an “Ask Me Anything” video series about returning to travel in a safe and responsible way. (Click here to watch).
For starters, Sunwing sanitizes its fleet with an AEGIS Microbe Shield – a high-tech treatment that provides antimicrobial protection for surfaces in airplanes.
NexusTours (the transportation and excursion department at Sunwing Travel Group) has capped its buses at 60 per cent so guests can space out.
There are social distancing markers on floors in the resorts and there are no paper products (maps and destination guides are all digital now).
Books, flowers and bed covers have also been removed from suites to eliminate touch points. (But really, given how chic the suites at Royalton Bavaro, we didn’t actually notice this part until it was pointed out to us).
Finally, there's still room service (orders can be made directly from the TV, a neat feature Royalton had before the pandemic). However, all food is packaged in a sealed takeout bag and left for the guest to retrieve at their door).
Sunwing has also launched a new virtual concierge service that customers can activate at the Sunwing booth at Punta Cana airport.
You scan a QR code using your phone, select your language, and indicate if you would like a virtual service.
If you decide to go virtual, you can then connect with all Sunwing reps in destination via text or email (whichever you prefer) for info on tours, the destination and the check-in/check-out process.
It sounds impersonal, but it’s technologically on point and very logical as more travellers aim to reduce their number of human interactions.
Sunwing vacation packages also, currently, include complimentary COVID-19 coverage through Manulife to cover emergency medical or quarantine costs if, by chance, COVID-19 is contracted while in destination.
In the Dominican Republic, though, travellers are covered for COVID-19 just for showing up (the government, at least until Dec. 31, is offering free insurance to all tourists).
The mask task
Masks are mandatory for all staff, but with guests, well, actually forcing people to cover their face is, and will be, an ongoing challenge (not just at Royalton, but everywhere).
“We cannot impose [mask wearing] on clients, but we politely invite them to do so,” said Alejandro Garcia, a sales manager at Blue Diamond Resorts, the hotel division of Sunwing Travel Group. “We’re always trying in common areas and, so far, people are being reasonable and following our guidelines.”
PAX can confirm that most guests we saw at Royalton Bavaro during our stay were, indeed, respecting this request.
Of course, you can’t wear masks when eating or drinking, but most people wore one in the lobby and when approaching restaurants.
It was a national holiday and long weekend in the Dominican Republic during our stay, an event that drew crowds of locals (many of which, from what we saw, stuck together in bubbles).
Many guests were spotted with a mask tucked in their pocket so they had one ready to wear when needed.
But resorts in the region are, generally, hovering at 20 to 30 per cent occupancy, so it’s easy to keep a safe distance from everyone right now, whether they’re masked or not. There’s space.
“I don’t care if I have to quarantine”
“I’ve felt safe this entire time,” said one of three Canadian guys from Barrie, ON, who looked no older than 25, as the group spoke to PAX, in passing, while heading to Rio, an on-site (and highly recommended) Brazilian restaurant.
The trip, for them, seemed worth it, despite the fact that they’ll have to quarantine for 14 days when they return to Canada.
“I don’t care if I have to quarantine…We love this place,” said the leader of the pack, a self-proclaimed Sunwing fan.
Despite making a few modifications to its operations, Royalton Bavaro’s amenities – the sprawling lazy river, mini golf course and FlowRider surf simulator, for one – are up and running, with capacity measures in place.
In other words, you can still have a fun vacation while utilizing the layers of protection that have, since March, become familiar and common practice.
“Hope & happiness”
But there’s always another side to this story – this, referring to the people working on the ground here in tourism-dependant Dominican Republic.
Sunwing returning to Punta Cana has been a beacon of “hope and happiness,” Garcia told us, as it represents a significant step in the country’s road to recovery.
“It means that [Sunwing] is betting on this destination, they’re betting on tourism,” said Garcia. “It’s a huge effort to restart flights, even with the travel restrictions seen in Canada.”
“We have worked really hard to assure that clients are going to have a great experience, and most importantly, a safe experience.”
“We really needed this from Sunwing. It’s hope for all of us.”
PAX is currently reporting on location in the Dominican Republic. Stay tuned for Part Two of our exclusive series on Sunwing’s safe return to the skies.
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