Sands: The Bahamas Cannot Afford to Go Backwards

A top hotelier yesterday warned The Bahamas “must not allow apathy” to undermine the COVID fight, while admitting the surge in cases will make the Government “more tentative” over the further restriction easing sought by tourism.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business this nation must not permit pandemic fatigue to “strangle our economic rebound” after US federal health regulators downgraded the country to ‘Level 3’ with a “high” level of COVID-19 infections.

Speaking after The Bahamas recorded another 52 new infections on Monday, taking the number of active cases to 694, he added that while a ‘Level 3’ designation from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was “not where any tourism destination wants to be” the country was in good company with more than 100 nations in the same category.

Calling on “every employer and employee” to do their part in reversing the rising COVID infection trend, Mr Sands told this newspaper that The Bahamas “cannot afford to go backwards” any further and sink to a ‘Level 4’ given the deterrent effect on travellers considering this nation – especially those who direct which destination is chosen for group business such as conventions, meetings and events.

Graeme Davis, Baha Mar’s president, has recently renewed calls for The Bahamas to do away with measures such as the Health Travel Visa and the requirement for a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours prior to a tourist travelling to this country, but Mr Sands conceded that the combined effect of the CDC downgrade and rise in COVID cases – both locally and worldwide – will likely discourage the Government from further relaxation in the immediate future.

“A CDC ‘Level 3’ designation is certainly not where any tourism destination wants to be and, regrettably, we’re there at this point in time,” the BHTA president said. “But there is certainly an uptick in COVID cases which has resulted in over 100 destinations now, including The Bahamas, being assigned to this ‘Level 3’ designation.

“It’s vital we as a community, every employer, employee, work to reverse this trend as fast as we can and, with the numbers rising, we must not allow apathy to impair our health and wellness and strangle our economic rebound. The good news is that it falls in our hands, and if we encourage more vaccinations and ensure the protocols are observed, we can bring this spread largely under control.

“We can, and must, take control of the direction in which we are headed. We cannot afford to go backwards. It may sound cliched, but forwards and upwards is our only option in terms of this particular situation.” Mr Sands said The Bahamas needed to target a return to a ‘Level 2’ or “moderate” rating with the CDC as rapidly as possible, and then rapidly extend its ambitions to a ‘Level 1’ designation – the best possible.

Asked whether the CDC downgrade, and rising COVID infections, will make the Government reluctant to further ease testing and other remaining protocols as the tourism industry has been seeking, he replied: “I think that,yes, the Government may be a little more tentative now in advancing those decisions. It’s a ‘let’s wait and see’ type of situation. 

“I think, in the main, we must find ways to continue to operate, and we encourage and not deter those coming into the destination. At the same time, we must be safe and realistic about the things that we are doing. Asked whether The Bahamas’ COVID restrictions are competitive with rival destinations in the Caribbean and elsewhere, Mr Sands responded: “It’s a mixed bag.

“I think today, or maybe yesterday, dropped its requirement for testing coming into the destination. A number of other Caribbean destinations have done that. Hopefully we’re not too far behind.”

The BHTA chief conceded that the CDC downgrade could especially impact large New Providence resorts that have traditionally depended on the group and convention market for a significant portion of their business, but said the industry’s booking momentum – despite slowing slightly – had been largely maintained despite the arrival of the slower summer months.

“Especially for the large properties in New Providence, where a number of hotels have been experiencing a substantive rebound in group business, this can unfortunately have an impact,” Mr Sands said of the CDC action. “We hope that it’s short-lived so that we can get back on track with the booking pace we’ve been seeing in the first months of the year.

“For impetus and interest in group bookings, we need to work to get back to at least a ‘Level 2’. I think it’s slowed down slightly, but the booking pace is still encouraging when you look year-over-year or compare it to 2019. In some instances we are getting closer to that benchmark; we are not quite there yet, but are getting there.”

Notwithstanding the fresh COVID outbreak in The Bahamas and globally, Mr Sands added: “The industry is in a very favourable position and the upward momentum is good. I think The Bahamas is certainly on the radar again, and I think we’re seeing encouraging results not only in the Family Islands but certainly in Abaco, coming back and rebounding fairly quickly, and certainly in New Providence we’re seeing some encouraging occupancies at the moment.”

Acknowledging that COVID-19 remains a concern, he said: “I think we have to find a way to be smart about working with it. Impediments to travel tend to work against us in this particular environment, but we need to work with it, keep the economy open, encourage business to flow on and we’ll be OK.”

Family Island hotels yesterday said they were “disappointed” with the CDC downgrade to ‘Level 3’. Cheryl Bastian, president of the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board, told Tribune Business: “I’m disappointed that our levels have gone to Level 3, because it certainly will be a deterrent to travellers. For bookings over the summer and going forward, we’re already seeing a downturn, which is typically when you would have more people in house about this time.”

Arguing against removing further COVID entry protocols at this time, she added: “I think we still need to be very cautious and continue the rapid antigen tests. Even though it may show a lower level of bookings in the summer, we want to be really attractive and doing that would take away from that. At about this time, they started to reduce the airlift, and that’s going to be another blockage, so it’s scary.”

Shavonne Darville, general manager of Gems at Paradise, Long Island, said: “This Level 3 designation is a bit harsh considering that we have had little to no cases on the Family Islands and minimal hospitalisations. This is just another example of the Family Islands suffering for what was done in Nassau. Everything is always so Nassau-centric. COVID-19 numbers were expected to go up from the Exuma regatta in addition to last weekend’s Junkanoo Carnival March.”

As for bookings going into the summer, Ms Darville said: “We are still benefiting from persons being COVID-wary, and wary of restrictions and wanting the ability to travel. So far this is not expected to put a damper on us for our summer bookings.

“Both with international and domestic, and even more so with international visitors, we have not had a slowdown in pace and, in fact, typically in the summer months we see not too many international travellers. However, this summer is already looking to be different.”

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor