Tourism executives are warning The Bahamas “stands out like a sore thumb” over its continued COVID entry testing measures after the US eliminated such restrictions with effect from midnight yesterday.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business the country “cannot be the last man standing” by still demanding that all visitors produce a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of travel when multiple Caribbean rivals have eradicated all such restrictions.
He and other resort executives, speaking after the US move, said The Bahamas’ continued testing mandate threatens the competitiveness of its major industry and the post-COVID “recovery momentum” at a time when Americans – who account for around 90 percent of the country’s visitors – are finding it increasingly more difficult and expensive to obtain the necessary tests to travel to this nation.
With some hotel operators interpreting the Biden administration’s relaxation of border testing measures as a sign that “COVID is in the rear view mirror”, the pressure has intensified on the Davis administration to follow suit. Dr Michael Darville, minister of health and wellness, yesterday said the elimination of Bahamian entry testing measures is now “back on the table”, but added that remaining COVID measures will be removed via a “phased and responsible approach” (see other article on Page 1B).
Describing the long-anticipated US move as “welcome news” for the tourism industry, Mr Sands said the decision by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was “an indisputably clear indication that testing requirements are falling away on a global scale” and urged the Government to follow suit.
“The Bahamas cannot be the last man standing in this regard,” he said. “Therefore we strongly urge our Government to make a swift and decisive move to eradicate our own testing requirements for Bahamians and visitors wanting to enter The Bahamas.
“Not only will this achieve bilateral parity with our US counterparts; this will immediately put us in line with regional competitors such as Jamaica, Aruba, Bonaire, St.Lucia, Turks and Caicos, Grenada, US Virgin Islands, Mexico and Costa Rica who have already removed the majority of testing requirements to enter their tourism destination.”
Asked how critical it was for The Bahamas to now respond to the US move, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “It is extremely important because we do not need to put in place impediments to travel, and also impediments that give our competitors a distinct competitive advantage over us.
“The bigger issue, certainly from a US perspective, is that trying to find a COVID test to come to Nassau in many of our source markets is becoming increasingly difficult and, more importantly, increasingly more expensive. As an example, I was in Philadelphia last week travelling back to Nassau, and a rapid antigen test cost me $121. Before it was less than $50.
“The cost has more than doubled, and for a family of four that’s a significant additional expense….The Bahamas should not be the last man standing in this area, and as long as people can show they are fully vaccinated that should be the major credential presented at the check-in-counter and allow them to travel.”
Mr Sands, who is also Baha Mar’s senior vice-president of government and external affairs, added that the proportion of COVID-vaccinated guests at the Cable Beach mega resort now stands in the “high 90” percent range.
“The fact that I’ve listed a significant amount of our competitors, who have removed completely or to a large degree, the testing requirements for entry, we stand out like a sore thumb,” he told this newspaper. “And if we want to continue to see upward momentum in the tourism business, and visitor satisfaction rates rise, this is one area to consider. The Government should give close attention to it.”
The US decision to eliminate the need for international travellers, including returning US citizens, to present a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of travel removes an expense and inconvenience for Bahamians as well as the majority of this country’s visitor base.
While it may not spark a huge surge in visitor numbers, Mr Sands said he also hopes it will lead to the US and its CDC “moving away” from the country rating system that has The Bahamas at ‘Level 3’ or a ‘“high” number of COVID infections.
“What it will do is ensure that the satisfaction level of the vacation experience remains at a high level, and that word of mouth of a good experience in the destination and not having to go through these things will pay dividends in the long-term for the destination of The Bahamas,” the BHTA chief said.
“I think this will help to continue to improve the value of the vacation experience by that cost going away. That money spent on testing could be used to spend on other things and enhance the vacation experience. This is another issue eliminated that takes away from the total enjoyment of the vacation in coming to Nassau. The time spent on identifying the testing location, making the appointment, creates a slight damper.
“While The Bahamas was well positioned to accommodate the CDC’s requirement to test to enter the US, given the myriad of testing sites on and off hotel properties throughout the archipelago, the fact the CDC has determined testing to enter/re-enter the US is “no longer necessary” is of paramount importance to our tourism sector. This effectively eradicates a significant friction point for travelers returning or travelling to or through the US,” Mr Sands continued./
“The US, our number one source market, has now joined the ranks of countries such as Canada, once recognised as having some of the strictest border entry requirements, and a number of Caribbean, European and South American countries who no longer require fully-vaccinated visitors to test to enter their jurisdiction.”
Other hotel operators were equally bullish on the US move. Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties on Harbour Island and Eleuthera, told Tribune Business: “I think it’s just another obstacle removed. I think it’s great. COVID is in the rear view mirror and we’re getting back to normal. It’s one less expense that visitors have to worry about.
“It’s just a hurdle that’s not going to feature any more with the cost of the test, the sourcing of the test. If you were flying on Monday, and needed a test on Sunday, in the Out Islands that’s kind of hard to do. All that makes travel easier, and hopefully that’s going to create a bit of a bump for us over the summer months as we wind down.
“We’re starting to wind down [from the tourism season peak]. We’re at 60-70 percent occupancy right now. It’s down from 80-90 percent or higher in the busy season. I have noticed just recently there was a bit of an uptick in last minute bookings. I’m not sure what’s driving that. COVID numbers are up in the US, so I don’t know if people want to escape the cities. I don’t know what it is, but hopefully this news adds to it.”
Mr Simmons also voiced optimism that the US elimination of COVID entry test requirements would encourage Europeans, who typically fly to The Bahamas via the US, to start travelling that route in greater numbers once again. They represent The Bahamas’ higher spending, higher yielding visitors who typically stay in the destination longer.
And he expressed hope that “the tourism powers that be kind of read the writing on the wall” when it comes to The Bahamas’ COVID entry testing protocols, a sentiment shared by Magnus Alnebeck, the Pelican Bay’s general manager.
The Grand Bahama-based hotelier, branding the US decision as “fantastic” and “amazing”, said: “I hope The Bahamas will quickly follow suit and drop it for incoming visitors as well. I think it will be a good thing if we mirror it. I’m not sure if it will put pressure on or not, but it will be a good thing if we actually mirror it.
“There are several destinations in the Caribbean that have already dropped it, so I think it will be great if The Bahamas drops it as well. It will be great if we can say to our US visitors that you don’t need a test to come in or go back to the US, and you can go back and forth test free.”
By Neil Hartnell, Tribune Business Editor