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Bahamas Tourism Stronger Than Normal

Forward bookings for The Bahamas’ peak winter tourism season are 10-15 percent ahead of 2022 numbers, a leading hotelier disclosed yesterday, with the industry “satisfied” there will be no return to past COVID restrictions.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that “all the indicators for 2023” point to the industry surpassing its pre-COVID record year of 2019 as it continues to monitor the surge in COVID cases in China.

Pointing out that there are multiple “buffers” protecting The Bahamas against Chinese COVID cases, he revealed that average daily room rates (ADR), average per capita tourism spend and length of visitor stay were all “beginning to get to double digit increases” in percentage terms compared to prior year benchmarks.

Mr. Sands also told this newspaper that post-pandemic pent-up tourism demand remains higher than many in The Bahamas anticipated, with January – typically a month when business tapers off slightly from the Christmas/New Year highs – also proving “stronger than normal”.

And, despite China’s COVID outbreak in China reviving memories of what happened in 2020 and 2021 for some, the BHTA chief voiced optimism that there will be no global case explosion that resulted in the lockdowns, border closures and travel restrictions that marred those two years. He added that the “paramount importance” of protecting both lives and livelihoods would be factored into any future decisions or actions by The Bahamas.

The Government earlier this week stated it has no plans at present to impose testing restrictions on Chinese travellers, and Mr Sands said: “Based on our conversations with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Tourism, there is the utmost sensitivity with this particular matter.

“Obviously the health of citizens and tourists is of paramount importance to The Bahamas, but there’s also the paramount importance of sustaining the economy that is continuing to rebound robustly. Therefore, I think decisions will be made that encompass all those considerations.”

Asked whether the hotel and tourism industries harboured any fears about falling back into COVID restrictions and protocols, Mr Sands replied: “We are satisfied at this point in time, and we don’t anticipate us going back to this time period.”

He pointed out that The Bahamas attracts relatively flew Chinese visitors and tourists and, in the absence of direct commercial flights between the two countries, any travellers heading this way will have to interconnect through multiple gateways where COVID testing restrictions have already been imposed.

The BHTA president said this had created “a buffer” between The Bahamas and China’s COVID surge that should help to protect this nation, although the industry is “continuing to monitor the situation”. And 90 percent of The Bahamas’ visitor base continues to come from the US and Canada rather than Asia or the Far East.

Buoyed by a Christmas/New Year performance that “met or exceeded persons’ expectations”, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “If the demand in the last quarter, and certainly in the last month or two, is any indication and we certainly don’t see that abating….. The forward bookings for the first quarter of 2023 are much further ahead than the advance bookings for the same period last year.

“I would say they are anywhere from 10-15 percent ahead. I am reasonably satisfied that all the indications for 2023 would put us ahead of our best year in 2019. That’s a combination of cruise and stopover visitors. We’re seeing an increase in average room rate, we’re seeing an increase in average spend, we’re seeing an increase in length of stay.

“All the barometers are trending in the right direction. Without looking, I would say they’re running in the high single digits [ahead of 2022] and beginning to get into the double digits.” The 2023 first quarter includes the peak winter tourism season, and the run-up to Easter which this year falls on April 9, and is typically the period when Bahamian resorts make the bulk of their annual profits that carry them through the quieter periods later in the year.

Describing the tourism industry’s outlook as “exceptionally strong”, Mr Sands added that the post-COVID recovery’s speed and strength had exceeded the sector’s expectations. “I think we’re seeing it start with the first quarter out of January. January is stronger than normal,” he added. “What I also think is that pent-up demand has not begun to subside at the rate we thought it might do. It continues to remain strong.

“It’s also evidenced by the fact the equity of The Bahamas’ brand continues to be extremely strong because we are seeing growth from all over. We’re also seeing the emergence of Family Islands that here-to-before were not considered to be at the forefront of tourism; certainly Andros, while Eleuthera is gaining attention, and San Salvador with the re-opening of Club Med. We’re not only seeing growth in New Providence but are seeing it in the Family Islands.”

Mr. Sands said The Bahamas was also experiencing the ongoing revival of its group business, long considered as the market segment that will recover last from COVID because it takes time to build. He added that the industry was also confident that this nation has sufficient airlift capacity to meet present tourist demand.

“We’re beginning to see new gateways develop,” the BHTA chief confirmed. “At the moment demand can be met, but we continue to work on growth from other gateways to expand that opportunity. All the signs are pointing upwards. What is important is that the Government initiatives in terms of Family Island airport development and renovation continue with the growth we have.”

Mr. Sands shrugged off fears that continued inflationary pressures, as well as a predicted US and global recession, would impact 2023 prospects for the Bahamian economy and its tourism industry. “I think The Bahamas market tends to be on the mid to upper class tourists, which are less susceptible to the headwinds of inflation in the US. I don’t see that as an issue that will retard our growth in tourism,” he added.

By Neil Hartnill

Tribune Business Editor