By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
North Abaco tourism is “in crisis and danger of collapse” over the lack of affordable airlift, one resort operator yesterday telling Tribune Business: “We’re running at 20 per cent occupancy right now due to the lack of available airlift”.
Several resort operators said the situation was exacerbated when Bahamasair discontinued its service to Treasure Cay back in September, leaving Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways as the primary carrier into the destination.
Stephen Kappeler, the Treasure Cay Resort, Marina & Golf Club’s general Manager, suggested that one of the smaller Bahamian carriers could pick up the slack, noting that the lack of available airlift to support the five resorts in north Abaco was “devastating”.
“Bahamasair has been pulled out of Treasure Cay. That leaves this airport with no domestic carrier coverage,” he said.
“What that means for the Bahamian residents is that there is no convenient air service to even get to the hub of Nassau. You also have five resorts, which represent a significant amount of the employment in the north. People are finding it a challenge to get seats. We are approaching Thanksgiving, and also the holidays in December, where there are no seats going in. There are none available, even if you look into Marsh Harbour.”
Mr Kappeler added: “Right now there is only one carrier, Silver Airways, that is flying into Treasure Cay and they may not even be flying seven days a week.
“What’s happening, in the case of the only carrier flying in from the US, is that the rates are now on most days not affordable into Treasure Cay. We support the new Marsh Harbour airport. It is a very positive thing that some day that airport is going to open. Everybody just wants to see it get open. Our cry is not that; it is the lack of available airlift and number of seats that could support the five resorts to the north, where we are finding the lack of supply is driving up the price to even get into Treasure Cay.”
Mr Kappeler said the Treasure Cay Resort Marina & Golf Club, comprised of 95 rooms and suites, was being adversely impacted by the lack of affordable airlift. “We’re generally running at 20 per cent right now with this lack of available airlift. It’s hurting the property. This situation is impacting jobs,” said Mr Kappeler.
William McLean III, vice-president of the Treasure Cay Property Owners Association, told Tribune Business: “Numerous of our Beach Villa owners, who number 119, rent their villas, and all with whom I havespoken indicate a measurable decline in rental activity.
“The typical scenario is that the potential renter speaks with the property owner to confirm availability, and then goes to schedule the flights. All too often, there is either no reply or a reply indicating that the flights are unaffordable, especially for families, and that bookings in other destinations have been made.”
Mr McLean added: “Most of us, as homeowners here, recognise that if we did not already own here, we would be hard-pressed to justify a purchase, based solely on the expense of getting ourselves, family and friends here.
“Christmas visits by my children are booked at nearly $1,000, with the Abaco segment the majority of that cost. That is not sustainable. When a ‘good’ fare from Fort Lauderdale to Abaco is $400, we are in trouble. When those good fares cannot be found and non-holiday fares are quoted in the $600 - $700 range just for the Fort Lauderdale to Abaco leg, we are in crisis.
“And crisis is where we are right now. It’s not rooms we need, it’s affordable airlift, so that those rooms and all of the associated jobs can be filled on a sustainable basis that will provide dependable employment for Bahamians. Until and unless the government understands and acts on that reality, tourism in Abaco will be in danger of collapse.”
Molly McIntosh, assistant general manager with responsibility for sales at the Green Turtle Club, expressed similar concerns to this newspaper.
“Airlift availability and pricing into Treasure Cay, and even into Marsh Harbour, is of extreme importance to me and the Green Turtle Club, and we are definitely facing challenges,” she said.
“Bahamasair has stopped flying into Treasure Cay. We are not sure if they will come back or not when things get busier, but it doesn’t look good. The ‘Two Fly Free’ from Nassau special that is being promoted by the Ministry of Tourism never worked the best for our property, but it is not working at all now as the guest has to fly into Marsh Harbour, take an $85 cab ride from Marsh Harbour to catch the Green Turtle Ferry in Treasure Cay, and then, in almost every case, pay for an $85 charter ferry to get to any points on Green Turtle Cay.”
Ms McIntosh said: “I want to attend the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board in early December, as I am a director, but with the flights and taxis and ferries it will cost me $330 just to go and come back in the same day.
“Silver Airways is providing a good service into Treasure Cay from Fort Lauderdale, and to Marsh Harbour from Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, but they have very limited availability and at prices that are the highest I have ever seen - often between $600 and $700 round trip per person.
“They run some sales but they must be booked within two or three days from the sales’ announcement, and for very limited travel times. We run a package with Silver where we purchase the tickets in bulk at a discount and package it with our rooms and villas, but they have severely limited our availability to the available seats, because they do not get full rack rate from us and they want to ensure that they are selling seats for as much as they can get for them.”
Ms McIntosh continued: “Every company has a right to make money and we want them all to be very profitable, but maybe there is a way to look at some options to make travel to Abaco more affordable.
“Competition would help, maybe Sky Bahamas could run a Nassau to Treasure Cay route two or three days a week and see if it does well, and increase days as they see it works. I know that I can sell a lot more packages if I had availability. In fact I can prove it from our last year’s figures.”
Explaining the reason for Bahamasair’s pull-out, Henry Woods, the airline’s managing director told Tribune Business yesterday: “The loads between North Eleuthera and Governor’s Harbour are pretty much even, but Treasure Cay has less than 15 per cent of the load of Marsh Harbour.
“In 2007, we had seven Dash-8’s;today we only have five and one of them is under heavy maintenance for 10 weeks. We didn’t have the capacity to continue. We have another heavy maintenance visit in January that will continue until March. It wasn’t an easy decision, but one that wasn’t avoidable. We simply do no have sufficient equipment. With Treasure Cay only 22 miles from Marsh Harbour, it’s a seven-minute flight. It’s very expensive and very hard on the aircraft for an additional take-off and landing.”