By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
and NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Memories’ confirmation that it “vacated” its Freeport resort on Sunday, making several hundred employees redundant, was last night described as “horrible news” for Grand Bahama’s economy and tourism industry.
K P Turnquest told Tribune Business that the resort’s pull-out would have “tremendous negative impact” on an island still suffering as a result of Hurricane Matthew, with “depopulation” a major concern.
He was reacting after Memories’ parent, Sunwing Travel Group, confirmed its withdrawal from Grand Bahama’s resort market, blaming a lack of co-operation and obstacles placed in its way by its landlord, Hutchison Whampoa.
The 500-room resort is understood to have employed around 300 persons, and Memories said it was now preparing to pay employees due redundancy pay and other benefits due to them.
The resort’s departure is also a major blow for the Government, given the timing just prior to a general election, and coming swiftly on the heels of promises by Prime Minister Perry Christie and minister of tourism, Obie Wilchcombe, that $2.5 million in taxpayer monies had been released to advance repairs and get Memories open by May.
Mr Wilchcombe could not be reached for comment last night, as Sunwing and its subsidiary, Blue Diamond Resorts, slammed Hutchison Whampoa for having sought to impose “exorbitant” and “totally unacceptable conditions” on its bid to carry out post-Hurricane Matthew restoration work.
The two companies, in a statement seen by Tribune Business last night, said they had “taken on the significant financial burden of compensating and re-protecting customers, as well as running an air programme with limited accommodation options as a demonstration of goodwill and commitment to the people of Grand Bahama island”.
Sunwing/Blue Diamond added: “In January, it was reported in the Bahamian press that the Government and Sunwing had agreed to co-invest sums to restore Memories and secure its earliest reopening.
“Sunwing sought the hotel owner’s [Hutchison’s] consent for such restoration but, regrettably, the owner attempted to impose exorbitant conditions that were totally unacceptable to Sunwing, and would be to any other potential tenant.
“The Sunwing Travel Group is very proud of the partnership it has forged with the Government and the people of Grand Bahama, and very saddened to report that we were required to vacate the Memories Resort premises on January 29, 2017.”
The Sunwing/Memories move will come as little surprise to many in Freeport’s tourism industry. Tribune Business was told earlier this week that the resort was moving furniture into shipping containers, with beach vendor and retail tenants also asked to remove their belongings from the property.
Food supplies were also being sold-off, and sources were telling this newspaper of Memories: “I think they’re done here. It’s just waiting for the official confirmation.”
However, in a glimmer of light for Freeport’s tourism product, Sunwing confirmed it would continue with its present air services to Grand Bahama. And it promised that it was working with the Government to return as a hotel operator soon.
“Sunwing intends to continue supporting Grand Bahama and its tourism economy, including its hotels, through its tour operators, Sunwing Vacations and US-based Vacation Express, as well as by continuing its airlift programmes from Canada and from the United States in the summer, subject to conditions we are discussing with Government,” Sunwing said.
“We are also pleased to advise that as part of our ongoing commitment to Grand Bahama and its people, we are already developing plans in concert with the Government to return to Grand Bahama as a hotel operator, and are optimistic that we will be in a position to announce details shortly.”
In the immediate term, though, Freeport’s tourism product has lost its main hotel. Together with the Grand Lucayan, which has only 200 rooms open, some 1,500 hotel rooms have been taken out of Grand Bahama’s inventory.
“This is obviously significantly bad news,” Mr Turnquest told Tribune Business. “We have many people out of work, and with prospects of alternative work being what they are, I would expect the unemployment rate to jump tremendously.
“This is going to also affect the Port Lucaya Marketplace, tour operators, taxi drivers. This is one of the more significant drivers of the tourism economy in Grand Bahama, and the Grand Lucayan. It’s very significant for us.”
Mr Turnquest expressed fears that Grand Bahama could suffer further population loss as a result of Memories’ closure, with persons forced to look for work in New Providence and Abaco.
Recalling what happened with the Royal Oasis in 2004, Mr Turnquest called on the Government to ensure Memories lived up to its commitments to Bahamian staff.
“The Minister for Grand Bahama tells us the island is booming,” the east Grand Bahama MP added.
“It is so disingenuous of the Government not to explain to the Bahamian people where we are, and the plans for turning this around. It’s quite obvious they have no plans, are in a state of shock and don’t know what to do about it.”
Earlier yesterday, while addressing a Caribbean Marketplace press conference, the Grand Bahama Tourism Board’s chairman, Russell Miller, said heavy emphasis was now being placed on the summer tourist period as the post-Hurricane Matthew recovery struggles had effectively crushed the winter season for the island.
Still, Mr Miller stressed that the industry was “open and operational”, and is accepting visitors with several properties open for business.
“We are accepting visitors. Grand Bahama continues to struggle post-Hurricane Matthew,” Mr Miller said. “The island of Grand Bahama was hardest hit during the passage of Hurricane Matthew on October 5.
“Since then, tourism stakeholders have worked feverishly to get back to the business of operating our island.”
He added: “The winter season, they’re gone; we are not going to be able to achieve that. We are putting heavy emphasis now on the summer markets and the summer locations from the United States.”
Tourism director-general, Joy Jibrilu, said the Ministry of Tourism was working with stakeholders on the island to reposition and rebrand the destination.
“What Hurricane Matthew has caused is for us to look at how we can reposition and promote Grand Bahama,” she said.