By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The FNM’s deputy leader yesterday expressed fears that Grand Bahama would again “depopulate” due to uncertainty surrounding its major hotels, as Memories’ parent denied claims it was pulling out.
K P Turnquest, the east Grand Bahama MP, told Tribune Business that with both Memories and the Grand Lucayan yet to fully re-open following Hurricane Matthew, some of his constituents were already applying for jobs at Baha Mar.
Memories has previously made clear its frustration with its landlord, Hutchison Whampoa, to effect post-Matthew repairs, and Tribune Business can reveal that several of its beach vendors and tenants have been told to remove furniture and other items from the property.
This sparked fears that its parent, the Sunwing Travel Group, was preparing to pull out of Grand Bahama. But the company and its Blue Diamond Resorts subsidiary, which manages Memories, yesterday reaffirmed their commitment to the island, saying they were seeking a “swift resolution” to reopen the 500-room property.
In a statement sent to Tribune Business, in response to inquiries over Memories’ future on Grand Bahama, it said: “The Sunwing Travel Group remains committed to operating in Grand Bahama, and continues to support the destination through our airlift and tour operator support.
“We are in discussions with the parties involved, including Government, to find a swift resolution to reopen Memories Grand Bahama so that Sunwing can return to its previous level of support, which had such a profound and positive impact on the island’s tourism revenue and employment in recent years”.
The all-inclusive Memories resort, which is adjacent to the Grand Lucayan Convention Centre, opened in February 2014. The resort is a part of the Blue Diamond Hotels & Resorts chain, the Sunwing hotel management company that operates throughout the Caribbean and Mexico.
Mr Turnquest, though, yesterday expressed concern that Grand Bahama could suffer a repeat of the “depopulation” it experienced with the Royal Oasis closure in 2004 if Memories and much of the Grand Lucayan remained closed.
With 1,500 rooms taken out of the island’s hotel inventory, and no indication of when they might come back online, Mr Turnquest said he knew of several housekeepers in his constituency who were now applying for jobs at Baha Mar.
“I think we’re already seeing the population shift out of Freeport to either Nassau or Bimini, who are also recruiting,” he told Tribune Business.
“We’re seeing basically the collapse of the tourism sector in Grand Bahama as a result of all of this. Thank God the cruise ships are continuing to call, or we would be really dead.”
Mr Turnquest said any Sunwing pull-out or reduction in services would negatively impact airlift and tourist arrivals to Grand Bahama - something the company’s statement yesterday refuted.
“Yes, we are worried about depopulation,” he told Tribune Business, “which will put more pressure on the economies of scale and the business community as a whole. Meanwhile, we hear nothing from the Government.”
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, yesterday told this newspaper that all Grand Lucayan workers not currently engaged at the hotel had been allowed to claim their 13-week unemployment benefit from the National Insurance Board (NIB).
“About 25-30 per cent of the line workers made application for their 13 weeks,” he revealed. “From the management group, between 15-20 per cent applied for their 13 weeks.”
Although these workers have not been terminated, they are not currently required on-property by the Grand Lucayan, which only has 200 rooms open.
The short-term outlook for Grand Bahama’s tourism industry has been viewed as bleak, with much riding on how quickly Memories and the Grand Lucayan fully re-open in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Tourism Minister, Obie Wilchcombe, told Tribune Business earlier this week that the immediate fate of Freeport’s major hotels is still “waiting on Hutchison Whampoa” to provide confirmed repair and reopening dates.
Mr Wilchcombe said that the Government was “continuing to talk” to the Grand Lucayan owner and Sunwing about their plans for the properties in order to bring the 1,500 rooms back online as rapidly as possible.
He indicated that Hutchison Whampoa’s repair schedule depended on the fate of its Hurricane Matthew-related insurance claim.