By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday admitted the steep promotional discounts being offered by Baha Mar were "slightly worrisome", and asserted: "We definitely don't want a price war."
Dionisio D'Aguilar, acknowledging the concerns of the $4.2 billion project's rivals, told Tribune Business that "the Government is concerned" about whether its opening will generate the promised gross domestic product (GDP) expansion.
Acknowledging that this would not happen if total visitor numbers did not grow, and room rates became depressed, Mr D'Aguilar said Baha Mar's top executive had assured him the development will "do its level best to minimise" the cannibalisation of other properties' markets.
The Minister was speaking after Baha Mar's 'Buy Once, Stay Twice' promotion exacerbated fears among its Nassau/Paradise Island rivals that it will discount heavily to attract business, forcing room rates down across the market.
The promotion, which closed yesterday, gave guests who stay at Baha Mar between July 24 and August 30 an opportunity to enjoy a second, equivalent stay between September 4 and December 17, 2017.
The second stay is priced at $50 per night, which is equivalent to just 29.4 per cent of the Nassau Paradise/Island hotel industry's lowest monthly average daily room rate (ADR) for 2016. Bahamian hotels are traditionally priced at the upper end of the market, in keeping with their high-end status and need to cover significant operating expenses.
Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business that the level of promotional discounting was "slightly worrisome, I must say", and expressed the Minnis administration's determination to avoid a 'rate war' between Baha Mar and other New Providence-based properties, including Atlantis.
"I don't want there to be a price war where the overall rates are going down, and we maintain occupancies at far lower room rates. That's not good for the Bahamas," the Minister said.
"Don't get me wrong, competition is good, but as Minister of Tourism I don't want a God almighty price war, as the only one who benefits will be the consumer and not the country."
Mr D'Aguilar said the Government had extended multi-billion dollar tax incentives and other concessions to both Atlantis and Baha Mar, including marketing/promotional subsidies, and wanted to ensure it received a 'return' on these investments via jobs and economic growth.
"The Government wants there to be a positive effect from these concessions, and an overall benefit to the Bahamian people," he added.
"A property of this size [Baha Mar] is clearly going to have a substantial effect on hotel inventory and the pricing of the market, but we have to make sure it doesn't do so to the detriment of existing hotels that have served us well over many years. We definitely don't want a price war."
Howard Karawan, Atlantis's top executive, had earlier this week expressed fears of market 'cannibalisation' as a result of new developments such as Baha Mar, adding that these projects should effectively 'take the lead' in attracting new airlift to this destination and expanding the tourism market.
He was backed by Gary Williams, Sandals Royal Bahamian's general manager, who told Tribune Business: "We all have the same concerns. Baha Mar is good for the Bahamas, but what the country can't afford is for them to discount rates. That is going to cannibalise the market. Discounted rates are no good for the Bahamas."
Mr D'Aguilar yesterday said he was optimistic that "a happy medium" could be achieved, arguing that the concerns of other hotels needed to be balanced with Baha Mar's efforts to establish itself in the market.
"Cannibalisation is a major concern of the other major players, other hotel operators in the Bahamas, and clearly Baha Mar has to develop strategies to get their product known in the marketplace," the Minster said.
"We understand that, but we have to be very careful that we don't grow the occupancy levels at Baha Mar at the expense of occupancies at other locations, at least from a sustainability point of view."
Mr D'Aguilar said it was key for Baha Mar to tap into new markets and grow the number of visitors to the Bahamas, as this would sustain - rather than degrade - room rates by ensuring there was enough demand for all hotel properties.
"On the one side, operators in the market are saying Baha Mar is not doing enough to grow demand; not at the expense of the other hotels," he added. "But, on the other side, Baha Mar is saying we need to get our name known in the marketplace and overcome the bad press that preceded they're opening.
"They've [Baha Mar] impressed on me that they're very mindful of cannibalisation, and [president] Graeme Davis assured me they're very mindful of that and are going to do their level best to minimise that.
"But on the other side you've got players in the market seeing the offers Baha Mar is making online, and realising the numbers going into the fall are not as robust as they should be."
Mr D'Aguilar said both sides needed to listen to each other, adding that the Government was "mindful of the noise in the marketplace" and the need for Baha Mar to grow the economy rather than split the high-end visitor market with Atlantis.
"It's early days," he told Tribune Business. "Everyone's a little jittery, everyone's a little nervous. The Government is concerned that Baha Mar's opening leads to an upward trajectory to our GDP.
"Everyone's watching to see if the marketing efforts they're going to deploy will have an overall effect of growing GDP for the destination. That's where our focus is, where our concentration is. The Government does not want a price war. That will not bode well for the destination. If we have too many rooms, it will have a detrimental effect."
Fears that Baha Mar may split, rather than grow, the market for high-end visitors with Atlantis have been present ever since the $4.2 billion Cable Beach development was conceived in 2003-2005. Paul O'Neill, Atlantis's former top executive, publicly voiced such concerns during that period at a Bahamas Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Should these fears come to pass, it would create downward pressure on room rates at both New Providence's mega resorts and, potentially other hotel properties, with none generating the profits they need to keep Bahamians employed and maintain a sustainable business model.