By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday said the Bahamas’ main industry had “dodged a big bullet” from Hurricane Irma, and should be able to rebound “very quickly”.
Dionisio D’Aguilar told Tribune Business that virtually all the Bahamas’ major resorts and tourism assets had escaped the ‘super storm’ unscathed, although their Florida market and south-east US airlift may take slightly longer to rebound.
He added that the Ministry had “ramped up its marketing machine” to dispel the suggestion by some international media that the entire Bahamas had been devastated by Irma, rather than just a few sparsely-populated islands.
“We were very lucky,” Mr D’Aguilar told this newspaper. We dodged a big bullet from a tourism standpoint, and should be able to get up and running very quickly.
“We should be able to return to business very quickly, but we have to do a marketing campaign to let people know the majority of islands were not hit by a Category Five hurricane.”
Several of the more excitable UK newspaper have already reported how Irma ruined honeymoons and vacations for British visitors to the Bahamas, going as far as to suggest these tourists had to endure 150 mile per hour winds - even though they were staying in Nassau resorts, some 200-plus miles from the storm’s eye.
Mr D’Aguilar acknowledged the need to counter such inaccuracies, and the perception created by some that the entire Bahamas had suffered a catastrophic hit on the same scale as the British Virgin Islands (BVI), St Maarten and the Turks & Caicos Islands.
“Unfortunately, when it’s reported that a hurricane is moving through the Bahamas, many many people don’t understand that we are a country of islands,” he said. “Some islands are affected and some are not.
“The Ministry of Tourism has ramped up its marketing machine into action to get the message out that the hurricane did not hit the major population centres, and did not hit the vast majority of the tourism plant.”
Atlantis; Sandals Royal Bahamian and Sandals Emerald Bay; Baha Mar; SuperClubs Breezes; and the Warwick Paradise Island are all reported to be open, with the Melia Nassau Beach set to join them today.
Resorts World Bimini, in preparing for Irma’s approach, said it would remain closed until today. Nothing further has been heard, although it also said that the ferry service and Elite Airways flights have been cancelled for the week. Silver Airways and Tropic Ocean are only doing outbound flights from Bimini.
The Bahamas was also fortunate that Irma struck at the slowest point in its tourism season, when many properties are often closed for renovations (RIU Paradise Island) and/or staff are on reduced work weeks due to low visitor numbers.
Mr D’Aguilar expressed hope that the storm’s economic impact on the tourism industry had “not been significant”, with the number of visitors forced to extend their stay offsetting those who could not fly in.
While air service from New York and the Bahamas’ key US north-east market is largely unaffected, the Minister acknowledged that the pace of tourism recovery will be “as quick as the airlift gets back on stream” from Florida.
The state remains the major gateway to the Bahamas, and Mr D’Aguilar said Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports were open from yesterday, with Orlando joining them at 12pm. Only Atlanta, the Delta Airlines hub, was still being impacted by Irma.
With the likes of American Airlines, Jet Blue and Delta having to reposition aircraft to resume normal schedules, Mr D’Aguilar said: “There is no reason why people cannot come to the Bahamas if they have booked a vacation. The hotel inventory is fine, and the airlift is in place to bring them here.”
The Minister, though, conceded that the devastation Irma inflicted on south Florida marinas - and yachts that remained in its path - could impact the Bahamas’ all-important boating market, which is largely driven from that state.
“There’s no doubt that’s going to have an effect,” Mr D’Aguilar said, “but I’m sure the boating trade realises our marinas are up and operational.”
He also told Baha Mar that it “must address” the design flaw or oversight that prompted the $4.2 billion project to close during Irma, rather than remain open to guests and residents who may have wanted to stay there.
Mr D’Aguilar said Baha Mar had explained to him that it closed because its convention centre “is not connected to the hotel”. Had guests needed to take shelter in the former, they would have had to venture outside and been exposed to potential injury from flying debris.
“They need to come up with a solution to get their guests from the hotel to the convention centre in the future,” he told Tribune Business. “They cannot allow that to be an excuse to close that hotel, so they need to address that issue as quickly as possible.”
Mr D’Aguilar said Baha Mar had been fortunate in that it had relatively few guests as Irma approached, implying that the design flaw needed to be corrected for when occupancy levels are much higher.