By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Ministry of Tourism will be “more aggressive” in countering the “high single digit softness” in 2020 first quarter bookings after it received a $500,000 boost to its marketing war chest.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business yesterday that he had approved a reallocation of funding from within the ministry’s 2019-2020 budget to intensify promotional efforts designed to counter negative publicity related to Hurricane Dorian.
He added that some of the repurposed monies will be used to support new airlift to The Bahamas, with United Airlines’ service from Denver to Nassau, and an additional non-stop route from Boston, set to open further tourism markets this winter.
Predicting that peak winter tourism stopover numbers will be “flat, if not a little down” against strong comparisons from 2019, Mr D’Aguilar said the fall-off in the highest-spending category had been partially offset by the rapid rebound in cruise passengers.
He revealed that total cruise arrivals for October, just one month after Dorian’s passage, were up 11.4 percent year-over-year driven primarily by Royal Caribbean’s “incredibly successful” $250m Perfect Day expansion on its Coco Cay private destination in the Berry Islands.
Mr D’Aguilar, disclosing that visitors to Coco Cay were up more than 100 percent against 2018 comparatives, added that the strong cruise industry performance had ensured total visitor arrivals to The Bahamas for October - air and sea combined - finished ahead of the prior year by some 31,000 or 6.5 percent.
And he voiced optimism that the Ministry of Tourism’s experiment with Bahamian Customs and Immigration pre-clearance facilities at Florida airports will ultimately make this nation “much more attractive” to private pilots and “improve the country’s ease of doing business” - provided the proposal gains Cabinet support for a full roll-out.
Acknowledging continued post-Dorian “weakness” in some of The Bahamas’ key US source markets, Mr D’Aguilar told this newspaper: “The Ministry of Tourism is dedicating additional resources to advertising and marketing.
“I just authorised a reallocation of funds, about $500,000, in the Ministry of Tourism’s budget to free-up some additional monies for key destinations in the US. It’s obviously a market that provides in excess of 82 percent of our foreign visitors. We spent a week in Canada, our second largest market, two weeks ago and are beginning to dedicate resources and focus to key areas in the US.”
Florida and the north-east corridor, centred around major cities such as New York, Washington DC, Boston and Philadelphia, provide the bulk of The Bahamas’ higher-yielding stopover visitors but Mr D’Aguilar declined to identify which were driving the first quarter booking weakness.
“What the Ministry of Tourism is doing is reallocating priorities from this budget to take into consideration that we are encountering some softness in our first quarter bookings,” he told Tribune Business. “We’ve identified the markets where the softness exists, and are diligently trying to reverse that phenomenon.”
Asked by how much peak winter season bookings were likely off compared to this year, Mr D’Aguilar replied: “It’s in the high single digits so we are mobilising resources to counter that. We are expecting the numbers to be flat, if not a down a little bit, because we’ve lost the key markets of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
“It’s very hard to replace those markets in their entirety with increases in arrivals to other destinations in the country. We expect to close that gap as Grand Bahama and Abaco come back on stream, but it’s going to take time to recover from the negative public relations wrought on the destination by the international media in the aftermath of the hurricane. We’re going to become that much more aggressive in countering this.
“We are countering that with the resources we have in the best possible way, and are also investing in markets where we have new non-stop flights coming out of Denver and Boston. Where we’re getting those extra non-stop flights we have to put additional marketing to make sure they’re supported. You can never spend enough money.”
Mr D’Aguilar, though, said the decline in stopover arrivals numbers - if not the per capita spending yields - was being more than offset by a buoyant cruise industry that has just added another Bahamian private island destination through the opening of Mediterranean Shipping Company’s (MSC) Ocean Cay project.
“Cruise arrivals for the month of October are up 11.4 percent,” he revealed, “primarily because of the massive increase in the amount of cruise passengers coming into Coco Cay. That’s proven to be incredibly successful. It’s up over 100 percent.
“This is while stopover visitors are down probably 10 percent in October because of Abaco and Grand Bahama. That has been countered by the increase in cruise arrivals. The number of air and sea arrivals coming to The Bahamas in October was up 6.5 percent; from 453,000 to 482,000.
“Obviously one is worth a lot more than the other, but The Bahamas is still a very attractive destination. We expect that [cruise] to continue to grow very robustly because MSC’s Ocean Cay is just coming on stream.”
Mr D’Aguilar confirmed that the next phase of The Bahamas’ post-Dorian marketing efforts, branded Still Rockin, is due to launch in January “in most key markets”. And he added that the placement of Customs and Immigration officers at Florida Fixed Base Operators (FBOs), so that private pilots could be pre-cleared before coming to The Bahamas, should help diversify the tourism product.
“We consider the pre-clearance feature to be very innovative and will facilitate a greater diversity of access to a number of islands,” the minister told Tribune Business, explaining that it would eliminate the need for pilots to first visit a “port of entry” to be cleared before flying on to their intended destination.
“It greatly reduces the cost and time of going to a port of entry to clear, and then taking off again to your destination island,” Mr D’Aguilar explained. ‘“I think that makes The Bahamas that much more attractive, not only for foreign visitors but those seeking to assist the islands in need, and improves the ease of doing business in the country. It’s a feature we’re looking at.”