By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The Government is working to build a summer airlift initiative for Grand Bahama while remaining “resolutely focused” on selling the Grand Lucayan resort, a Cabinet minister said yesterday.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, said ahead of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting: “Our primary focus in Grand Bahama is to sell the Grand Lucayan. Our focus is resolutely on that fact. We are looking at airlift, but our focus is to get the Government out of the business of running hotels.
“The whole purpose of why we purchased that hotel was to act as a bridge between the former owner and a new owner, and that is our intention. We are resolutely focused on getting the hotel sold and in the hands of a company or group of investors who know about running hotels.”
Mr D’Aguilar said the Grand Lucayan’s sale was still expected to complete by the end of 2019’s second quarter, and added: “We in the Ministry of Tourism are actively looking at an airlift programme for the summer.
“There are costs associated with that, and we have gone out of our way to fund the acquisition of the hotel. We’ve got to manage our resources prudently. The Bahamian people don’t want any increased taxes, and they don’t want us to borrow any more money, so we have to live within our means.”
Canadian tour operator Sunwing last October announced that it had pulled the plug on its 2019 summer airlift programmen to Grand Bahama, blaming an “impasse” with the Government for its decision. Mr D’Aguilar at the time branded Sunwing’s financial demands as “madness”, as he accused the operator of failing to deliver and forcing all costs on to the Bahamian taxpayer.
He told Tribune Business then that the Canadian tour operator’s 2018 summer airlift programme had produced just 6,436 of the promised 20,000 visitors to Grand Bahama. Based on the $3m subsidy provided to Sunwing, the minister said this translated into paying more than $466 for every stopover passenger brought in - a sum that suggested 100 percent of the costs and risk were being borne by Bahamian taxpayers.
As a result, Mr D’Aguilar scoffed at the tour operator’s suggestion it had “lost millions of dollars” annually in providing summer airlift to Grand Bahama, adding: “It looks like they’re in the money.”
Blasting the Canadian tour operator’s explanation for pulling the plug on its 2019 summer airlift programme, Mr D’Aguilar said its announcement was “factually incorrect” and “disingenuous”. He added that its production was well short of the 30,000 visitors touted.
Describing Sunwing’s approach as “very confrontational, unwarranted and mean-spirited”, he suggested he would now seek to employ the incentive model agreed with Grand Bahama’s ferry/cruise providers - where tax rebates were determined by the number and type of passengers brought to the island - to airlift deals with the major carriers.
Janine Massey, the Sunwing Group’s chief marketing and technology officer, told Tribune Business at the time: “Simply put, we were unable to get anyone to extend/renew our existing agreement which had been in place for four years.
“Right now we have only cancelled summer 2019. We will be concluding our planning for winter 2019-2020 in the coming weeks but, under the current circumstances, we may be forced to cancel all winter flights to Grand Bahama as well,” she wrote in an e-mailed reply to Tribune Business questions.
“Sunwing has been developing these routes for the last four years, and has lost millions of dollars each year in doing so, but saw it as a long-term investment and partnership. Last summer and this summer, the flights were going to lose less than they had in the past and, therefore, with the programmes getting traction and losses reducing we were very sad to have to abandon something which we have worked so hard to foster.
“In addition, these flights in the summer meant that a lot of our hotel partners did not have to close - and did not have to lay off staff - in the low season. We are concerned that without our flying programme more jobs will be lost.”