Tourism and Aviation Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar.
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday hailed the signing of an air services agreement with China as an "additional feather in the cap" for The Bahamas and its tourism product.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, confirmed to Tribune Business that the two countries had laid "the foundation and groundwork" for direct flights between them through their bilateral deal signed last Thursday.
While conceding that such direct service may still be some way off, Mr D'Aguilar said the agreement will smooth the process for when it actually happens. He added that it also "plays into" the significant Chinese ownership in the resort industry at Baha Mar and the British Colonial Hilton/The Pointe, which are controlled by Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE) and China Construction America (CCA), respectively.
"We did indeed sign a bilateral air services agreement with China," the minister said, when contacted by this newspaper. "This obviously governs the rules under which Chinese-flagged airlines fly to The Bahamas and Bahamian-flagged aircraft fly to China.
"Obviously we're much more interested in them flying to us than us flying to them. This is an additional feather in the cap. The agreement with China was under negotiation for many, many years. This is an additional feature that will help to attract Chinese visitors to our country.
"Were Chinese airline companies wishing to fly to The Bahamas this facilitates the whole process. It would be very simple and straightforward. If Chinese airline companies were to show up the rules under which they fly to The Bahamas have been negotiated already."
Mr D'Aguilar said The Bahamas had already eliminated the need for Chinese visitors to obtain visas to come here if they were travelling through the US, Canada, the UK and the European Union (EU).
The Bahamas to-date has sought to target the Chinese market by encouraging those travellers to the US and Canada to extend their stays and fly to The Bahamas for several days. While the distance between the two countries likely acts as a potential barrier to direct flights, Mr D'Aguilar said this nation could not afford to ignore the wealth and scale of the outbound visitor market.
Predicting that direct flights will eventually come, he told Tribune Business: "The Chinese tourist market is probably the fastest growing tourist market in the world at 1.4 billion. Obviously The Bahamas is quite distance from China... but when the time comes around to make the long trek all the foundations and groundwork to accommodate that are now in place.
"China is growing in wealth every day, becoming an economic power, and as the wealth of its citizenry increases their desire to travel also increases. Obviously we are nestled next to the wealthiest country in the hemisphere, the US, but it behooves us as China begins to grow in wealth and people travel more for us to be positioned to take advantage of that when it arrives."
Mr D'Aguilar said The Bahamas had long pursued a policy of signing as many bilateral air services agreements as it possibly can, and estimated that they now number around 60-70.
He revealed that The Bahamas also signed an air services agreement with Saudi Arabia during last week's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) general assembly that was held in Canada.
"It also provided us with an opportunity to meet with other nations and explain the plight we've gone through with Hurricane Dorian, and seek assistance - whether technical or monetary - to help us enhance and grow our aviation sector," Mr D'Aguilar said of ICAO. "It was very much a worthwhile venture."