By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday said he is quickly moving to “arrest the double digit decrease” in forward visitor bookings post-Dorian with some hotels suffering a 20-40 percent fall-off.
Dionisio D’Aguilar told Tribune Business that he had spent an entire day at this week’s 40th International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) general assembly “getting the message out that 14 of 16 islands are unscathed and open for business” in the category five storm’s wake.
Revealing that he will do similar with the US media and travel industry when he begins a three-day stop in New York today, Mr D’Aguilar said “we don’t like” the decline in forward bookings but it was not unexpected given global media coverage of Hurricane Dorian’s devastating impact on Grand Bahama and Abaco.
With many “geographically challenged” about The Bahamas, and unaware that numerous other islands and experiences remain open, he added that his ministry was “trying to draw the analogy” that a storm hitting New York or Toronto would not deter visitors from travelling to Washington DC or Montreal.
Mr D’Aguilar, though, conceded that Abaco and Grand Bahama collectively draw 1.1m visitors to The Bahamas, of whom 200,000 are in the higher-yielding stopover category spending around $1,500 per visit.
He added that Abaco, in particular, was “a very important market for us” due its status as a vacation rental and second home destination. The minister expressed hope that “at least some” of the 200,000 stopover visitors would shift to other islands, but acknowledged this would be easier to achieve with the 900,000 cruise passengers and boating visitors.
Speaking to Tribune Business from Canada, where the ICAO summit was held, Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business: “The position is we need to get the message out that 14 of 16 island destinations are unscathed and open for business.
“There have been double digit decreases in forward bookings, which is normal after a storm, normal after a shock, and Grand Bahama and Abaco have essentially been taken out as potential places for visitors to come to.
“We naturally expect there to be a decrease, but we wanted to arrest that decrease, contain that decrease, which has resulted from the reporting of the storm in key markets.”
While unable to provide figures for the forward bookings decrease suffered by the Bahamian hotel and tourism industry in Hurricane Dorian’s aftermath, Mr D’Aguilar said: “If you listen to one or two of the hotels, they’ll tell they’re in the 20-40 percent range of decline in forward bookings in destinations not impacted by the storm.
“We don’t like it [the decrease] but we expected some fall-out from the hurricane because most people are geographically challenged about The Bahamas. What we’ve been saying is that there are 550 miles from Grand Bahama in the north to Inagua in the south, and the country covers 100,000 square miles.
“What one finds is that if you imagine the storm to have impacted Toronto, would that necessarily stop you from having a vacation in Montreal? If you have a storm hitting New York, would that stop you taking vacation in Washington D. C.? We’re trying to draw that analogy.”
Mr D’Aguilar said he met with the Canadian media and about 100 travel agents while attending the ICAO general assembly to drive home this message, and he plans to do similar with the same professional groupings while in New York.
“There’s been this enormous amount of negative PR created by reporting of this storm by international media,” he reiterated. “There was this perception that The Bahamas - from top to bottom - had been damaged, and we were suffering significant and dire consequences from this storm.
“Tourism has divided the country into 16 different destinations, and the message for the media and travel agents to pass on to their customers was: ‘Yes, we were struck by a major storm that wreaked severe damage on two of them, but 14 of them emerged from Dorian relatively unscathed and are open to receive your business.
“We’ll have to get the message out that the country is not completely destroyed and is open for business. I think then that the message will begin to resonate fairly quickly.”
Mr D’Aguilar said his briefings were also intended to support Air Canada’s increased airlift to The Bahamas, with its flights rising from two to four per week and opening up the Montreal as well as Toronto market to this nation’s tourism industry.
He voiced optimism in the Bahamian tourism industry’s resiliency, noting that it had shown it was capable of rebounding quickly in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, 2008-2009 recession, and countless previous hurricanes.
“We think tourism is a very resilient industry,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business. “It’s subject to a lot of shocks, but it recovers very quickly. If you think about it we had Joaquin in 2015, we had Matthew in 2016, we had Irma in 2017, and now Dorian in 2019.
“It does have some shocks to the system, but has remained relatively resilient and bounced back very quickly.”