Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar.
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday promised to “encourage” the cruise lines to visit The Bahamas’ major cities immediately upon the resumption of sailing despite the sector’s preference for its private islands.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that he wanted to ensure the sector’s return impact is maximised for the benefit of struggling Bahamian businesses and their employees even though the cruise lines will likely want to visit their private islands only while they test COVID-19 related health protocols.
“Obviously when they start cruising again they will not want to come to the population centres,” he conceded. “They will want to go to their private islands because they can control the environment. As minister of tourism I’m going to encourage them to come to the population centres because that’s where they will make the most economic impact.
“At the outset they will want to check their protocols and see how they work, but we’re wonderfully positioned for the rebound of the cruise industry because we’re so close and they can so short cruises. The shorter you make the cruise, the less the risk. You can do a three-day cruise involving Nassau and your private island.”
Royal Caribbean’s unveiling yesterday of a $1.6bn loss for the 2020 second quarter, during which all its sailings were cancelled, highlights COVID-19’s impact on both the sector and the Bahamian businesses and livelihoods that depend on it.
While cruise passengers only accounted for 11 percent of pre-COVID-19 tourism spending in The Bahamas, Mr D’Aguilar estimated that the sector’s total shutdown had cost this nation $540m based on 2019’s 5.4m visitors and a per capita spend of $100 per visitor.
He added that the sector still has “some problems to work out” before it can resume sailing, as shown by efforts to restart in other areas of the world. One cruise vessel suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that infected 35 passengers and six crew.
“Obviously they haven’t come to any sort of conclusion with the CDC (US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention),” Mr D’Aguilar said of the industry. “I don’t know what the particulars are but there seems to be a bit of a stand-off.”
One key factor impacting the global cruise industry is that the vast majority of its customer base is drawn from the US, which is in the unenviable position of being the world’s COVID-19 leader with more than 5m infections and over 162,000 deaths to-date. Florida, which is home to three of the world’s largest cruise ports, has also been affected especially badly.
Mr D’Aguilar’s comments came after Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents the major cruise lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, confirmed last week that its members had decided to extend their voluntary suspension of sailing from US ports until at least October 31.
That represents a further month’s delay to the CDC imposed ‘no sail’ order, which is currently due to expire on September 30, as the CLIA warned that the industry’s restart hinges on COVID-19 conditions in a US market that supplies most of its members’ passengers.
“Despite the valuable alignment between CLIA’s previous voluntary suspension to 15 September and the CDC’s current ‘no sail’ order date of September 30, we believe it is prudent at this time to voluntarily extend the suspension of US ocean-going cruise operations to 31 October,” the CLIA said.
“This is a difficult decision as we recognise the crushing impact that this pandemic has had on our community and every other industry. However, we believe this proactive action further demonstrates the cruise industry’s commitment to public health and willingness to voluntarily suspend operations in the interest of public health and safety, as has occurred twice prior.
“CLIA cruise line members will continue to monitor the situation with the understanding that we will revisit a possible further extension on or before September 30, 2020. At the same time, should conditions in the US change and it becomes possible to consider short, modified sailings, we would consider an earlier restart.”
The Bahamian economy’s fate ultimately hinges on whether a US market that provides 82 percent of annual stopover visitors can get its COVID-19 outbreak under control. That appears unlikely, at least in the short term.