* Competent Authority still 'evaluating' Baleària relaunch
* Delay hitting tourism revival and Dorian reconstruction
* Local representative says delay is 'hell of a dilemma'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A ferry provider's extended wait for the Government to approve the relaunch of its Grand Bahama service was yesterday branded "crazy" and "embarrassing" by its local representative.
James Turner told Tribune Business that Freeport entrepreneurs, and efforts to restart the island's tourism economy, were both suffering due to the near two-month wait for the Government to complete its "evaluation" of Baleària Caribbean's bid to resume sailing from Fort Lauderdale.
Disclosing that he has not received an explanation to-date from the Competent Authority (Prime Minister's Office) as to the reasons for the delay, Mr Turner said he had "taken a break" for Christmas before resuming his efforts to obtain the necessary approvals.
Baleària Caribbean had initially planned to resume sailing to Grand Bahama from its Fort Lauderdale base on November 5, but the protracted wait for The Bahamas to give the go-ahead meant it was now incurring significant unnecessary expenses to keep recalled crew and the vessel in a near two-month holding pattern.
Mr Turner said the ferry's seating, social distancing and other COVID-19 health-related protocols had all been assessed by Bahamian health personnel and other government officials, who had raised no objections or concerns, thus leaving Baleària Caribbean mystified as to the wait for approval.
Bahamian passengers returning from trips to Florida via the ferry were previously identified as a major source of this nation's COVID-19 'second wave', which began in July, and this - together with the Government's repeated warnings that citizens and residents should still refrain from non-essential travel - could help to explain the Competent Authority's reticence.
Mr Turner, though, said there was "no empirical data" to support the theory that Bahamians returning via the ferry to Grand Bahama were the primary cause of the second COVID-19 surge. He argued that a likely source was US citizens who came over to the island on day fishing trips and interacted heavily with locals.
And, with Paradise Cruise Line still prohibited from sailing by US health authorities' demands and curbs on the wider cruise industry, Mr Turner said Baleària Caribbean's wait for approvals meant Grand Bahama's two main sources of visitor arrivals - with airlift still negligible - remained totally cut-off.
"It's been a hell of a dilemma and I'll tell you why," Mr Turner told this newspaper. "The borders have been officially open to new traffic from November 1. We've had flights coming in, but Baleària were advised to delay.
"The Government wanted to review the seating, look at the seating, and make sure no other procedures ought to be put in place before the transfer of passengers. The Government officials reviewed it, including Kwasi Thompson [then minister of state for Grand Bahama] and his people, and they had no issue with it.
"The medical team wanted to visit the vessel to see social distancing. After reviewing it, they said everything was fine and they'll prepare their report and send it to the Competent Authority, who will give the final OK."
However, Mr Turner said that after "back and forth" phone calls with Harcourt Brown, the permanent secretary at the Ministry for Grand Bahama, he was told to contact to contact the Prime Minister's Office (Competent Authority) in Nassau because no response had been forthcoming.
He reached David Davis, permanent secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, who said two-and-a-half weeks ago that the Baleària review was "in process with Competent Authority and we should be hearing shortly".
However, Mr Turner said that when he again contacted Mr Davis a week before Christmas, he was told the sailing resumption had not been approved. No explanation was given, he added, when he requested a reason as to why.
"I told him this was ridiculous," Mr Turner said of his conversation with Mr Davis. He subsequently reached out to Mr Thompson, who said he was unaware Baleària was still waiting for its approvals and promised to get back to him but never did.
Baleària's Bahamas representative eventually received a letter saying the ferry service restart was still being "evaluated" by the Government. "I said to Mr Brown: 'This is a bit of nonsense'," Mr Turner recalled.
"We were fighting for this from November. We knew the ship wanted to sail for Thanksgiving. That didn't happen. We were fighting for the first week of November. That didn't happen. This is crazy. The reality is the social distancing that occurs on the Baleària does not take place on an aircraft."
He revealed the the 500-seat ferry had not expected to resume sailing with more than 50 passengers, and that its occupancy would be limited to 20 percent or 100 persons during the initial restart.
"Quite frankly, as a Bahamian businessman I find it embarrassing," Mr Turner told Tribune Business. "I told the guys: 'Just relax; the Government moves slow'. They said they've missed the Thanksgiving period, and if they get no traction before Christmas that doesn't make sense.
"They will not take any passengers before next year. You keep holding on, keeping paying the staff, have everything geared up and yet you keep waiting. You now have folks upset. Why didn't you tell me earlier, as we could have saved a lot of money."
Pointing out that Resorts World Bimini is relying on Baleària to be the major source of its guests as the property re-opens, Mr Turner said the ferry's continued absence was having "a significant impact" on Grand Bahama's ability to rebound economically from the twin effects of COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian.
With businesses and residents unable to travel via ferry to Florida to purchase construction supplies, he argued that Dorian rebuilding was being hindered. Travel costs have also increased, Mr Turner added, with persons having to pay $400 for a round-trip airline ticket - double the Baleària's $200 - as well as cover cargo shipping costs.
'Mom and Pop' businesses were also incurring extra costs and transportation difficulties, the Baleària representative added, while the loss of Paradise Cruise Line's services meant Grand Bahama was being deprived of sea visitors - its major source of tourism business.
"Tourism is basically dead," Mr Turner told Tribune Business. "The ferry has been the transportation franchise for Grand Bahama, but Baleària cannot move passengers and bring people over for a day on the beach. The Government is taking a position that only works to the detriment of tourism for Grand Bahama at a time when it could have advanced. The economic impact all around has simply not been good."
Mr Turner said it now cost him $700 for a round-trip American Airlines ticket to bring his child home from university in Arizona when, previously, a plane ticket to Florida and ride on the Baleària would have cost a combined $400, thereby saving a significant $300 sum.
He added that if Baleària received the go-ahead from the Government imminently it will be able to "ramp up in January, and by February we should be hitting our stride".
The Prime Minister's spokesperson, when contacted by this newspaper, said they would have to look into the Baleària Caribbean situation and call back, but no response was received before press time last night.