By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Tourism always knew its COVID-19 recovery would be “drip, drip”, a senior official said yesterday, as he revealed that “off the hook” Family Island interest is starting to translate into actual bookings.
Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board’s (BOIPB) executive director, told Tribune Business that the post-pandemic rebound was never going to be akin to “turning on a faucet” despite the resurgence in interest among both domestic and international travellers.
He revealed that major domestic travel distributors, Majestic Holidays and BahamaGo, were reporting the “conversion” of significant interest into actual bookings as Bahamians and residents sought to escape then “cabin fever” they have been suffering since the COVID-19 lockdown was first imposed in mid-March.
Attributing this demand at least partially to the success of the Promotion Board’s “two fly free” campaign, Mr Fountain added that Bahamas Ferries - which had never inquired about it in the previous five years - was now showing interest in becoming a participant along with other Bahamas-based travel businesses.
As for the international market, he revealed that the Promotion Board’s website was now receiving 15,000 hits a week - the same amount it attracted during the 2020 first quarter - within two weeks of The Bahamas’ borders re-opening to foreign travellers.
He readily acknowledged, though, that “the noise in the marketplace can’t be taken to the bank” even though this was starting to translate into bookings, and said actual visitor numbers and spending will only return to pre-COVID-19 levels once a vaccine has become available.
“I spoke to some of the key distribution partners for us in the domestic market, Majestic Holidays and BahamaGo, about a week ago,” Mr Fountain told Tribune Business. “When we first rolled-out the ‘two fly free’ advertising campaign on July 1, a couple of days after that their phones were ringing off the hook.
“They were getting a lot of inquiries, and now they are seeing the inquiries convert to bookings. Both of them shared that they have been doing this promotion for several years, but this year they said there’s been a marked increase in the phone calls they’re getting.
“We believe it’s a combination of us doing a better job of promoting it and, because of the world we’ve living in today, everybody in Nassau has cabin fever since March. It’s favourable for the Family Islands. The Family Islands are ideal for a situation like this where we can offer them seclusion, and get away from the crowds. Overall, it’s been very positive.”
Mr Fountain added that he had been contacted by both Bahamas Ferries and Premier Travel, which each seeking to participate in the ‘two fly free’ promotion - something he says is a sign that these companies, too, have been fielding customer inquiries on it.
“I got an e-mail from Bahamas Ferries this morning asking how the promotion can be booked,” he told this newspaper. “I cannot remember in five years somebody from Bahamas Ferries calling me and asking me how to book the promotion.”
As for international interest in The Bahamas following the border re-opening, Mr Fountain added: “We had started advertising on July 1. Our website traffic, we are getting 15,000 a week going through Out Island.com, which is the same as before the pandemic.
“That is definitely showing people are interested in The Bahamas, and the Out Islands specifically. They now what they’re coming for. They’re coming for seclusion, no big crowds on the beach. The Out Islands are built for social distancing.”
Mr Fountain said he had yet to obtain numerical data on the tourism industry’s post-COVID re-opening, having so far received “anecdotal” reports of positive developments from operators in the sector. e added that the most popular Family Islands so far appear to be Eleuthera and Exuma, along with Cat Island and Long Island.
“We are very pleased with the noise in the marketplace, but you don’t take that to the bank,” he told Tribune Business. “We’re looking for conversions, and are starting to see that. We’re delighted that the phones are ringing, particularly for the domestic programme, and there’s some conversions, and are delighted to see website traffic back to the levels we were seeing in the first quarter this year.
“We knew from the outset, quite frankly, that until there’s an approved vaccine - which appears likely by some time early next year - our recovery is going to be drip, drip. It’s not turning on a faucet.
“We don’t expect to see - and I’m not saying we wouldn’t take it, of course we would - but we don’t expect to see the level of business we saw in 2018, 2019 when we had back-to-back record-breaking years. We expect it to be drip, drip,” Mr Fountain continued.
“As we get closer to an expected vaccine, we can expect to see business really take-off. If business remains steady, we will be quite satisfied with that.”