By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Leading realtors yesterday urged the government not to "break the economy" as they warned that the mandatory 14-day quarantine facing all visitors will bring the international market to a halt.
John Christie, HG Christie's president and managing broker, told Tribune Business The Bahamas "should really not be locking down" since this would merely "postpone the inevitable" of having to work out how to live with COVID-19.
Arguing that infection prevention and mitigation should be the focus, Mr Christie said the two-week quarantine now imposed on all visitors regardless of how they are transported to The Bahamas would "definitely deter" international real estate buyers from visiting this nation as they would endure a 14-day wait before being able to visit properties.
He and George Damianos, Damianos Sotheby's International Realty's president and managing broker, both agreed that the new quarantine measure would also choke-off one of the few imminent sources of precious foreign currency inflows from foreign high-end purchasers.
Mr Damianos told this newspaper that the revised travel restrictions had "put a crimp" on the Bahamian real estate industry's efforts to rebound, with the constantly-changing border protocols merely adding to "the mess and confusion" surrounding this nation's efforts to revive its economy.
He added that the Government had yet to produce any "fresh ideas" for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in a COVID-19 environment, arguing that it had failed to "offer an olive branch or welcome mat" to encourage new foreign currency sources that can replace the loss of those associated with tourism.
Echoing Mr Christie by arguing that The Bahamas must "figure out how to live with this virus" in the absence of a vaccine and keep its economy open, Mr Damianos said the few "virtual sales" his firm and others have managed to close are simply not sufficient to offset the fall-off in transactions produced by international buyers physically visiting this nation.
Describing it as "a very scary time for the real estate market in The Bahamas", Mr Damianos said the focus for himself and other realtors was remaining in business through the rest of 2020 until COVID-19 was brought under control and associated restrictions eased.
While the 14-day quarantine's impact on tourism has drawn most attention, its application - and extension to private jet and boat passengers - will likely have an equally dramatic impact on the Bahamian real estate market. Foreign purchasers will want to spend several days at most exploring properties, and be unwilling to wait two weeks before they can do so.
"It'll definitely deter people from coming," Mr Christie told Tribune Business of the measures unveiled by the Government on Monday night. "Nobody is going to want to come in. I don't think it's a very smart move. Things had been going fairly well.
"Most people will probably not want to travel unless they're coming here to quarantine, and go to a place and stay. It's definitely not good news. I think Bahamians are still looking, and people are still interested. It definitely imposes a pause. People who would have bought are now holding up and just not moving forward.
"That goes for people doing new construction and new leases. It puts a halt on everything because people don't know what the future holds. It will slow things down and it will reduce foreign exchange earnings," he added.
"We are still doing sales, and people are still interested, but any kind of break on that.... An economy can only take so much. People get really skittish. It's not good."
The Bahamas is still trying to find the correct balance between health and saving lives, and keeping at least a portion of its economy open so that sufficient persons can still earn a living.
The revised border restrictions, coupled with Grand Bahama's lockdown and the weekend shutdown across most of The Bahamas' other islands, is both designed to save lives and protect the already-creaking healthcare infrastructure from becoming overburdened by a surge in COVID-19 hospitalisations. Some 65 new infections were unveiled yesterday.
However, Mr Christie urged the Government to "think more like a chess player" and plot its COVID-19 strategy several moves in advance to avoid further stop-start restrictions that undermine what presently remains of the Bahamian economy.
"There's an agenda in the world to keep people afraid, and The Bahamas should really not be locking down in my opinion," he added. "The real estate industry will survive, but it's almost like the Government is trying to break the economy for whatever reason.
"There's no way not to have the virus come in. We're postponing the inevitable, and devastating the economy at the same time, devastating livelihoods and devastating The Bahamas as we know it. They're not going to stop the virus."
Mr Damianos, meanwhile, said it was "no secret" that the 14-day quarantine will deter virtually all international real estate buyers from physically coming to this nation as long as it remains in place.
"We have people that want to come and visit a particular property, so they don't need to be here for two weeks," he explained. "One, in particular, was talking about coming for three nights.... It [the 14-day quarantine] has put a crimp on things. It has added to the mess.
"I'm not saying we had hordes of people wanting to come in and look at real estate. No. But we had several company-wide wanting to come in and do an inspection of properties, which they cannot do. They don't want to come in, and we don't know when this will end.
"It's very disappointing. It's a mess. It's confusing, and making it very difficult to sell high-end properties in The Bahamas." Mr Damianos added that there was "no question" that in imposing the mandatory quarantine for all The Bahamas had "cut off" foreign real estate buyers as a valuable foreign currency source.
"We don't have any new fresh ideas on attracting foreign direct investment apart from saying you can't come in unless you quarantine," he told Tribune Business. "The Government has not offered an olive branch or welcome mat for people investing in The Bahamas. Nothing new.......
"It's going to ruin the Family Island boating business; it's definitely going to put a major crimp on that. Marinas are going to be hurt. It's very complicated and it's very sad for The Bahamas.
"We need to start to figure out how we're going to live our lives here with this virus. We have to figure that out. We have to live with that virus. We have to be very cognisant of it and very protective of ourselves. But we cannot stay closed until next year or whenever they find a vaccine because we will all be in big trouble."
Mr Damianos said his firm and others had received a modest boost from "virtual" property sales following the initial COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent restrictions. However, he described this as a niche market that was in no way a substitute for the business volumes normally generated by persons physically visiting target properties.
"Virtual" buyers, he explained, did not simply "come out of the woodwork" but were persons who already knew the subject homes, area and the wider Bahamas well, and were therefore hardly buying sight unseen. They also were typically prepared to invest significant sums in upgrading and renovating their targets.
"We have been able to sell property virtually, which was a bit of a saving grace for us," Mr Damianos told Tribune Business. "I'm sure other agencies have done the same thing. But it's not a strong enough market to sell properties in The Bahamas virtually to keep agencies such as Sotheby's, Coldwell Banker and Christie's going.
"The main thing is how we stay in operation for the rest of the year if things don't tighten up with this virus.... It's an interesting time, but I don't want to sound like everything's rosy and hunky dory. It's not. We'll see how it all ends up, but it's a very scary time for the real estate market in The Bahamas.