By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian marina operators yesterday hailed the sector’s June 15 reopening as potentially “saving 75 percent” of the peak summer season, adding: “Our phones are ringing off the hook.”
Joseph Dargavage, pictured, managing partner at Harbour Island’s Romora Bay Resort & Marina, told Tribune Business that the government’s decision to permit the industry to lead tourism’s revival two weeks ahead of other segments had paved the way for a “sold-out July”.
Revealing that the property plans to recall all 40 staff that were laid-off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he added that Romora Bay wanted to be “a leader and set the example for other resorts” when it came to implementing and enforcing the necessary health protocols and safety measures.
“As of right now, if all goes as planned, we will have a sold-out July and probably a very busy second half of June following all the protocols,” Mr Dargavage told this newspaper. “We hope to save, at this point, three-quarters of the summer. I, as well as the Association of Bahamas Marinas, have been pushing very hard to see this happen.”
He explained that the June 15 re-opening will permit Florida-based vessels “a place to say for the rest of the summer season”, while Bahamian marinas are also hoping that the larger boats and yachts that typically cruise the Mediterranean will now come this nation’s way. It will also ensure the industry is able to capture the benefits from the US Independence Day holiday on July 4 - something that may not have been achievable had it reopened on July 1 with the wider tourism industry.
As a result, Mr Dargavage, who is also the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) vice-president, said the industry was hoping these factors will “flow” into a a strong fall season lasting from late October into November and December. “This could really lend itself to a much better late 2020 than we normally have,” he added.
“Out of all the tourism sectors in the Bahamas, I do believe the marina/yachting sector will bounce back a little quicker than most of them. Yachts are essentially a closed hotel room, and their protocols on safety, health and social norms are tighter than most people’s homes and even hotels. They’re very strict as it is.
“The Bahamas is one of the best places you can be post-quarantine. We will be marketing the islands and waters of The Bahamas very rigorously from this day forward.”
Mr Dargavage said Romora Bay had “started early” on devising and implementing the necessary health protocols to mitigate the risk posed by COVID-19, and pledged that the resort will follow the measures issued by the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) and Ministry of Health “to the ‘t’”.
“We want to be a leader and set examples for other marinas and resorts,” he added, while also promising that Romora Bay will do “whatever it takes to bring back 100 percent of our staff.
“It was one of the toughest three months of my business career,” Mr Dargavage recalled of having to furlough most of the resort’s staff when COVID-19 hit, “not only for us as a company but mostly because of the employees were out of work.
“That was very hard on myself and the company, and we took it very seriously to hep everyone get through it. We had to lay-off 40 people. It was really tough. But they’re in great spirits. We’ve been doing food drives and fund raisers, and myself and the rest of the owners did what we all could. They’re ready to come back and we’ve been speaking to all of them.”
Mr Dargavage said himself and the few staff remaining on-property at Romora Bay had been “gathered round the TV like it was Christmas Eve” watching Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, confirm that The Bahamas will re-open to yachts, boats and private aviation traffic with effect from June 15.
“Thrilled” by the announcement, he added that it did not take long for the news to spread throughout the marina industry as well as the international boat/yachting community. “Just this afternoon the phone and e-mails have been off the hook,” Mr Dargavage said. “It’s been crazy, answering phone calls and e-mails all afternoon.”
A key factor in the Government’s decision to permit the early re-opening of the marina sector appears to have been the ability of incoming yachts/boats to electronically register and declare their arrival 48 hours in advance, thus providing the authorities with all relevant COVID-19 test results and other health information early. And all boaters will have to provide the Maritime Declaration of Health.
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told Tribune Business that the June 15 re-opening was the equivalent of “saving our season” given that two of the three early summer peak months - May and June - had effectively already been lost.
He added that a July 1 re-opening could have made it too tight for the sector to capitalise on the US Independence Holiday weekend, especially if there was bad weather, which could have driven boaters elsewhere and cost the marina industry its entire summer peak season.
“In the yachting world contracts have to be signed, provisions set up and itineraries,” Mr Maury explained. “If they can’t get here for July 4, which is probably the biggest holiday in the US; had most of our summer boaters missed July 4 they would go to the [Florida] cays and that would be the rest of the season done.
“May, June, July is our summer. We missed on June; that’s done, and had we opened July 1 and the weather or anything else happened that first week of the month, we write-off whatever we could have made in the entire year. We’re only going to get into the end of our season.”
Mr Maury said many yachts were unable to obtain insurance coverage for vessels kept in The Bahamas during the peak hurricane months of August and September, which was why July is now so critical to the marina sector post-COVID-19. Describing the June 15 re-opening as akin to “saving our summer”, he added: “That’s what we’ve been calling it: SOS - save our summer.
“If we don’t have a storm chances are that we can extend the stay of those boats a little longer into August as we missed the first part of summer. We may get a few more weeks of the season, and that would be great. May and June, that’s lost revenue no matter what, but we will take anything we can get right now.”
Mr Maury said Bahamian marinas traditionally use monies earned during the May-July peak period to carry them through hurricane season until November, when boaters returned due to the Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas run-up.
Noting that this makes the June 15 re-opening, and attempt to catch July, even more vital, the ABM chief added: “Typically by July most of the marinas have put that money in the bank and that gets us through the next two to three months.
“Then November comes and the start of the Christmas market, but we don’t know what will happen with that. This next six weeks is going to be crucial to get to the next season. It sustains us. For us, Thanksgiving and Christmas is a very short hit.”
Mr Maury said Bay Street Marina now planned to recall its full workforce, having kept 50 percent of staff on at half their previous work volume during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ll be able to bring everybody back from 50 percent to 100 percent and full schedules. Come June 15 we’ll be 100 percent staffed,” he added.