By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas "can't afford" to keep its tourism industry shut any longer, a Cabinet minister warned yesterday, as he admitted that the threat posed by COVID-19 can only be "mitigated, not eliminated".
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, who was joined by his senior officials and hotel industry representatives in unveiling an 111-page list of health protocols designed to facilitate the sector's re-opening, said Bahamians needed to come to terms with the reality that the virus is "a fact of life" for at least the immediate future.
Acknowledging the dilemma that COVID-19 presents, Mr D'Aguilar said the country needed "to get Bahamas Ltd going again" to stave off its potential economic collapse even though some will argue that lockdowns need to remain in effect until the threat is completely eliminated.
He spoke out after unveiling a two-phased re-opening strategy for The Bahamas' largest industry, job creator and foreign exchange earner. Marinas, airports and fixed base operators (FBOs) will be able to receive yacht, boat and marina traffic from June 15 onwards, with Bahamian citizens, residents, homeowners and legal residents able to return via commercial flights once they take the necessary COVID-19 PCR tests.
Then, on July 1, international commercial flights will return to The Bahamas, coinciding with the re-opening of hotels and vacation rental properties (Airbnb, HomeAway). The transportation industry, namely jitneys, taxis and buses, will also resume commercial activity on that date.
Mr D'Aguilar said The Bahamas' reliance on tourism for around 50 percent of its total economic output, and two out of every three jobs, meant the country "cannot sustain much longer" the present sector shutdown especially since diversification opportunities will take some time to be realised.
With Ministry of Health data suggesting that COVID-19 has been contained locally, he acknowledged concerns that re-opening The Bahamas' borders to international visitors could spark a second infection wave as some may be carrying the virus with them.
Emphasising that this was why the Bahamas Tourism Readiness & Recovery plan had been devised, Mr D'Aguilar warned that COVID-19 may be with the world "for the rest of our lives". Describing the virus as "a fact of life", he said of the plan: "All these steps mitigate, not eliminate. We can mitigate the risk but not eliminate the risk.
"This is the conundrum. You have one group saying we should stay locked down until there's a cure. We can't afford to do that. We have to get the economy going again. We have to get Bahamas Ltd going again. Tourism is fundamental to that, generating 50 percent of GDP and two out of every three jobs."
Nor can The Bahamas escape its dependency on North America as the source for 90 percent of its visitors. Mr D'Aguilar acknowledged that the ongoing riots over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police were "most disconcerting, and "cause for concern", given that 82 percent of this nation's visitors come from the US.
The unrest threatens to further dent consumer confidence in a country where 30-40m Americans are already out of work, thereby undermining a travel market that is already weakened as a result of COVID-19. The gathering of large numbers of persons in close proximity on the streets also threatens to worsen the virus's spread in a country that is already the world leader for COVID-19 infections and deaths.
In turn, this increases the potential risks to The Bahamas in terms of both visitor infections and further slowing the tourism rebound.
"We feel our screening processes, our social distancing, all the mechanisms we've put in place will limit the risk, not eliminate it," Mr D'Aguilar reiterated. "There will be one group of persons saying we need to remain in total lockdown, and one group saying we need to eat.
"We need to get back into business. This will always be the challenge until we have the vaccine. Are we too open, or are we too closed? What's the right state to be in. This is the dilemma we will grapple with until there's a vaccine."
Mr D'Aguilar said tourism's reopening meant that requiring incoming travellers to either take, or produce the results of, a COVID-19 PCR test will "no longer be viable" given the time required for the findings to come back. Temperature screening of persons on arrival at air and sea ports, and their completion of health questionnaires so the individual risk they pose can be better assessed, will be the preferred methods.
"In terms of testing as we know it, that will no longer be reasonable," the minister added. "We just have to implement and comply with the practices of social distancing, mask wearing, and that will help us to mitigate the risk, not eliminate it."
Mr D'Aguilar said the Tourism Readiness & Recovery plan, and the protocols it outlines, will "from start to finish, be felt at every single touch point of the visitor experience" due to the new realities imposed by COVID-19.
"Travel and tourism will be markedly different from what it was prior to COVID-19," he added. "But no matter what type of licking you put on tourism it always seems to bounce back better and stronger."
The Tourism Readiness & Recovery plan is billed as "a road map" for the Government and industry stakeholders to employ in "preparing for the imminent reopening of The Bahamas' internal and external borders to local and international travel, and to re-enter the tourism market in a strategic manner which considers health and safety pivotal to the sustained restoration of the Bahamian tourism economy".
The plan adds: "As a tourism-dependent destination, The Bahamas' ability to propel itself to the forefront of regional and international competitors vying for the same depleted demand market is essential to the restoration of the national tourism industry.
"Having a plan in place is integral to the country's ability to retain the interest and engagement of our travel partners and potential visitors. This plan also positions The Bahamas as a forerunner in regional efforts to prepare to reactivate the tourism sector immediately upon the relaxation and/or removal of COVID-19-related restrictions."
Arguing that economic recovery "is inevitable" despite the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, the report added: "We acknowledge that when we reopen our borders, we must do so with the understanding that the world is, and will be for some time, markedly different from the one that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.....
"The deployment of a Tourism Recovery and Re-entry Plan which provides guidelines for health and safety protocols not only allows tourism businesses to deploy approved health and safety standards which will, as best as possible, keep employees and guests safe; it provides target markets with a comfort level that The Bahamas is a safe and healthy destination."