By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Ministerial intervention yesterday overcame “a rocky start” to the tourism industry’s re-opening after Bahamas Customs failed to appear at multiple marinas to clear incoming boats and yachts
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told Tribune Business he was forced to contact both K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, and Dionisio D’Aguilar, minster of tourism and aviation, to resolve a situation that could have marred tourism’s first day of business following its three-month COVID-19 lockdown.
“As usual it’s had a bit of a rocky start, but it’s all sorted out now,” Mr Maury said. “Customs did not want to come in and clear the boats, although Immigration came in and was ready for the job.
“I got several calls from marinas all over The Bahamas - Bimini, Albany, Bay Street - that Customs was not coming into clear the vessels. They said they hadn’t got the memo. You know how that goes. We had boats here ready to go. The deputy prime minister and minister of tourism sorted it out, and we had boats clearing from 9am.”
Mr Maury said he moved rapidly for fear the situation could have resulted in a public relations disaster for The Bahamas, which had heavily promoted its June 15 re-opening to yachts, boats and private aviation traffic ahead of the border restrictions fully melting away to all other forms of tourism traffic on July 1.
Noting that his and other marinas were “getting a lot of reservations” for next month, which includes the July 4 Independence Day holiday in the US, Mr Maury told this newspaper: “That’s why I pushed so hard this morning to get these boats cleared.
“If they turn around and say they tried to get into The Bahamas and it was a disaster because Customs said they were not going to clear anything, it will be posted on blogs and social media and go everywhere.... These guys [Customs and the public sector agencies] don’t think about the fall-out. Imagine if they had done this on July 1.”
Both Mr Turnquest and Mr D’Aguilar confirmed to Tribune Business that their intervention had been required, although neither went into detail about what caused the Customs-related hold-up. The deputy prime minister blamed it on “just a misunderstanding on the form for the health clearance”, while his tourism counterpart said The Bahamas’ multiple islands and ports of entry meant it “takes a while for word to reach the troops on the ground”.
Mr D’Aguilar, suggesting that “hiccups” were inevitable as the Bahamian tourism industry sought to both relaunch and get to grips with its new COVID-19 health protocols, said: “It’s the first day and everybody is trying to figure out how it all works, but I think we got everything sorted out.
“The Bahamas is an archipelagic country, and there are multiple ports of entry, so it takes a while for the word to get out to the troops on the ground. We expected a few hiccups on day one, and there will probably be some more on day two.
“Once everyone gets familiar with the new normal these bumps in the road will go away. It’s a function of getting the word out to the troops on the ground. The heads of Customs and Immigration have both been very supportive of getting the tourism industry back open, making it as easy as possible while adhering to health protocols, and they acted very swiftly as soon as this was brought to their attention.”
Mr Turnquest, who has ministerial responsibility for Customs, added: “Everything is fine now. It was a simple matter of the health form not being the correct form. This was the first day. There will be little hiccups. That was sorted and everything should be working fine.” Dr Geannine Moss, Customs comptroller, did not respond to a Tribune Business e-mail seeking comment before press time last night.
Mr Maury, meanwhile, told Tribune Business that most Bahamian marinas were hoping July and August will generate sufficient business to carry them through the remainder of 2020 and enable them to reach a “break even” position financially after losing three months to COVID-19.
“If things continue into July, and we’re able to get the bookings we have in, and it [COVID-19] doesn’t go completely off the charts and we avoid a hurricane, I think we will get a couple of good months to see it through,” he said.
“That’s all we can hope for. I don’t think anyone will have a banner year or profitable year. I think what everyone is hoping for is break even. I don’t think anybody will be putting money in the bank, but if we get to that [break even] point we will be able to plan for 2021. That’s what we’re hoping for. I don’t have great expectations.”
Mr Maury said a number of yachts and boats had informed him they were “going to wait for July 1” and the wider Bahamian tourism re-opening given the expectation that they would no longer be required to provide the results of a COVID-19 test before entering this nation.
The ABM chief, though, said he had warned these potential visitors: “Don’t count on that.” While Mr D’Aguilar previously told this newspaper that the Bahamian tourism industry believed requiring visitors to take such a test, and obtain the results, prior to travelling would be impractical, the Prime Minister said he had yet to determine what the policy will be come July 1.
Mr Maury said social media images and videos of persons not wearing masks and adhering to social distancing at Arawak Cay, as well as rising COVID-19 infection rates in key US tourist source markets such as Florida, would potentially be sufficient encouragement for the Government to re-impose restrictions.
He added, though, that the boating/yachting industry was characterised by social distancing and other COVID-related protocols - especially given that there are currently few to no vessels in The Bahamas. Mr Maury said many of his existing reservations are for “overnight”, with vessels entering and clearing Customs/Immigration before heading off to the Exumas and other Family Islands.
“I’m happy we’re getting some business,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s not the normal level of business, but at least it’s something. I’ve talked to half a dozen marinas where vessels have been clearing. It’s bringing something, whereas last week I had nothing. If I get a day’s dockage, a couple of day’s dockage, at least it’s something.
“We’re full for July, but that is still two weeks away, and it depends on what happens between now and then. That may change depending on testing requirements or other regulations. I’m just hoping we get to that point and nothing gets too crazy. The one thing we know with this virus is that everything changes in a week. You cannot plan anything. The only thing that’s consistent is you cannot plan from one week to the next.”
Mr D’Aguilar, meanwhile, confirmed that visitors will have to abide by the 9pm-5am curfew, beach closures and all other restrictions still in place. While these restrictions may not be consistent with the environment The Bahamas wants to offer to tourists, he said visitors and residents will receive exactly the same treatment.
“We’re trying to address all of these issues,” he said. “There’s the health environment and restoring the tourism industry. Sometimes they do not move in the same direction, but we’ll address these things as they come up.”