By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday conceded that maintaining the existing COVID-19 testing requirements for tourists entering The Bahamas could negatively impact both travel decisions and hotel re-openings.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, pictured, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business he "wouldn't be surprised" if potential visitors, hotels and other Bahamas-based tourism operators rethink their plans as a result of the government's decision to continue demanding negative COVID-19 PCR swab tests before persons are allowed to enter this nation beyond July 1.
The Bahamian tourism industry had previously argued that keeping this mandate in place would be impractical once the sector fully re-opened on that date, but Mr D'Aguilar said growing unease over increasing COVID-19 infections in the US - the country's major source market accounting for 82 percent of its visitors - and the threat they pose to this nation's gains against the virus meant the pre-testing regime has to stay in place.
"Probably, probably. I wouldn't be surprised," Mr D'Aguilar replied, when asked by this newspaper whether the government's reversal will impact both travel bookings and hotel openings. "The fact we're opening on July 1 affected some decisions anyway. Even when we didn't have it [the requirement for COVID-19 pre-testing] people were deciding not to open.
"One could argue that for those not opening it probably confirms they shouldn't open yet, and for those opening it will probably cause a rethink, but that's alright. Now we have made the decision we have to make it work."
Magnus Alnebeck, general manager of Freeport's Pelican Bay resort, echoed Mr D'Aguilar's acknowledgement that the revised COVID-19 protocols could change the outlook for hotels that had planned to re-open on July 1 - especially if they believed the insistence on pre-testing will further reduce already-depressed business volumes to the point where losses meant it was not worthwhile to come back.
"It will be interesting to see how many more hotels say they will wait until after the hurricane season because it's getting too complicated," Mr Alnebeck told Tribune Business. "At Pelican Bay we are open and remaining open, but our market is more corporate than tourist, so we will continue to be open with the little occupancies we have.
"We need to somehow start this engine, but it's quite complicated to start an engine that has been shutdown for a long period of time. That's what we're finding. You definitely cannot please everybody, and there are difficult decisions to make. The only thing we have to accept is this virus will be with us for a long time and we have to find a way to co-exist with it and control it. That's the reality."
Mr Alnebeck added that the decision to maintain pre-travel COVID-19 testing requirements could also impact airlift to The Bahamas if major airlines determined that fewer travellers will result in further reduced load factors.
Noting that American Airlines does not plan to return to Freeport until August 18, he added: "What other airlines will reconsider how many flights they do or downsize their equipment because there is no question there will be less people coming in. It's already reduced."
Muna Issa, Breezes Bahamas' vice president for marketing, voiced optimism that maintaining the COVID-19 pre-testing requirement could work in this nation's favour because it "may make the visitors feel safer and more at ease". She added: "It is important to keep The Bahamas safe and we hope conditions will change soon so that this will no longer be required."
Audrey Oswell, Atlantis' president and managing director, said in a statement: "Atlantis supports the decision, as it will contribute to maintaining a safe environment for our guests, team members and community. Links to various test sites will be added to our website."
However, the altered travel policy has sparked further alarm among hotel workers already bracing for a wave of terminations to rock the industry. With Baha Mar and the Melia already planning to downsize their workforces by between 15-20 percent, further concern was created when John Pinder, director of labour, said in a TV interview on Friday that resorts such as Atlantis and Comfort Suites were also looking at full separations.
No details were provided, but one hotel worker speaking on condition of anonymity said it came as little surprise that major Bahamian resorts were seeking to cut their wage bills to better align costs with depressed revenue streams give that the tourism sector's rebound now seems likely to be slow.
"If they had intended to reduce their staff, this is the opportunity to do it," the hotel worker added. "They could be taking advantage of this opportunity to downsize and have less workers due to reduced business."
Mr Alnebeck, meanwhile, said "more upmarket" tourists planning to stay in The Bahamas for several weeks, and who have booked their trips in advance, were less likely to be impacted by the latest change in COVID-19 health protocols than a visitor seeking an immediate getaway for several nights.
In the latter's case, the Pelican Bay chief said the extra cost and inconvenience of obtaining a COVID-19 swab test, plus the four-day wait for the test results, could deter that market segment from coming to The Bahamas.
"The more upscale and booked in advance tourist will not be inconvenienced so much," Mr Alnebeck added: "The ones who are inconvenienced are the tourists making relatively short decisions before they travel and come for a three-night getaway to somewhere like Atlantis. They now have to pay $300 for a COVID-19 test and wait four days for the results."
He said The Bahamas was no different from other Caribbean nations who are also having to change their COVID-19 protocols and advice for travellers on an almost daily basis. However, Mr Alnebeck said this could cause US travel agents to advise clients thinking of travelling to the region to "leave it alone for a while until it settles down".
In turn, he warned that some guests might also demand refunds if they cancel their travel plans due to reluctance to obtain the required test before travelling.
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told Tribune Business "my phone's blowing up right now" with concerns from marinas and boaters about the continued need for a swab test before persons will be admitted to this nation.
"The numbers have spiked in the US and this is what happens," he said. "How the hotels are going to deal with it I have no idea. The biggest problem is getting the test done. The minister of tourism told us on the ABM general meeting call he was going to try and get a list of places they will accept the COVID-19 test from. I just wish there was a simpler way. Unfortunately, right now, there isn't."
Mr Maury argued that the swab test was "not a big deal", having taken three himself when moving boats between The Bahamas and the US, but he admitted that keeping it in place was likely to cost this nation some business following the marina sector's re-opening on June 15.
"In the last couple of calls I've had, people are already reconsidering," he revealed. "I don't know what to do at this point. Everybody is sitting there saying: 'What do we want to do?' I've had one person text me to say July 1 is out: There's no reason to take a test.
"But if they want to come to The Bahamas, and this is what I said to the minister of tourism, now is the time to see it because no one's here. This is the time to see The Bahamas in a pristine state. Take the test and come.
"You may not see it like this ever again. The marine life has come back, it's in a pristine state and we're safe. There's not much we can do about this. There are no answers to this thing. Everything changes day-by-day."