By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The coronavirus has teamed with Hurricane Dorian to create “a one-two punch that couldn’t have been worse timed” for Family Island resorts, a top tourism official argued yesterday.
Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board’s (BOIPB) executive director, told Tribune Business that the fall-out from the Covid-19 outbreak had struck just when these locations were “still suffering a slight hangover” from the devastation Dorian inflicted on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Revealing that “anecdotal” evidence suggests “everybody is being impacted” by the uncertainty and fear created by the virus, and its round-the-clock coverage by international media, Mr Fountain said the effects will be quantified when the Promotion Board obtains its first 2020 performance figures on April 1.
While it would be “commendable” if the Promotion Board’s Family Island properties matched last year’s outturn, he signalled this was highly unlikely as the figures would be up against “the best first quarter we have ever had” from 2019.
“Here’s what we’re seeing. It gets worse and worse as the reports [in the global media] get dialled up more and more,” Mr Fountain told this newspaper. “People that have planned a vacation, they’re going to go on it unless, of course, something was reported in The Bahamas. That changes things altogether.
“The people that have planned are going, but that’s more on an individual basis. Some of the group, corporate, meeting and incentives travellers, they’ll only travel of corporate policy allows them to. People who haven’t planned, those are the people that are on the fence and being impacted on a day-to-day basis by the news.”
The Bahamas’ status as a small, open tourist-reliant economy means that Covid-19’s impact on this nation will largely be determined by the extent to which the virus impacts this nation’s major source markets, which are the US (accounting for 80-85 percent of total visitors) and Canada.
Mr Fountain, agreeing that some impact was inevitable, added: “Before coronavirus we were still suffering from a slight Hurricane Dorian hangover. In 2019, we had the best first quarter ever, and the first quarter in 2018 at that time was the best first quarter ever.
“You have an increase in 2019 over the best first quarter in 2018. That happened to be the best first quarter ever, but in September we had Hurricane Dorian and, after that, we’ve had the coronavirus. How do you think 2020 will be?”
Mr Fountain said The Bahamas had to emphasise it is taking every possible measure to prevent the coronavirus from reaching these shores, and that all necessary checks, protocols and procedures were in place. It can also, for the moment at least, see it is Covid-19 free.
“Anecdotally I can tell you that everybody is being impacted,” he told Tribune Business. “Everybody is being impacted because the 2019 first quarter was the best first quarter we ever had. We were still suffering prior to this, from Hurricane Dorian, a slight hangover, and then came the coronavirus. With that one-two punch, how else do you expect the 2020 first quarter to be?
“It’s not going to be as good as the first quarter last year. Even if we hold our numbers it’s commendable, but that’s to be determined. That will happen on April 1. It couldn’t have been worse. It couldn’t have been a worse one-two punch, especially when comparing it against the best first quarter we ever had in 2019.”
Away from land-based stopover tourism, Mr Fountain said the cruise industry was being “greatly impacted” especially after the US State Department and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned elderly Americans and those with pre-existing medical conditions against travelling on cruise ships.
Elderly persons represent a large proportion of cruise ship passengers, and the impact on cruise ship share prices has been swift and unsparing. All major lines took a hammering from investors, with Royal Caribbean’s stock price dropping by 25.75 percent yesterday, falling by $16.74 to finish below $50 at $48.27.
It is unclear whether this will have any immediate or long-term impact on Royal Caribbean’s $300m Holistica joint venture for the Grand Lucayan and Freeport Harbour with the ITM Group, plus its planned additional $50m investment in the Royal Beach Club at Paradise Island.
Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Lines’ stock fell by 19.93 percent in yesterday’s trading to close down $5.41 at $21.74m, while Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) share price tumbled 26.66 percent or $7.20 in just one day to strike $19.81.
The cruise line industry’s response to Covid-19 is also affecting The Bahamas in a number of other ways. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s round-trip Nassau to West Palm Beach service, which launched in October 2019 amid expectations that it would bring 250,000 passengers to the capital after diverting one of its vessels from Freeport post-Dorian, appears to have been temporarily suspended.
The Palm Beach Post reported that the cruise line’s Grand Classica ship has gone into dry dock in Freeport some six months earlier than planned, with its chief executive, Oneil Khosa, quoted as saying: “Due to the business environment, we thought ‘Let’s get it done now.’ With coronavirus closing in, cruising doesn’t seem to be the flavour of the season.”
The Gran Classica is scheduled to resume its route in June, although its sister vessel, the Grand Celebration, will maintain its regular sailing schedule to Freeport. A 1,900-capacity vessel, it usually sails with 1,500 passengers, and is due to carry around 1,300 on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) principal, voiced hope that The Bahamas would be able to get through the mid-April Easter break and lock-in peak winter tourism gains without too much disruption from Covid-19.
“We need the tourism, so it would be nice to get through the rest of the season, March and April, so we don’t lose much of the peak season,” he told Tribune Business. “Those countries that have it are being significantly impacted. My guess is if it becomes prolific throughout the US we’re in trouble. It’s going to have an impact on travel, tourism and all kinds of things
“There’s too much uncertainty and too many unknowns. We don’t even have to have it. If the US gets it widespread it will have an impact on us because people will stop travelling. It doesn’t have to get to us. If the US goes into recession, we get pneumonia.”
Data produced by Travelzoo, the travel deal website, confirmed the Covid-19 virus was having a greater impact on future travel than those who have already planned vacations. Just 23 percent of those with planned vacations said they had been impacted, while some 67 percent said it had not.
However, 47 percent of respondents said they were “hesitant about international air travel in the next three months”, meaning that The Bahamas will likely feel greater effects the deeper the calendar moves into 2020.
Some 37 percent of Travelzoo’s US members also revealed that the coronavirus has impacted their interest in international travel, with another 25 percent confirming it had also affected their desire to take cruises.