By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
A Cabinet minister yesterday urged Bahamians to "grasp the simple yet inconceivable reality that there will be no tourists" visiting this nation for at least two to three months.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, sought in his House of Assembly address to drive home the brutal reality that "the lifeblood of our country" will dry up due to the absence of thousands of stopover and cruise passengers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Arguing that The Bahamas was "facing an economic calamity that will almost certainly exceed that of Hurricane Dorian", Mr D'Aguilar said the combination of international travel bans, airline cancellations and border closures - especially those impacting its main visitor markets of the US and Canada - will result in hotel occupancies "rapidly trending down to zero" to become "the new norm".
Continuing to paint a grim short-term outlook for an industry that generates 40 percent of annual Bahamian economic output (GDP), and around 50 percent of all jobs in this nation, the minister said the tourism sector will be "strained to its very core".
Mr D'Aguilar, seeking to end on an optimistic note, reiterated his belief that The Bahamas was well-positioned to lead a global tourism recovery whenever it occurs due to its US proximity and lack of population density - factors that will appeal to travellers still concerned about the COVID-19 infection and not wanting to travel too far from home.
Starting by saying it "will likely be one of the most painful speeches I will ever have to make" in the House of Assembly, Mr D'Aguilar said the coronavirus pandemic had undermined an "accelerated recovery" that post-Hurricane Dorian was "vastly ahead of schedule".
Touting 2019's record 7.2m visitor arrivals, with air (stopover) and cruise visitors up by 6.7 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, for an overall 9.4 percent increase, Mr D'Aguilar said this momentum had continued into January as total tourist numbers for the month were up 7.9 percent year-over-year.
"Until COVID-19's rapid and uncertain spread throughout much of the world, our thriving tourism industry - the engine driving much of The Bahamas' continued growth - showed no signs of slowing down," Mr D'Aguilar said. "We were poised for another year of success, another year of growth, another year of plenty.
"Which is why it pains me deeply to stand in front of you all and recognise that, around the world, tourism is shutting down. Quite simply, the tourism industry worldwide faces a significant - some would even say, catastrophic - collapse in the near term.
"One only need look at our forward booking data, which reveals absolutely no bookings for the foreseeable future as potential vacationers retreat into their homes worrying about the uncertainty of their own short-term economic prospects and pushing any thought of any type of vacation out of their realistic realm of possibility."
The minister added that it was "fundamental" that Bahamians understand the coronavirus's short and long-term impact on the tourism industry, with the cruise industry having implemented a 30-day shutdown and air travel significantly curtailed by travel bans, border closures and minimal traveller demand that had hit rock bottom.
"Life as we know it will be fundamentally uprooted for the next 30, 60, 90 days. To convince ourselves otherwise would be of profound detriment to the collective struggle we as Bahamians have begun to mount, and will continue to mount, against COVID-19 in the coming months," Mr D'Aguilar said.
"Mr Speaker, we must be candid, forthright and brutally honest with ourselves about what the next two to three months will look like. Hotels will be vacant. Ports will be deserted. Streets will be empty. The lifeblood of our country will be devoid of the many millions of foreign visitors that are so economically impactful in our ever day lives.
"We are facing an economic calamity that will almost certainly exceed that of Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful hurricane to ever strike The Bahamas."
Mr D'Aguilar said the depth of the economic and tourism impact on The Bahamas, and its ability to recover, will depend on factors both within and outside this nation's control. He added that this nation must focus on controlling the coronavirus outbreak within its own borders first, then hope that the major visitor source markets - the US, Canada and Europe - follow suit with their own respective situations.
"The simple yet inconceivable reality we all need to grasp is that there will be no tourists," Mr D'Aguilar added, referring to the travel bans, warnings and restrictions imposed by the Trump administration. "I predict that, on the back of such announcements, hotel occupancies will rapidly trend down to zero as the travel bans, airport closures and border shut downs become the new norm.
"The Bahamas is confronted with extraordinary vulnerability owing to our pronounced reliance both on the United States and cruise lines. Indeed, the Prime Minister has highlighted that some 82 percent of stopover visitors hail from a country which is slowly closing itself off to the world, while 75 percent of our foreign visitor arrivals depends on a cruise industry which has entirely ceased operations.
"Mr Speaker, our tourism industry will be strained to its very core. A prolonged crisis in our crucial international markets and the corresponding collapse of our key airline partners augur extremely challenging times ahead."