By Neil Hartnell
Tribune Business Editor
The COVID-19 crisis was yesterday said to have cost Bahamian marinas what was shaping up to be “the best season ever” with bookings that were “through the roof” as recently as early March.
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told Tribune Business that the global pandemic “couldn’t have happened at a worse time” given that it coincided with the peak of the annual boating/yachting season.
He added that “it breaks my heart” to have to send 200 persons home between his Green Parrot and Margaritaville Paradise Island restaurant interests, together with the Bay Street marina, and said he would explore “what we can do” once their two weeks’ vacation and time owed period was over.
“I can’t even give you a quantifiable statement,” Mr Maury said, when asked about the extent of the economic fall-out after the government on Monday night effectively closed The Bahamas’ borders to incoming boat and yachting traffic.
“Fuel docks are shut down, travel is shut down, and a lot of ancillary facilities at marinas are shut down. We have some boats here paying storage fees but we’ve had to discount that. This is the charter season when boats come to The Bahamas. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. There’s no good time, but what can you do.”
The Bahamas had earlier this year invested heavily in targeting the high-end boating/yachting market, viewing it as a lucrative, high-spending sector populated by high net worth individuals who could spread their expenditure throughout this nation at every island they visited.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, and his officials teamed with Bahamian private sector marinas to promote this nation at key Florida boat shows in Fort Lauderdale and Stuart, and Mr Maury said the message was starting to resonate based on initial industry business levels for 2020.
“After everything the minister of tourism did at the boat shows, and promoting The Bahamas and everything else, this was probably going to be the best season ever,” the ABM president told Tribune Business.
“2019 was good, especially the end of it, from a tourism perspective, but once we got the message out.... This is the peak season. This was developing. At the beginning of March bookings were through the roof. People were booking slips, charters. Many charters were saying The Bahamas is the hottest place to go.
“We had incredible reservations, and hope with the recent Charter Show of sending people here. I guess it’s not going to happen now,” Mr Maury continued. “It’s hard to say. We don’t know how deep this is going to affect the economy and how long it’s going to go.
“Last year was a good year for the marinas, and 2020, with all the hard work the Ministry of Tourism did and everyone getting the message out, you thought 2019 was good but this year was going to be incredible. Every marina had bookings, and right now they’re all calling and asking what to do.”
Mr Maury said that, Abaco and Grand Bahama excepted, the Bahamian marina industry had largely escaped unscathed from Hurricane Dorian’s wrath as the Category Five storm had struck at the beginning of the sector’s traditionally slower season which starts in September.
Now, describing the COVID-19 fall-out as “kind of freaky”, Mr Maury disclosed that none of his business interests have been spared. “Margaritaville, Green Parrot, the marina. Everything is basically shut down. Everything. Two hundred employees. It breaks my heart.
“As of right now, we’re paying vacation and time owed. For a lot of people that will give them two weeks, and after that we’ve got to look at what we can do.”
Mr Maury said the Ministry of Tourism and Port Department had been helpful in responding to queries about what to in situations where yacht owners wanted to fly in to The Bahamas to ensure their vessels were provisioned and looked after.
“I’ve got boats that are in transition, or yachts that are anchored off, and we’re trying to give them provisions and help them with fuel,” he added. “They’re going back out to sea because there’s nowhere else to go.”
Mr Maury also suggested it would take some time for the global travel and tourism industry, especially the cruise ship sector, to recover once the COVID-19 crisis had passed. He added that a “whole psyche” relating to consumer confidence had been impacted.
Basil Smith, the Association’s executive director, agreed that the marina industry had “come to a standstill” after both this nation and its major Florida source market were closed to boating and yachting traffic.
He argued, though, that the combination of The Bahamas’ location, loyal boating following, multiple island offering and proximity to the US meant it was well-positioned to “be first on the scene” when the market eventually recovered.
Describing the recent yacht charter show as “beyond expectations”, Mr Smith confirmed that the charter broker market was something The Bahamas had been “looking at jealously” and “targeting for some time”.
He added that a group of US and European yacht charter brokers had been planning a familiarisation trip to The Bahamas this summer and, while it may be postponed, they were still committed to coming.
“I can only say we were very optimistic, and the members were reporting a very positive outlook for the year. Then this comes,” Mr Smith said of COVID-19. “This is one of the sectors of the tourism industry that very directly provides benefits to every island it goes, and the expenditure takes place on the spot.”