By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Harbour Island property manager has described the tourism hot-spot as akin "a movie set gone dark" amid the COVID-19 lockdown, adding: "We've not seen this in almost 70 years."
James Malcolm, a former Ministry of Tourism executive who now runs a vacation rental/property management business, told Tribune Business it was a "surreal" experience to see the normally-bustling destination at a near-standstill during what is normally the peak month in its winter tourism season.
"The island started to empty out as things got serious," Mr Malcolm explained of how the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on Harbour Island. "It seems there's a very small percentage of visitors that hunkered down, and got deals to stay in houses which they thought would be for a couple of weeks, but it now looks like it might be months.
"There are very few of those here. The hotels have all closed, the restaurants have all closed. Prior to them closing the FBO (fixed base operation or private airport), a few wealthy private persons were coming in on planes from New York and elsewhere."
Juanita Percentie, owner of Tingum Village, told Tribune Business in a subsequent e-mail that her property had not closed down and was still providing take-out food to residents who needed it. "We own Tingum Village Hotel and Ma Ruby's Restaurant, and we remain open and have posted the same on our Facebook page. Locals who need food can visit us between 8am to 8pm," she said.
Mr Malcolm, meanwhile, said that while the mail boats and cargo vessels from Florida continued to call at Harbour Island, and water taxis shuttled back and forth from mainland Eleuthera carrying "essential services" workers, Brilanders and their economy were witnessing something never seen before in their destination's long tourism history.
"The island is very quiet. We're idle like most places," he told Tribune Business. "For March, with this gorgeous weather happening, the whole thing is surreal. March being the peak month in Harbour Island's winter season. My grandfather used to say that if you're not making money in March you're never going to make it.
"It's surreal. It's the first March in almost 70 years where Pink Sands and other hotels have all closed. Pink Sands opened in 1951, and the others followed, with Coral Sands in the early 1960s. That's when it started. The whole thing is surreal, to have this March, where the whole town feels like a movie set gone dark. That's exactly what it feels like."
Mr Malcolm backed the Government's emergency powers lockdown of much of the Bahamian economy, agreeing that it was essential to prevent COVID-19's spread locally and protect The Bahamas' reputation as a safe, healthy tourism destination as much as possible so that this nation can fully exploit the market recovery when it does occur.
"Hopefully we'll be seen as a refuge in a few months when this is over if we don't get affected too badly," he said. "We can become a refuge place where people go to first. That's why we need to be overly cautious and stay inside until April 30, in my personal opinion.
"We have to make sure it [COVID-19] is not here and it is not bad. Then, by late summer, early fall, let's hope and pray this is done. That's why we have to be extra-cautious." The House of Assembly will today debate extending the Government's emergency powers to April 8, after it was confirmed that the number of cases in The Bahamas has now hit 14 with two hospitalised.
Mr Malcolm added that and other vacation rental/property managers on Harbour Island were either rebooking clients scheduled to come now for later dates or offering full refunds on deposits and other monies.
And, with rental rates amounting to thousands of dollars at this point during the peak winter tourism season, he added that clients were being give deals such as an extra night if they rebooked for quieter periods in a bid to add value.
"The last thing we want to do is play hardball and say: 'You're not getting your deposit back'," Mr Malcolm told Tribune Business. "We have to treat rental customers like that. It's very important. We have to pretty much let them cancel without penalties and give them refunds.
"Don't fight them. We need them to come back and think about us in a positive way. 'They treated us well, so we'll go back in September'."