By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian marinas are "chomping at the bit" to re-open before the wider tourism industry in a bid to make multi-million dollar inroads into the lucrative yacht charter market, it was revealed yesterday.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that marinas were one element that believed they could safely resume business before the June 15-July 1 target date set by the major hotels and other segments in the economy's largest sector.
Adding that the government had "heard their cries and pleas", Mr D'Aguilar said the marina industry had made an "extremely valid case" for its reopening that will now be assessed by the government.
"The tourism sector always had a goal of mid-June to July 1," the minister told this newspaper, "but the maritime sector, the marinas, I think they're chomping at the bit to get going now. I don't think they need until the middle of June or July 1. They're of the belief that they're ready to go now. There are different sectors of the economy at different stages.
"The government will obviously assess before they come to a decision, but they're [the marinas] making an extremely valid case that's worth considering. We hear their cries, we hear their pleas, so we'll obviously open as quickly and safely as we can."
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, yesterday explained that the strategy presented by the sector to the government and Ministry of Tourism aimed to capitalise on the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the ultra high-end yacht charter market.
The global shutdown, he said, has left many vessels that would normally be cruising the Mediterranean and other global tourism hot spots parked/moored up around the US east coast. With wealthy clients having already paid millions of dollars in deposits to charter these yachts, he argued that The Bahamas' proximity and multi-island destination made it a natural alternative choice for such high-paying guests.
Pointing out that marina slips and fuel could be pre-paid online before a yacht's arrival, thus minimising interaction between staff and guests and preventing COVID-19's spread, Mr Maury said The Bahamas' multiple uninhabited islands and cays not only provided a variety of guest experiences but also "miles of social distancing" for those eager to escape crowded cities in the US and elsewhere.
"The way the whole thing works is that the charter industry is sitting on millions of dollars in deposits that were booked around the world - the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, The Bahamas - and are now sitting in escrow waiting to be spent," Mr Maury told Tribune Business.
"You have all these yachts that have been hanging out there in quarantine for more than eight weeks. They've been putting health protocols in. These are high net worth yachts that can't afford to get infections because if these millionaires get on board and get sick, they'll sue.
"They're looking for somewhere close to where they are. Most of them are in North America, and who could be closer than us? We're a 40-minute flight away. My proposal to the Government was to allow these vessels to come in."
To prevent further COVID-19 infection reaching The Bahamas' shores via these yachts, Mr Maury said the proposal submitted to the Ministry of Tourism called for their crews and guests to be tested for the virus both before they leave the US or other country or origin and once they arrive in The Bahamas.
He argued that the hoped-for "double negative" results from both tests would eliminate any possibility that one passenger could be an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier. "Our industry is completely different," Mr Maury added. "If a yacht comes in and clears at the border, the guests and crew stay on board.
"We have 1,200 islands in The Bahamas, and plenty of beaches to anchor up at, swim in the water and not affect anybody. You have social distancing for miles. That was my proposal. We would be a good industry to start the ball rolling."
Mr Maury said the typical high per capita spending of many yacht guests and crews stays in the Bahamian economy through purchases of food, liquor, dock slips, fuel boat washes and a full range of goods and services sourced locally, as well as generating significant tax revenues for the Government.
He argued that COVID-19 had presented The Bahamas with the opportunity to seize greater market share from a high-end yacht charter market that typically bypassed The Bahamas to focus on other Caribbean destinations such as the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands (BVI).
"It's been my purpose to bring this back to The Bahamas because we offer more than any other destination in the world," Mr Maury told Tribune Business. "In The Bahamas you basically pay one entry fee coming in, and can go all the way from Abaco to Inagua and everything in between."
He added that The Bahamas needed to adjust its marketing strategy to focus on physical distancing and promoting that "it's safe wherever you go" in a post-COVID-19 world, and also needed to move quickly as rival Caribbean destinations are already opening up to the yacht charter business.
"We could be the beginning of the step forward," Mr Maury said, revealing that he and the wider industry had been hoping to hear more from the Prime Minister's speech on Sunday night. "I can't tell you how many brokers, owners and captains have called me in the past 18 hours in disappointment and said: 'We really want to come to The Bahamas'.
"We were really hoping for better news. I don't know what to tell you.... People have had enough of this lockdown business. They want to spend a week in The Bahamas. It's summer vacation, and people want to get back to normal. It's a perfect opportunity for us. Business is virtually non-existent for the marinas at the moment other than a few of us have boats in storage."