By MALCOLM STRACHAN
IT has been, without any exaggeration, a gruelling two months of lockdowns and curfews. On one hand, the good news is that based on our coronavirus-related death toll and number of cases, the measures put in place have proven effective on the mitigation front – though this must be said with a footnote as a result of a lack of mass testing. Nevertheless, while we recognise what has worked, we cannot deny the immense burden placed on the Bahamian people. And now, with reports of people clamouring for the opportunity to travel once international borders reopen, The Bahamas’ tourism industry may be on the verge of a much-needed stimulus. Still, our readiness remains in question.
Last week, Tourism Director General Joy Jibrulu expressed her surprise at the interest we’re already receiving from North American travellers.
“Airlines are indicating, particularly for July and August especially, the uptick in demand, people booking. It’s taken us a little by surprise, so I use that term cautious optimism that we will see a rebound. Of course it’s going to be slow, it’s not going to be a quick one, but we’re seeing one,” she said.
Indeed, the fact we’re receiving this kind of interest in what is typically slow season alone is great news. However, before we sing praises of joy from the rooftops, we should take a more detailed look at what Ms Jibrulu shared.
Noting that 90 percent of our visitors arrive to our shores from North America - the US in particular, our number one source market – we cannot look at their interest in coming here in isolation. While it is great that 75 to 83 percent of survey respondents in the US have said they are ready to travel, this is likely guided by an impulse to unshackle themselves after being cooped up in their homes for months.
With countries exhausted from the stranglehold the coronavirus has had on the global economy, the fatigue of citizens around the world has created a golden opportunity for capitalists to exploit. With the conservative advice of health officials being tuned out on Capitol Hill, economic engines are revving up.
While our decision makers have leaned on the conservative side, there has been no indication US visitors will be turned away. We’ve already heard the Minister of Tourism say cruise ships, synonymous with nightmarish accounts amid the pandemic, will be accepted once they resume travel.
Certainly, it is easy to pretend we can all just go back to normal. Why not? Cases are down and the hot weather minimises the spread of the virus, does it not? More scientific minds and those erring on the side of caution may tell us not to move so fast.
Top infectious disease expert in the US Dr Anthony Fauci is one such person who maybe doesn’t see the cup as half full. Rather, he just sees the cup for what it is.
With no vaccine coming before the potential of a second wave in the autumn, Fauci seemingly sees this as a powder keg moment. Speaking about US states opening too quickly, he believes “consequences could be really serious”. Not sure what the thinking has been around this for the brain trust at the health and tourism ministries here at home, but it doesn’t seem there is much concern with the US currently still being the epicentre of the virus.
The challenge that exists is that after being shut in, people are ready to break loose and get back to a normal life. Unfortunately, the disconnect is that doing so right now is not feasible. But for policy makers, particularly those more concerned with high approval ratings, caution is being thrown to the wind. That said, the Competent Authority must act in what is in the best interest for Bahamians. Surely, it is important for the economy to get up and running but doing so without good sense practices runs the risk of sidelining our labour force yet again.
In that vein, we should really be concerned about cases in our major source markets such as Florida and New York. For example, Florida’s cases spiked at the end of last week. And despite major festivities being cancelled for Memorial Day Weekend, South Floridians may likely put social distancing practices to the test.
Simply put, opening our borders for travellers from the US while they are leaning on numbers that imply decreasing cases without mass testing ever taking place is a gamble.
Especially while we have yet to hear about mitigation strategies employed by the hotel industry and, even more importantly, at the border, people need not only focus on getting back to work. Getting back to work is the easy part. Staying there, however, may pose a significant challenge if infected people enter the country. And something we should not want to do is to open up unprepared, only to close everything back down and potentially damage consumer confidence.
While on the topic of confidence, the ragtag handling of people coming into the country and other mishaps did not do much to make the Bahamian people feel more comfortable with a July opening of the country. Initially prescribed by the Prime Minister as a Phase 5 initiative in the reopening plan, we are currently still in Phase 2. And while we may be progressing well, we must not jump the gun, only to endanger our citizens and end up shutting the country back down. The reputational damage we may suffer for Americans giddy for the opportunity to travel before the potential second wave hits would likely be debilitating as Bahamians would again be unemployed.
Of course, we cannot continue to live like this in perpetuity. However, well-reasoned strategies must guide us – not just responding to what America is doing. Because as we can see, a mixture of cabin fever and false confidence is leading to a lot of brash decisions.
Just as slow and steady wins the race, a tempered approach will also save lives and, in the long-run, the economy.