Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest.
By MALCOLM STRACHAN
THE Bahamas is one of the most beautiful places on earth – charismatic people, pink sands and crystal blue waters - and attracts millions of tourists a year. Our natural beauty also enables citizens in the private sector to earn an income and put food in their families’ mouths. When a global pandemic snatches all of that away, we have seen that our gift is also our curse in some respects.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest’s announcement of how much revenue has been lost in mere months during the fight against this pandemic presents a horrifying picture of what’s to come unless we do something about it. With the country’s revenue contracting by $251.4m in the first fiscal quarter, or 45.5 percent, we need something drastic to happen. We have already had to make significant outlays to decrease government debt, repair islands destroyed by Hurricane Dorian and now, in a global pandemic, we need some way to replenish our coffers.
“The safe reopening of our economy remains one of the most urgent priorities, and we must work together to follow public health protocols and adapt our businesses to better contain the spread of the virus,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
He added: “The government is making sizeable outlays to respond to this crisis, and we are doing so in areas that can make the largest impact on the welfare of people: unemployment assistance, social support and small business assistance.”
Certainly, fighting this crisis from a public health standpoint has been an onerous undertaking. As cases continue to rise and our capacity remains under siege, one may say that the choice has already been made for us. The best we can hope for is it is done methodically and efficiently. To this end, the Ministry of Tourism’s press conference over the weekend should have instilled confidence in the citizenry that a strategic approach has been taken.
Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar’s admission we did not get things right a few months ago and some of the new information given is an encouraging sign that we may be able to receive tourists safely and grease the wheels of the economy once again.
Abandoning nonsensical measures such as a 14-day quarantine for travellers was a smart move, as the idea was a total deterrent for any prospective visitor. In its place, travellers will have to apply for a health visa inclusive of a negative RT-PCR test no more than five days old, and starting on November 14, the purchase of COVID-19 health insurance. Additionally, if guests are staying in the country beyond five days, on the fifth day, they would be required to take a rapid antigen test. Though not perfect, it provides a viable solution for what we need right now – heads in beds.
While the advice by local medical experts challenges the notion that testing at ports of entry is not needed, we understand the government is far more sensitive to deterring travel as the logistics of such an undertaking would be more complex in an archipelagic nation with multiple ports of entry. However, as demand and reduced airlift gives us the ability to focus on Grand Bahama and New Providence, we still would have liked to have seen this measure included in the new protocols.
Nonetheless, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar has expressed confidence we are in a position to get things right this time around. We certainly hope that is the case, as we could not imagine what would happen if our major resorts cannot open. And while much of the conversation focuses on hotel employees, there are many individuals who depend on restaurants, excursions and other hospitality businesses for their livelihoods.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization recently announced that since the global contraction of the tourism industry, there has been $730bn in lost tourism revenue compared with last year in the face of a 70 percent decline in travel demand for 2020. With most experts projecting a third quarter of 2021 for a rebound, all of this is contingent on how well we manage COVID-19 in tandem with the success of our hospitality industry and these new protocols.
No doubt, the government has been roundly criticised for opening when and how it did in July. Now, however, we have no choice and no other option but to do so safely and successfully. For as long as our people have been desperately trying to keep our heads above water, for those of us that were drowning amid this pandemic, hopefully we can soon come up for air.