By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A HARBOUR Island hotelier is hoping that the “seeds of doubt” sown by COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions will evaporate once the Government “lands” on a more consistent approach.
Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties, speaking in a recent interview ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement that the restrictions imposed on Eleuthera could be lifted as early as next week, said these measures make it “a challenging sell” for potential visitors.
While Harbour Island and Spanish Wells have not been subjected to the weekend lockdowns and curfews imposed on mainland Eleuthera, Mr Simmons said his properties have fielded numerous calls from concerned guests that it will be just a matter of time before the restrictions are extended to those locations.
Highlighting the difficulties faced by many hotels and tourism operators amid Dr Hubert Minnis’ warning that The Bahamas will go through more cycles of “tightening and loosening” in the coming months, in response to changes in COVID-19 infection rates, Mr Simmons added that other potential visitors assumed Harbour Island was also under restrictive measures “by association”.
Telling Tribune Business that business levels for December were “pretty good” given the circumstance with an average occupancy rate of 60 percent, he added: “It’s tough because we’ve been getting a lot of concerns. People are saying that if Eleuthera is on lockdown we can’t fly in there, correct?
“There’s that seed of doubt. There’s also if Eleuthera is locked down, then Harbour Island must be by association. It feeds a doubt in the market. People want stability if they’re making an investment in a wedding, investment in a conference and party. If it gets to that 30-60 day period where the deposit becomes more firm and non-refundable, it’s more of a difficult sell for people.
“Bookings are strong for December, strong for the Spring, but we’ve been getting two to three e-mails a day with concerns about the rise in US cases and lockdowns in Eleuthera, and concern that it’s only a matter of time before Harbour Island is locked down, are definitely causing people to revisit their plans,” Mr Simmons added.
“The lockdowns, curfews, whatever it is are definitely sending some alarm bells to the market. The clientele of Harbour Island are pretty dedicated to the place itself and want to get down here for a long time. I’m hoping they keep coming, and once the Government lands on a policy and gets out of the emergency it’s going to come back pretty quickly.”
Mr Simmons said he was thankful to at least be receiving some business, with December bookings and occupancies standing at 60 percent presently compared to last year’s 85-90 percent for the same period.
Acknowledging that his properties are easier to fill because of their relatively small size, he added: “We’re hoping that people will have confidence in the regulations and be willing to commit. There needs to be that confidence that whatever they’re purchasing is not going to change. The recent lockdowns in Eleuthera and Exuma sends the message things can change pretty quickly.
“We’re going to remain optimistic and hope we get 2020 in the rear view mirror and we’ll see a vaccine around the corner, fingers-crossed.”
Meanwhile Pedro Rolle, Exuma’s Chamber of Commerce president, called for rapid antigen tests rather than the PCR version to become the required standard for The Bahamas when it came to domestic inter-island travel.
Disclosing that COVID- 19 PCR tests on Exuma cost $300, a price he said was twice that of Nassau, Mr Rolle said this discouraged residents from taking such tests as well as acting as a further barrier to commerce and travel when the island eventually emerges from its own curfews and weekend lockdowns.
“We need to have more testing, and greater numbers of people being tested,” he told Tribune Business. “It costs more than $300 to have a PCR test done here. It’s twice as much as in Nassau. We need to have testing more available if we are going to have any semblance of commerce on this island.
“The requirement of a PCR test to go to Nassau is counter-productive. Nobody can afford to spend $300 on a test. I think it’s overkill. I don’t understand why you must have a COVID-19 PCR test as opposed to a rapid antigen test.”
Some observers may argue that the cost and availability of COVID-19 PCR tests on Exuma will only become important once travel restrictions are lifted, as presently permission has to be sought to leave the island. The PCR test has also been shown to provide more accurate results than the rapid antigen tests.
However, Mr Rolle argued: “If you can remain in the Bahamas on the basis of a rapid antigen test [as a visitor], why can’t you travel throughout The Bahamas on the basis of a rapid antigen test. Why not go to Nassau on a rapid antigen test if someone comes here and stays on the basis of a rapid test. “I think we need the rapid test to become the standard if you are travelling between islands. The $300 is discouraging testing, and instead of having less testing we need more. I think that if we can do more rapid testing, and it’s unlikely they will all give you a false reading, at some point in time we will get a better feel for where we are from a health perspective.”