By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Sandals' move to delay re-opening its Emerald Bay Resort until February 1 has dealt Exuma residents a "devastating" psychological blow, the island's Chamber of Commerce chief warned yesterday.
Pedro Rolle told Tribune Business the further three-month delay would undermine what "hope" residents had of a near-term improvement in their economic prospects, with the island now facing a bleak Christmas in the absence of its 'anchor' resort property.
"The economic impact is just a continuation of what we have been going through," Mr Rolle said. "But, in a real way, I believe that greater than the economic impact might be the loss of hope.
"Over time people have been living with the loss of jobs, income and activity. That's been very challenging. I don't want to under-estimate that but, during this [COVID-19] time, people were at least living with hope that between now and the end of the year they would begin to have some kind of income for when Christmas comes.
"What this does, greater than the actual loss of income, to the hope of people; it's going to devastate it, and create a level of negativity and helplessness. That might be as impactful as the loss of income itself. It's very disappointing news."
Jeremy Mutton, Sandals Emerald Bay's general manager, could not be reached for comment yesterday to determine why the resort chain has made this decision. However, the move to push back the resort's opening date by three months - from November 1 to February 1, 2021 - was confirmed by its website.
The revised opening date, though, brings Emerald Bay into line with Sandals' other Bahamas-based resort, Royal Bahamian, which is currently scheduled to re-open on January 28, 2021.
However, Sandals Emerald Bay's continued closure comes less than one week after American Airlines resumed regular five times per week service into Exuma from its Miami hub, as well as a weekly flight from Charlotte in North Carolina, indicating that any airlift concerns should have been eased.
The situation again highlights the difficulties The Bahamas faces in re-opening its resort and wider tourism industries, with COVID-19 infection rates in both this nation and Sandals' major tourism markets likely to have factored into the decision.
Given that other Sandals resorts around the Caribbean, from Jamaica to St Lucia, Grenada and Barbados are now open, with only its Bahamian properties still shuttered, the signs are that this nation's own COVID-19 levels and travel-related restrictions - which are set to ease on November 1 - may have been the greatest factor.
"It's going to cause people to now reassess what they do, and how they live their lives for a longer period of time without any income or on reduced income," Mr Rolle added. "I know it's going to be devastating.
"It's probably going to be an old time Christmas. Those of us who grew up on the island know what it's like to rely on family and relatives, and not so much on things. Those are going to be put on the side, and people will have to do things as a family. That's the clear message at this point, and where the psychological impact comes in."
Mr Rolle said that businesses, too, who had invested what little funds they have remaining in anticipation of spin-off benefits from Sandals re-opening will also be impacted. "We already had a diminished sense of economic activity, and now it's going to be even worse," he added.
"Effort has to be extended to giving people hope of some type of activity. That's the reality. We've got to come up with a solution to tide people over for the next six months."
Chester Cooper, the Opposition's deputy leader and Exuma MP, in a posting on his Facebook page, said the delayed Sandals Emerald Bay re-opening was "disappointing and disheartening".
He added: "These crushing blows are now the nature of the times, I suppose. But that makes it no easier for the people of Exuma. Sandals is the largest private sector employer on the island and a good corporate citizen. This will be crippling for the local economy and the hundreds of families who rely on their employment to put bread on the table.
"Also disadvantaged are those in local economy who rely on spin-off business. While this is a tough pill to swallow, I remain firm in my belief that Exuma will bounce back stronger than before and has the potential to be a major driver of economic activity for the country."