By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An Exuma-based water excursion provider yesterday said it had "no choice" but to make the sector's November 1 opening after losing $1.5m in sales to COVID-19.
Ray Lightbourn, principal of Exuma Water Sports, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas "has to get rid of that 14-day quarantine" period for all visitors if the tourism industry is to enjoy a sustainable re-opening.
Suggesting that few tourists will come if they are confined to their hotel properties, Mr Lightbourn said tremendous uncertainties surround the plans unveiled by Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, and his Ministry of Tourism team to re-open The Bahamas' most pivotal industry at the second time of asking.
Unlike a hurricane, he added that the ever-changing environment created by the pandemic made it impossible for family-owned businesses such as his to plan properly as he voiced concern over whether quarantining resort guests will be able to patronise its services despite its existing tour contracts with Sandals Emerald Bay.
"To me this quarantine is ridiculous," Mr Lightbourn told this newspaper. "You came in having produced a negative PCR test, so why do you have to quarantine. We still have 80 bookings for November/December, and a lot of people are inquiring, but they don't want to quarantine. Who's going to come down? It makes no sense. They had to get rid of that quarantine.
"If someone had said at the start we would have had to close down for six months I would have thought they were being ridiculous. It's been very hard, and trickles down to everything you do. We don't go to restaurants; we have to save all the money we have. It's tough. We've lost $1.5m in sales to this point."
Mr D'Aguilar on Monday said quarantines, strict health protocols and even temporary border closures will for the foreseeable future be a new normal for the Bahamian and global tourism industry as part of efforts to combat COVID-19's spread.
The 14-day quarantine also ensures a level COVID-19 regulatory playing field for foreigners and Bahamians, with the former able to see out this period (if they stay that long) in a Bahamian resort property and enjoy all the amenities, excursions and beach front it provides.
Mr D'Aguilar, though, acknowledged that the quarantine requirement will likely eliminate The Bahamas' Airbnb and vacation rental business as such visitors like to explore and will not want to be confined to their accommodation.
And Mr Lightbourn said he was now "inquiring" of Sandals Emerald Bay to discover whether Exuma Water Sports fell under the amenities that quarantining guests can enjoy given its contract with the resort.
"We're waiting to hear if we're included in that exercise," he added. "It's good that the National Insurance Board are paying our 13 staff; at least they're getting something.
"It's tough. We've just got to hope that when we open back up… I don't know whether we'll be busy or not. We don't know how busy it's going to be. I don't have a clue.
"We don't know what we'll do with our staff. We usually pay them by the week, but may have to pay them by the day," Mr Lightbourn added.
"It's so different from a hurricane. After a hurricane you might be closed for three weeks, but at least you can make some plans. With this thing you cannot make any plans."
Mr Lightbourn added that re-opening will bring its own issues for Exuma Water Sports, with a $35,000 insurance premium payment - vital to covering accident liabilities and maintaining its hotel contracts - becoming due for payment almost immediately.
And its licenses will also become due by December 31. With the company having been largely closed for the past six months, Mr Lightbourn said it felt like paying insurance twice, while he had also been forced to order four batteries for its seven-strong boat fleet.
"We can't operate without it," he explained. "It's like paying double insurance this year, as we're not making anything, and that makes it extra hard.
"The business has not made a cent since March. We're holding on. I'm hoping we can make it to November 1. It's a month-and-a-half away. It's a long time, but we really don't have any choice but to make it."
Mr Lightbourn added that tourism's abrupt June/July opening, only to almost immediately shut down again, ensured Exuma Water Sports lost money on the hand sanitiser and cleaning products it had ordered.
Confirming that the company's boats had to operate at 50 percent capacity, he explained: "People don't realize; they think if you're operating at 50 percent capacity you're making 50 percent of your profits but that's not true. You only start making a profit at 50 percent."