By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Exuma's Chamber of Commerce president yesterday warned that Family Island economies "cannot survive" if inter-island air travel remains almost shutdown due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Pedro Rolle told Tribune Business that the requirements for persons travelling from New Providence to pay for, and obtain, a negative COVID-19 PCR test as well as quarantine for 14 days had deterred both commercial and leisure travel between the capital and Exuma.
While acknowledging that health and safety, and efforts to fight the spread of the virus, were uppermost in the Government's mind, he added that the indefinite continuation of such protocols would not only impact tourism but businesses that frequently needed to travel to New Providence to meet with vendors and conduct other transactions.
Arguing that the present COVID-19 inter-island travel restrictions cannot remain in place "for any extended period of time" due to the negative economic impact, Mr Rolle said non-health effects will have to be "taken into account".
He told this newspaper: "I'm not saying ignore the health concerns. Whatever it is we need to give consideration to, maybe more random testing, the existing things put in place continue to hamper and kill the local economy. We cannot survive with these protocols in place.
"What has happened is that folks, because of that restriction, it costs more to get the PCR testing done to come to Exuma from Nassau than it actually costs to come [on the ticket]. I spoke to three different folks who want to return to Exuma and have not done so because they're hoping something will happen to reduce the cost of testing.
"Even with the airports opened up I don't think we're having travel between the islands because people cannot afford the test. It's impacting us in a negative way. I know the authorities have to bear a lot of things in mind, but the financial impact is great. The restrictions placed on travel are rendering the decision to open up the airport negligible. Not a lot is happening," Mr Rolle continued.
"It's hindering tourism big time. What's the point of coming to Exuma if you have to quarantine? No one's coming here. Very few flights are coming. You have the right to come, but it doesn't make sense to come. We are feeling, seeing the impact on our economy with domestic travel."
With Exuma awaiting Sandals Emerald Bay's planned November 1 re-opening, Mr Rolle said economic activity "appears to be very, very slow". He added of Sandals: "That's probably how we will be able to see and feel a difference, but for now it appears kind of flat."
The Exuma Chamber chief's sentiments on the COVID-19 travel protocols reflect the position of domestic aviation operators. Anthony K Hamilton, president of the Bahamas Association of Air Transport Operators, told Tribune Business earlier this week that "not even a handful" of privately-owned domestic airlines and operators have resumed flying because the low load factors meant it was just not financially viable.
There's minimal traffic because of the COVID-19 restrictions. You have the quarantine period and fee associated with securing the negative COVID-19 PCR test result," Mr Hamilton added. "That's the sentiment that's emanating right now. Nothing has changed.
"As a matter of fact, some operators have not even moved. It's a miniscule amount that are seeking to execute; not even a handful. We will see how things go by later this week, but I suppose everybody is going to scale back a bit."
Mr Hamilton disclosed that the decisions by Baha Mar and Sandals Royal Bahamian to delay their re-openings beyond the October 15 date recommended by the Ministry of Tourism for the hotel industry's return would negatively impact domestic aviation operators by causing the major international airlines to reduce airlift/seats into Nassau.
"The major hotels not opening any time soon is going to impact in terms of bulk traffic," he explained. "The domestic operators operate as a feeder system for the bulk traffic. That's a big component we rely upon for traffic to move. Once the large resorts are closed we have to rely on domestic traffic, and domestic traffic is thin because they don't have cash flow."