By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday said Club Med's decision to close its San Salvador property until December 2021 is not indicative of the COVID-19 re-opening prospects for other Family Island resorts.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that the Columbus Isle property represented a "special situation" that was not reflective of other Out Island hotels due to its reliance on long-haul European visitors for the vast majority of its customer base.
Acknowledging that Club Med's decision will be "devastating" for San Salvador, given that its major employer and source of economic activity will have been closed for 21 months since the pandemic started, Mr D'Aguilar pledged that the Government is "exploring all its options" for mitigating the inevitable fall-out for the island's residents.
He provided no details, but argued that there was little the Minnis administration could have done to "remove the significant obstacles" that resulted in Club Med ranking its Columbus Isle property "low" when it came to determining which locations it can re-open safely amid COVID-19.
However, Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union's (BHCAWU) president, told this newspaper he was seeking an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to call on the Government to do whatever is necessary to prevent San Salvador's economy from "imploding".
Arguing that at least two members of every household on the island either worked at Club Med or in companies that provided supplies/services to it, Mr Woods urged the Government to establish "makeshift" medical facilities on the island of sufficient size and quality to allay the resort chain's fears about an inability to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak among guests, staff and residents.
The union chief, when asked whether Club Med will pay the resort's 160-180 staff their due severance and termination pay, said the BHCAWU was in the process of beginning those discussions with the operator after being informed of its decision on Monday.
"It's devastating for the economy of San Salvador for it to be that long," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business yesterday of Club Med's move. "December 2021 is, as you can imagine, an exceptionally long time. It's 15 months, and Club Med is the single largest employer on that island, the only major employer. It's naturally devastating for the residents of that island."
However, he argued that the resort chain's move was not a signal of what was likely to occur on October 15, the date recommended by the Ministry of Tourism for the hotel industry's re-opening, with a wider sector comeback planned for November 1.
"Not at all," Mr D'Aguilar replied. "That's a very special situation given the fact the whole property's focus is on the European market. It's a bit different. Most of our Family Island properties are very American-centric, and it's so much easier and closer to come up with a 'Plan B'.
"If you're an American in the Out Islands it's much easier to get home if you fall sick even though it has to be by private plane. Most people if they're ill want to go back home, but if you're coming from France and Italy, which is the greatest source of visitors to Club Med, it's a long way away. You can't put them on a commercial plane, and you can't put them in our healthcare system as challenged as it is."
Mr D'Aguilar confirmed that the main fears behind Club Med's decision were the inability of San Salvador's healthcare facilities to cope with a major COVID-19 outbreak, which was "compounded with the lack of international airlift" given that the resort operated just one flight per week in and out of the island from France.
"That was not considered sufficient," he added. "They're working their way through all the resorts in terms of what are the safest locations to open, given that there are not sufficient healthcare facilities on the island, given that there was no robust trans-Atlantic or international airlift, it reached that point where it ranked low in all their resorts in terms of opening.
"There wasn't much the Government of The Bahamas could have done in terms of removing those significant obstacles. They [Club Med] would wish for a scenario where COVID-19 is mitigated substantially, receded substantially or a vaccine is in place, would be my guess, before they go to a small remote location."
However, the union's Mr Woods said he was seeking an urgent meeting with Dr Hubert Minnis over Club Med given the circumstances, adding: "You've got to go straight to the head.
"We said there's no way those employees can sit around for another 15 months waiting for Club Med to be open. We're waiting on him. In the meantime the company and union have agreed to commence discussions about the terms of what the future is for the employees down there. Every household has two members working for Club Med or their spin-offs."
Such dependency on the resort, Mr Woods argued, meant the Government has little choice but to intervene. "It's going to implode if nothing is done," he told Tribune Business. "If there's no intervention I don't see the economy surviving.
"The Government is going to have to find a way to put a makeshift [medical facility] or anything, but something needs to happen. Our heart goes out to the persons affected. Our hope is that this is an isolated case based on where Club Med is."