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Tourism Chief: Covid Test Tightening ‘Right Thing To Do’

  • Visitors booked for August 6-8 scrambling

  • And 'huge deterrent' to inter-island travel

  • Chamber chief: Like buying 2 airline tickets

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Bahamas’ top hotelier yesterday said the government’s tightening of COVID-19 testing requirements for incoming travellers was “the right thing to do” in a bid to bring the country’s soaring infection rate under control.

Robert Sands, The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that it was “fundamental to the continued growth of the economy, and the health and welfare of its people” that all measures deemed necessary to contain COVID-19’s spread be enacted.

He spoke out after the government effectively performed a u-turn in its treatment of vaccinated travellers, both tourists and Bahamians, who are entering this nation. With effect from this Friday, August 6, they will now be required to present either a negative COVID-19 rapid antigen or PCR test taken within five days before travelling to this nation to be admitted at the border.

This reverts to the pre-July 1 position by reinstating the requirements for all incoming travellers to produce a negative COVID-19 test whether vaccinated or not. While this removes what some observers regard as discriminatory treatment, the logistical challenges and hassles associated with obtaining the test results within five days could deter some visitors from venturing to The Bahamas and set back the country’s tourism rebound.

For the government has now also introduced the new requirement for children aged between two and 11 years-old to also present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within five days of travelling to this nation, when they land. This will result in added costs and difficulty for families travelling with children.

The revised protocols mean that vaccinated persons, and those with children, who have Bahamas vacations booked between August 6-8 will now be scrambling as they will have less than five days to take the required tests and obtain negative results.

As for inter-island travel, all vaccinated, non-vaccinated and children aged two years-old and older will have to produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within five days of travel. While the vaccinated and children will have their choice of rapid antigen or PCR tests, non-vaccinated persons must submit to a PCR test only.

Persons travelling from New Providence, Grand Bahama, Bimini, Exuma, Abaco and North and South Eleuthera, including Harbour Island, will be subject to these measures. Public health officials say they are necessary to combat the potential spread of COVID-19 by asymptomatic vaccinated travellers as well as children, especially given the rapid spread of virus mutations such as the Delta variant and hospitalisation spikes in Florida.

Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce’s president, told Tribune Business that the PCR test-only requirement will be “a huge deterrent” to travel by non-vaccinated Bahamians and residents living in the Family Islands because of the cost involved.

Estimating that a PCR test costs between $150-$180 on his island and others, he said the new restrictions mean this traveller category will be “buying two tickets” to travel from their island another destination in The Bahamas.

Mr Sands, though, said it was critical for The Bahamas to “identify infected persons coming from hot spots” before they arrive in this nation. “The reality is that our COVID cases are surging, and the Government in its wisdom has put in place a requirement that will perhaps identify any affected person prior to arriving in The Bahamas,” he added, “particularly those who have been vaccinated.

“That applies to individuals between two and 11. They have also been seeing an increase in positive cases. These measures mirror the requirements to enter the US. While any protocols that are put in place may act sometimes as an impediment for people looking to travel, at this point in time it’s the right thing to do.

“For The Bahamas in its efforts to continue to grow tourism, taking the safety of citizens and tourists as a priority is fundamental to the continued growth of the economy and health and welfare of its people,” Mr Sands added. “That is the singular priority not only here but from a worldwide perspective, and to encourage those non-vaccinated persons to get vaccinated.

“These new initiatives or protocols will help us to identify affected persons coming from hot spots so it’s the right thing to do.” Asked whether the hotel and tourism industry has sufficient time to alert its industry partners and incoming travellers to the altered protocols, Mr Sands said: “A number of websites were updated today.

“There is never enough time, but prudence sometimes justifies the rationale for making such a decision. The industry is happy that the initiative has been taken to protect the well-being of the ongoing growth in tourism, to protect the ongoing health and safety of The Bahamas’ citizens and the ongoing health and safety of visitors coming to the country.”

With active COVID-19 cases now numbering almost 2,000, and some 102 Bahamians - of whom 14 are in intensive care - in hospital, Mr Sands said the country was “not in a position to deal with any amount of catastrophic cases and cannot afford for its healthcare system to become overwhelmed. “This is a pandemic that is very dynamic, and the ability to react quickly with concrete measures is the right thing to do,” he added.

Mr Rolle, meanwhile, said the increasing case numbers meant he could not reject recommendations from public health officials. And he backed the reimposition of testing requirements for vaccinated persons on the basis that The Bahamas is “too open to anyone coming in”.

However, he baulked at the insistence on a PCR test for unvaccinated persons travelling inter-island from the designated locations. “Now they’re saying for someone unvaccinated to travel to Exuma from Nassau will require a PCR test,” Mr Rolle said.

With PCR test costs on Family Islands almost the same as the price of an airline ticket, he added: “The impact that will have on travel is a huge deterrent. That’s easily the cost of the ticket each way. Every time you are travelling you are buying two tickets.”

Mr Rolle argued that the government instead “double up” on rapid antigen test requirements, testing non-vaccinated persons before they depart and when they arrive both ways using this less expensive testing method as compared to the PCR test. The four rapid antigen tests, he argued, would be equivalent in cost to one PCR test.

“That would go a long way to alleviating the situation,” Mr Rolle said. “It’s a challenge. I understand the government must do something, but what they are requiring is a bit strenuous I think. It’s going to impact business persons in a real way. Some fly to Nassau from the Family Islands every week. That’s part of their business costs.

“Persons coming to Nassau for medical reasons, it impacts them. It impacts tourists. Do you know the number of persons who come to Exuma just to swim with the pigs? That’s very strenuous. It impacts them.”

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