By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Canada's decision to halt all flights by its airlines to The Bahamas until April 30 was yesterday branded "another stumbling block along the road to recovery" for this nation's battered tourism industry.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association's (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business the sector was "very concerned" by the Canadian government's newly-imposed travel restrictions, which were likely to be especially impactful for all-inclusive resort properties.
Acknowledging that it takes some of the gloss off recent "victories" for The Bahamas, particularly the US decision to improve this nation's health travel advisory and signs the Biden administration will not make COVID-19 quarantine mandatory for returning travellers, Mr Sands said the Canadian move creates an "impediment" to travel from a market that produces some 10 percent of the country's visitors.
"I think it's fair to say the industry is very concerned by that particular move," he added of the Canadian action. "It further puts in place an impediment for those particular markets. We're trying to get a better understanding of why this has come about, and particularly why the Caribbean and other countries have been singled out."
Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, last week said the country’s main airlines - Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing, have agreed to cancel all services to Caribbean destinations and Mexico - the so called “sun destinations" beloved by his nation's citizens - until April 30.
The move, designed to prevent Canadian citizens from travelling abroad and bringing home new mutant COVID-19 strains, effectively cuts off the supply of visitors from that source market during what would traditionally be the peak winter tourism season.
And it also potentially removes an important feeder/transit hub from other countries, as one of the few ways UK and European citizens have been able to access The Bahamas during the pandemic has been via Canada.
Mr Sands said the Trudeau administration's move will be "very impactful for the all-inclusive properties in particular", while Airbnb and vacation-style rentals may also feel the effects along with the wider tourism industry.
The Canadian action represents another potential blow, at least in the short-term, to efforts to revive Bahamian tourism, which is the nation's largest employment generator and foreign exchange earner. It comes just as the US delivered two encouraging developments that may aid this nation's bid to open up its main source market.
"It's another impediment that we now have to work our way through," Mr Sands added of Canada's restrictions, which were unveiled just after US federal officials suggested their proposed quarantine will be "recommended" rather than mandatory.
"That's a victory for The Bahamas," the BHTA president said. "Going from a 'Level 4' to 'Level 3' health travel advisory is also a victory for The Bahamas, and fortunately our testing regime is pretty robust, but we still need to move some of these stumbling blocks along the road to recovery for The Bahamas if we're going to see any meaningful growth in a short period of time."
The 14-day mandatory quarantine period for returning Canadian travellers, which had been in place prior to the airlift suspension, as well as numerous complaints - articulated in letters to this newspaper - about obtaining COVID-19 PCR test results within the time limits set by The Bahamas for travel was thought to have already curtailed Canadian demand.
Mr Sands, though, said Canadians still accounted for the same proportion of The Bahamas' visitor mix as they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the negative news from that nation has been offset to some extent by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) move to upgrade The Bahamas from a “Level 4” to “Level 3” status on its health travel advisory.
The shift moves The Bahamas from ‘very high risk’, in relation to COVID-19, to ‘high’ risk. This, in turn, downgrades the CDC’s warning to US citizens on The Bahamas from “travellers should avoid all travel to The Bahamas” to one where they should “reconsider travel”.
And a briefing given to international media last Tuesday by Ian Brownlee, the US State Department’s acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, and Marty Cetron, the CDC’s director for global migration and quarantine, cast some doubt on whether a quarantine will be made mandatory at the federal level.
In response to questions on the issue, a transcript quoted Mr Brownlee as saying: “We’re not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders, but we do have - and have had - up on the CDC website guidance regarding the ways to increase the safety of international travel......
“Staying home for a period of time, seven days if you have a negative post-arrival test taken between day three and five, as is recommended on our website, allows the quarantine period to be shortened.
“Most of this return recommendation really falls in the jurisdiction of state and local authorities, and each, the state and local authorities, may have their own specific advice, but the CDC’s standard advice on this can be found on our website. So these are recommendations from CDC."