• Down 84% amid source market COVID peak
• 80% ‘herd immunity’ needed for borders ease
• Health Travel visa ‘tweak’ for new US measures
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas saw January visitor arrivals fall by more than 100,000 or 84 percent, a Cabinet minister disclosed yesterday, with COVID travel protocols set to remain until vaccination levels hit 80 percent.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that January’s year-over-year decline was likely worsened by surging infection rates that peaked in the US and many of its core visitor markets, as well as the uncertainty sowed when newly-elected US president, Joe Biden, suggested all returning US citizens would have to undergo a federally-mandated quarantine.
While that ultimately never happened, Mr D’Aguilar said it was sufficient to deter outbound travel by many US citizens - especially since there was far less media coverage of the “no quarantine” confirmation. The minister added that January’s weakness was also exacerbated by the Canadian ban on flights to the Caribbean, and the continuing travel restrictions affecting the UK and Europe.
With tourism’s revival depending on factors outside The Bahamas’ control, Mr D’Aguilar nevertheless said he was encouraged by Atlantis yesterday revealing that it will recall additional staff for the reactivation of guestroom operations on March 11.
Voicing optimism that this will help to “counter” up to 300 permanent redundancies resulting from the Melia Nassau Beach’s two-week closure, he said the border COVID-19 testing and health protocol regime will likely remain in place for months to come until both The Bahamas and its core tourism source markets reach the 80 percent vaccination threshold deemed by scientists to offer “herd immunity”.
Mr D’Aguilar also disclosed that The Bahamas was also working to adjust its Health Travel Visa regime to just one all-encompassing fee rate rather than two. With the US now requiring all returning travellers to produce a negative COVID-19 test, he argued that the previous $40 fee for visitors who did not need to take it for Bahamian purposes no longer applies.
Based on approved Health Travel Visa applications, Mr D’Aguilar told this newspaper that some 21,000 visitors came to The Bahamas in January 2021, while another 11,000 submissions were received from returning citizens, residents, short-term work permit holders and holders of homeowners’ residents cards.
That 21,000, though, is some 104,000 less than The Bahamas received in air arrivals for January 2020, and 108,000 lower than the near-129,000 in stopover visitors for that month last year. Given that this nation has received no cruise visitors since March 2020, those figures provide the best year-over-year comparatives with which to measure the pace of tourism’s crawling rebound.
The 21,000 figure also likely includes boating/yachting arrivals, as they are subject to the same Health Travel Visa regime, and Mr D’Aguilar said rising COVID-19 cases in key source markets as well as new restrictions and travel protocol uncertainty abroad had all contributed to “a substantial pull back” in tourism demand.
And, with Canada banning all direct flights to the Caribbean until April at least, and Europeans only able to travel directly to The Bahamas via private aircraft, the minister said such measures have “virtually wiped out” this nation’s major source markets bar the US.
Suggesting that it was “a little premature” to look at easing The Bahamas’ border and travel restrictions with COVID-19 vaccines only starting to be rolled-out, Mr D’Aguilar said: “For the time being the status quo remains.”
Noting that vaccines “suppress the symptoms” of the virus, thereby allowing persons to “live with it”, he added that any easing “is a function of what proportion of our population, and what proportion of the population are visitors are coming from, have been vaccinated.
“Dr [Anthony] Fauci believes that if you get to 80 percent you will have herd immunity,” Mr D’Aguilar said of the US infectious diseases specialist, “and that will significantly diminish the chance of vaccinated people affecting non-vaccinated people.
“Once we get up to 75-80 percent the consideration to relax the protocols will be considered. That’s what the scientists are telling us. We’re just following the science.”
Mr D’Aguilar said the US decision to require all returning citizens to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within five days of travelling was making The Bahamas assess whether the $40 Health Travel Visa fee category, which previously exempted visitors staying less than five days from having to be tested here, had now become obsolete.
Given that visitors must either be tested for Bahamian or US requirements, or both, the minister said it made sense to adjust the Health Travel Visa to just one $60 fee that covered a rapid antigen test’s costs while in The Bahamas.
“We’re contemplating building it all into the health visa,” Mr D’Aguilar disclosed to Tribune Business. “We haven’t made a final decision on that yet, but it seems to make sense that when you purchase the visa on the way in, which includes the rapid antigen test on the fifth day for our purposes, for peace of mind it also covers the test to return to the US.
“It would eliminate the category for five days and under, and make everyone pay $60. You either have to get it for us, get the test for the US, or get one that covers both. If you are here for five, six, seven, eight days, you can have a test for us which is also good for the US. We can then generate a nice report for you and sent it online. We’re trying to work that out and see how that works.”
Mr D’Aguilar said the Royal Towers re-opening was in line with the mild improvement that the Bahamian hotel and tourism industry expects to see as it heads into the Spring Break and Easter period, the latter of which is typically the peak period for this nation’s largest industry.
Atlantis could not be reached for comment before press time last night on how many staff it plans to recall for the Royal Towers re-opening. However, its return - following a short-lived re-opening over the Christmas and New Year period before it made way for The Cove - means the Paradise Island mega resort now has three properties open including the Harborside timeshare complex.
“We are delighted to welcome back additional team members to Atlantis and showcase the newly-renovated Royal east tower guestrooms to our guests,” said Audrey Oswell, Atlantis’ president and managing director.
“As a result of the comprehensive and effective health and safety protocols at Atlantis, we see even more pent-up demand from our guests to return to The Bahamas, which supported our decision to reopen guestroom operations at The Royal.”