By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas is pushing "to be at the front of the queue" should the US introduce exemptions from its new COVID-19 testing policy that threatens to be "a significant deterrent" to tourism.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that this country and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean were moving rapidly to make the case to US authorities that any exemption from tightened pandemic enforcement "should be offered to us" first as a region.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) requirement that all US citizens returning from abroad supply a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days prior to arrival represents another potential impediment to Bahamian tourism's revival, but Mr D'Aguilar argued that the country can make a strong case for this not to apply.
Pointing to its present low infection and hospitalisation numbers, together with The Bahamas' relatively small population and dependence on the US for 82 percent of its visitors, the minister argued that this nation posed "a low risk" to the US when it came to returning travellers contributing to COVID-19's community spread.
And, should The Bahamas' and Caribbean's arguments fail to persuade the US authorities, Mr D'Aguilar said this nation would simply revert to "plan B" and fall back on the five-day rapid antigen testing infrastructure it has built throughout The Bahamas to test its tourists staying more than four nights.
"The Government is trying to make the case to anybody who will listen in the US that we feel The Bahamas and, in fact, the English-speaking Caribbean are very low risk countries, and if an exemption is to be had it should be offered to us and the English-speaking countries," he disclosed to this newspaper.
"Our infections are very low, and our population sizes are very low. The risk level to the US from our countries exporting the COVID-19 virus is significantly lower than in Europe and other places around the world. We've been experiencing a relatively low level of community spread and relatively low level of hospitalisations.
"We feel as a region that we pose very little risk to the US, so if there is an exemption to be had it should be offered to us. We are dependent on tourism from the US, and no doubt these requirements are a new impediment to travel."
Some observers will likely view The Bahamas' chances of obtaining an exemption from the new US policy, which takes effect from January 26, as slim to non-existent as this nation's northern neighbour belatedly follows many other countries in seeking to prevent COVID-19's importation from outside.
However, Mr D'Aguilar argued: "The policy is very new. It has just been brought out and a number of US officials were caught off-guard by it. We're pushing back a bit, and asking can we be granted an exemption given our tourism dependency and proximity to the US, our small populations and low infection rates.... that we should be at the front of the queue to get an exemption if one is to be had."
But, should The Bahamas' advocacy efforts be unsuccessful, the minister added: "If 'plan A' doesn't work, 'plan B' will at least. There are over 60, and possibly 70, testing facilities where you can get a rapid antigen test. Thank God we rolled out this infrastructure. It should be relatively easy throughout the length and breadth of The Bahamas to obtain this test."
US visitors staying in The Bahamas for more than four nights have to take the test demanded by the CDC for re-entry in any event, meaning that those in the country for up to a week or eight days will in effect not be impacted.
Mr D'Aguilar acknowledged that The Bahamas will have to "tweak the business model" for its COVID-19 testing protocols slightly to ensure there are sufficient rapid antigen testing kits to meet the likely increase in demand from US travellers, and conceded that the CDC's enhanced restrictions could have a chilling effect on tourism's revival.
"It's yet another impediment to travel, and all impediments to travel are not good for the tourism sector," he told Tribune Business. "Until the word gets out about how easy it is to get a test done in The Bahamas, I'm sure it will be a significant deterrent. People stress about this sort of thing."
Tourism industry players and the Government discussed the potential impact of the CDC's new requirements in a morning conference yesterday. Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association's (BHTA) president, said: "We think The Bahamas is well poised to deal with the issues they have presented."
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told this newspaper that this nation has "100 percent" of the testing infrastructure required to cope with the new US demands and may even have a competitive edge over rival Caribbean destinations as a result.
"We don't have to start from ground zero," he said. "I don't think other places have the five-day rapid antigen test like we do." But, while The Bahamas may be ahead from a testing logistics and operational standpoint, the marina chief acknowledged that the new US health protocols will likely chill American travel demand for an overseas vacation.
"We're plodding along, not making any money," Mr Maury said. "I don't think any industry is doing fantastic, but we'll take what we can get right now. We'll see whether the Government will be able to negotiate that extension. That would be awesome.
"It's a slow time in the year. Our numbers are down probably further than in previous years. It's not tragic for us right now. We have some vessels hanging and boats doing charters in the Exumas. We may have made up some numbers because of our geography; it's hard to say. We're missing the big middle market; the centre consoles and sports fishers.
"We're not doing anything wonderful, but it's not underwater either. There's still some traffic moving around. We just have to hold on and hopefully get to Spring when things start picking up. But we're not completely flat."
Ray Lightbourn, Exuma Water Sports' principal, yesterday estimated that the new US restrictions could slash what remains of the American visitor market by a further 50 percent. "That's the last thing they want on vacation," he said of the increased testing. "They want simplicity."