By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A top hotelier believes The Bahamas’ “proactive” approach to COVID-19 testing and health protocols will enable its tourism industry to rebound faster than its competitors.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) newly-elected president, told Tribune Business that he was confident that the nation’s largest industry will repeat its trend of “coming back stronger and stronger” from adversity as COVID-19 vaccines roll-out across its major source travel markets.
Responding to the latest travel restrictions facing The Bahamas, namely the US requirement that all returning travellers produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of their trip from January 26, Mr Sands echoed the Ministry of Tourism by asserting that its five-day rapid antigen testing infrastructure would enable visitors to meet this obligation.
“The Bahamas is well-positioned for dealing with a number of these new considerations for tourists re-entering the US,” he told this newspaper. “A large number of our properties already offer the antigen test when guests stay more than five days, or for entering the property when they arrive.
“We have to put these issues into perspective. This is not the first time a destination like The Bahamas as been faced with some conditions that may seem like they will stifle tourism. Tourism is extremely resilient, and the Bahamian product has improved over the years. Notwithstanding these issues we are faced with, with are focused on a proactive approach to dealing with them and rebounding.”
Mr Sands said The Bahamas and its tourism industry had overcome the September 11 terror attacks, two Gulf wars and numerous recessions before, although nothing like a global pandemic. “We have had some setbacks, but have come back and continued to grow,” he added.
“We’ve had impacts from hurricanes, but have come back stronger and stronger. We are proactive in addressing these issues. They are beyond our control, but The Bahamas’ approach in being proactive in addressing things like this positions us as beneficiaries of growth in a shorter period of time than our competitors.”
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, recently told Tribune Business that The Bahamas is pushing “to be at the front of the queue” should the US introduce exemptions from its new COVID-19 testing policy, acknowledging that it threatens to be “a significant deterrent” to tourism.
He said 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.
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 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.”