By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Hotel operators have voiced fears that US quarantine plans will “pull the rug out from under” Bahamian tourism’s revival with several properties already reporting booking cancellations as a result.
Several proprietors and executives told Tribune Business that the proposal, unveiled last week by Joe Biden just two days into his presidency, threatened to undermine the “stability” they and their customers are craving some ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harbour Island hotelier Ben Simmons, Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties, warned that the already-fragile resort and tourism industry “can’t take another hit” to its revival bid from any restrictions that might deter visitors from a source market that accounts for more than 80 percent of The Bahamas’ visitors.
“If feels like we’re on the verge of a comeback, and this would definitely pull the rug from under us if this were to happen,” he told this newspaper of the quarantine plan. “Nobody needs this right now: Vendors, suppliers, the country as a whole. We’re just trying to find our feet again.
“It will be devastating. We have at least 20 weddings booked over the next six months. I don’t know what the impact will be on them. People are certainly jittery. I know quite a few hoteliers in the industry who have already had bookings cancelled just because of the uncertainty. We haven’t had anything yet; we’ve had a few e-mails saying: ‘Are you watching this?’ Yes, we are.”
The Bahamas and its tourism industry now face a nervous 14-day wait to see how the Biden administration plans to implement the potential quarantine, and discover the details of how it will be applied and rolled-out.
Mr Simmons voiced hope that, based on the US president’s executive order, the quarantine will be “more palatable” than originally thought based on Mr Biden’s public statement. The latter’s order reads: “It is the policy of my administration that, to the extent feasible, travellers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country shall be required to produce proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry, and required to comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.”
It adds that this assessment will examine “the feasibility of implementing alternative and sufficiently protective public health measures, such as testing, self-quarantine and self-isolation on arrival, for travellers entering the US from countries where COVID-19 tests are inaccessible”.....
Mr Simmons said he had interpreted this as meaning the new administration will spend 14 days assessing present regulations to determine if quarantine or some other measure is an appropriate alternative for travellers coming from countries that have inadequate COVID-19 testing.
The Bahamas, he added, with its present five-day rapid antigen testing infrastructure, would not fall into this category, which could mean that quarantine will not be required for travellers returning to the US from The Bahamas - only the negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travelling that comes into effect tomorrow.
“Hopefully I’m not inferring too much into it, and that there is more light than in the press release,” Mr Simmons said. “I’m hoping the minister of tourism will do what he does best and make some noise, and hopefully find a solution that is compatible for our industry. Otherwise it will not be good, it will not be pretty.
“I guess we’ll know more in 14 days. It’s beyond our control, but if it does happen it will severely impact the industry. Stability is what every single client is looking for, and hoping for, since this pandemic began. We can’t take another hit. I don’t think anybody in this industry can.”
Mr Simmons said his Harbour Island property had managed to attract 90 percent of its 2019 business levels over Christmas and the New Year, while January had matched 70 percent of the prior year’s comparative.
Meanwhile Magnus Alnebeck, general manager of Freeport’s Pelican Bay resort, said that while the US quarantine plan was potentially devastating it would have minimal impact on Grand Bahama because the island has so little tourism to start with./
“It will have a big impact. I think it will scare off most tourists,” he told Tribune Business. “For Grand Bahama it means less than elsewhere in the Bahamas: ‘If you don’t have much, you can’t loose much’, and we hardly have any tourism.
“The interesting thing in the region is that Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands will benefit, since they are US domestic destinations. We will see what happens in the next few weeks, and let’s hope we get an exemption. After all, we have much less spread of COVID-19 in the region than in the US.”
The Bahamian economy’s ability to rebound, and slash an unemployment rate still estimated at between 30-40 percent, is almost totally dependent on the tourism industry’s revival. That, in turn, relies heavily on US visitors, who traditionally account for more than four out of every five tourists coming to this nation.
The new US administration’s actions, adding a quarantine to obtaining a negative COVID-19 PCR test within three days of travel for all returning US visitors, thus adds another obstacle and cost for Americans seeking to travel to The Bahamas and elsewhere.
It thus threatens to cut-off, and have a potentially chilling effect, on the re-opening of the Bahamian tourism and hotel industry that began on November 1 last year. Atlantis recalled 2,500 staff, although some were subsequently furloughed again, while Baha Mar brought back 1,800 workers.
However, continued COVID-related uncertainty and low bookings prompted the RIU Paradise Island to close again, and the likes of Sandals to delay their re-opening further. The latest US moves threaten to only further unnerve the tourism sector, and prompt further resort and business closures, job losses and furloughs, and re-opening.
From the perspective of the wider economy, it also threatens to further choke off the foreign currency inflows that tourism is the chief provider of. Marlon Johnson, the Ministry of Finance’s acting financial secretary, told Tribune Business that while the Government was “mindful” of the latest US move it was too early to determine if the fiscal and GDP growth targets require further adjustment.
“We’re mindful of it, and that it could impact visitor arrivals and forecasts, but until we see this manifest itself we’re not going to recommend any course change at this point,” he said. “We’ll wait until we see what the impact of this is, and the testing requirements, and how they impact consumer demand, and adjust accordingly if needed.”