By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Baha Mar’s president yesterday urged the government to fully vaccinate The Bahamas against COVID-19 “as quickly as possible” so as to give tourism’s recovery a “competitive advantage”.
Graeme Davis told Tribune Business that vaccinating the entire population, especially hotel and tourism industry workers, would be a “huge” boost to traveller confidence and give The Bahamas a significant tool to use in marketing promotional strategies.
While much attention has been focused on the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled-out in the US and other key tourist source markets, Mr Davis said The Bahamas was itself in a race against rival Caribbean and other tourism destinations to immunise its own population given that this, too, will be a critical factor in the strength and swiftness with which tourism recovers.
“I’m very confident we will bounce back,” the Baha Mar chief told this newspaper. “It’s just a matter of persevering through this time where everything is focused on COVID-19, and the COVID-19 virus is eliminated here in The Bahamas and we quickly get vaccinated.
“If the entire country gets vaccinated, we will be able to market The Bahamas as COVID-19 free and fully immunised. That will give us a very wonderful advantage versus other destinations that the entire country is vaccinated. I look forward to that being done as quickly as we can; getting people vaccinated.”
Pointing out that it should “not be a huge undertaking” to vaccinate a 400,000-strong population, which was smaller than most other countries, Mr Davis added: “It’s certainly possible to do that here in a short amount of time.
“If we tell our key markets that our entire country is vaccinated, the confidence in travelling to The Bahamas will be huge, and the bounce back of the lodging industry that makes up 60 percent of the economy” will be that much quicker.
Mr Davis said vaccinating all hotel and tourism industry employees against COVID-19 would have a similar effect, adding: “Just marketing the lodging and hospitality sector as being immunised, as soon as that happens that will be a huge deal for travel consumer confidence that all workers are immunised, and the public relations impact to us is positive.”
The prime minister yesterday reiterated that the government has secured enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to immunise 20 percent of the Bahamian population via the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organisation’s (PAHO) COVAX facility, and is also looking to access additional supplies from the manufacturers themselves as well as the African Medical Supplies Platform (ASMP) via CARICOM.
However, the timing of when the vaccines will arrive in The Bahamas, as well as which ones will be used, are “still being worked out” with Dr Hubert Minnis describing the roll-out as “one of the greatest logistical challenges that the country has ever undertaken”. The details of the distribution plan have yet to be released.
Mr Davis, meanwhile, voiced hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will be “a once-in-a-lifetime event that we don’t see again” for the hotel and tourism industry, adding: ‘I don’t think any of us have experienced anything like this for an extended period.”
Amid the ongoing confusion and uncertainty over whether the Biden administration will impose a mandatory quarantine on all travellers returning to the US from abroad, Mr Davis urged the Government and private sector to keep “lobbying” for The Bahamas to be exempted from these US protocols on the basis of its presently low infection rates.
The Prime Minister yesterday said this had been acknowledged by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was preparing to upgrade The Bahamas from ‘Level 4’ or “very high risk” in its COVID-19 travel alert to US citizens to ‘Level 3’ or just “high” risk.
Mr Davis said the CDC move would “help more from a corporate and group perspective” than with leisure travel, as he added: “I can also say we encourage the Government and all of us in the private sector to continue lobbying the US government to have an exemption from testing to go to back to the US and exemption from any quarantine for going back to the US from The Bahamas.
“That would certainly improve travel demand for The Bahamas, and give us a significant competitive advantage over other Caribbean destinations and destinations globally, if we have an exemption from testing and quarantines. That will give the confidence to the consumer they can return swiftly without any issues.”
The Baha Mar president says his resort, and others, were well-placed to cope with the CDC’s demand that all returning US travellers produce a negative COVID test taken within three days of their trip due to the testing facilities they are already providing to guests on-property.
Mr Davis also revealed that Baha Mar had paid-out more than $70m last year to employees after the pandemic hit via a mixture of ex-gratia payments, benefits, payroll and severance pay. This, he argued, made the Cable Beach-based mega resort “probably the single largest employer in payments and support that filters down to the entire community”.
“It’s a major benefit when we’re paying associates to stay home,” Mr Davis said.