• Airlift cutbacks from Nassau hurt some islands
• Promotion Board chief: ‘We’ll be over 50% of 2019’
• Brands ongoing lockdowns ‘rollercoaster’ for tourism
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Family Island hotels will “likely fall short” of projections they will collectively recover 65 percent of pre-COVID business levels during the 2021 first half due to airlift cutbacks from Nassau.
Kerry Fountain, the Out Islands Promotion Board’s executive director, told Tribune Business that tourist distribution had been affected by airlines slashing their inter-island schedules as a result of fewer Bahamians travelling due to COVID-19 restrictions.
He added that the cost associated with obtaining a $150 negative PCR-test, and $25 domestic health travel visa, continue to represent a potential deterrent to domestic travel as it adds $350 to the cost of a two-person trip before even airlines and hotels are booked.
As a result, Mr Fountain warned that tourism’s recovery on islands only accessible by Nassau is likely to be slower, but he struck a more positive tone in forecasting that The Bahamas and its major industry are now “in the glow of the light at the end of the tunnel”.
Even though room nights sold and room revenue forecasts for the 2021 first half may not be hit, the Promotion Board chief added that member hotels were still on track to collectively deliver a performance that will be “more than 50 percent of what we did in January-June 2019”.
Acknowledging that the ongoing lockdowns in North and Central Andros plus Cat Island “dampened our momentum” among resorts and tourism-based businesses in those locations, Mr Fountain said the pain had been eased somewhat by the government’s decision to continue permitting tourist access to those islands provided they “vacation in place”.
Revealing that it had been “like a rollercoaster” until the government permitted those exemptions, Mr Fountain acknowledged that the Out Island Promotion Board and its members “have homework to do” on resolving airlift access issues that were viewed as an obstacle to growth pre-COVID.
“We took a look last week,” he told this newspaper of member properties’ projected performance. “We were anticipating coming in around 65 percent for the January-June period compared to what we did in the January-June period for 2019.
“We look like we will fall short of that a bit. I don’t want to share any numbers, but I can tell you what it looks like we’ll collectively do between January and June. Even coming in below forecast it’s going to be more than 50 percent of what we did in the January-June 2019 period.
“The numbers have been negatively impacted or have dropped down because of the hotels that have the issues with airlift from Nassau. If we fix that we will be well above 65 percent of what we did in 2019. We have some homework to do.”
The Out Island Promotion Board had previously forecast that room nights sold for its member properties would be at 65 percent of 2019 levels, and room revenues at 62 percent of what they were, compared to January to June 2019.
Describing the sector’s performance as “a mixed bag”, Mr Fountain added: “Some of our hotels are doing very well. I’m talking about approaching numbers they were experiencing in 2019, and but again - and we talked about this at our meeting last week - those hotels only accessible by airlift from Nassau are the ones that are struggling.
“Why is that? Domestic airlines will not put out, and you cannot blame them, a full complement of flights that they had prior to the pandemic because half of their Bahamian clientele are not travelling like they did pre-COVID.”
Citing the cost and time involved with obtaining a negative COVID-19 PCR test and associated approvals, Mr Fountain added: “Until Bahamians start to travel more, the airlines will have shortened schedules. Those islands only accessible from Nassau, their recovery will tend to be slow, like Long Island, Cat Island, San Salvador, Acklins and Crooked Island.
“I feel bad when I have a hotel reporting back on how well they are recovering, and there is another saying it has been brutal and they’re struggling. It points back to the fact that the sooner we get more Bahamians vaccinated, the sooner there will be recovery for all The Bahamas and not just the islands served by south Florida. We cannot mandate it; we can only encourage people to do it.”
Describing the Cat Island, and North and Central Andros, lockdowns that have been extended for a third week to June 14 as “unfortunate”, Mr Fountain added: “It’s dampened or slowed down our momentum.” While the Out Island Promotion Board has no impacted members in North Andros, three in the central area - Small Hope Bay Lodge, Dream Villas and Andros Island Bonefish Club - are being impacted.
He explained that The Bahamas’ so-called “vertical markets”, such as fly fishing, diving and snorkelling are being impacted most because, while tourists can fly into the lockdown areas they must ‘vacation in place’ and not participate in activities off-property.
“When we first heard about the lockdowns for North and Central Andros, and Cat Island, that was very alarming,” Mr Fountain said, “but after due consideration the Government decided to allow tourists to come in. From one day to the next it was like a rollercoaster, but at the end of the day it was good news.”
He acknowledged, though, that hotels in those islands are “feeling the pinch” from the reimposition of COVID-19 restrictions - especially on Cat Island, where airlift has been further reduced by Western Air’s decision to cancel some flight from Nassau that had served as “a shot in the arm” for properties based there. Makers Air, which had experienced “off the charts” business in servicing Cat Island from Fort Lauderdale, has also been impacted.
Pointing to the fact that around 50 percent of US adults are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Mr Fountain contrasted this with the latest data showing just 13,000 out of what he estimated is a 250,000-260,000 strong Bahamian adult population are totally inoculated.
“They say herd immunity starts at 50 percent, so we have a fair way to go before we even get close to that number,” he added.