By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
OVER 100,000 people have applied to the Ministry of Tourism for travel health visas to enter The Bahamas over the past four months, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said yesterday.
While giving his mid-year budget contribution in the House of Assembly, Mr D’Aguilar said the travel numbers include both visitors and returning residents and added that officials are expecting to see an uptick in the months ahead.
“For the past four months, we have received over 125,000 travel applications from both visitors and returning residents. Since the New Year, we are averaging over 2,000 each day,” he told Parliament.
“And, each month, Mr Speaker, the number of visitors applying for health visas is slowly increasing. In November, our first month of reopening there were 14,000 visitors who applied. In December, there were 32,000 visitors who applied. In January, there were 21,000 who applied, a decrease caused by President Biden’s announcement that quarantining for persons returning to the United States from travel abroad was being contemplated, an idea that was later dismissed.
“In February, there were over 28,000 that applied. And for March, I estimate that close to 45,000 visitors will apply for a health visa given that Easter falls at the end of this month and the hotels are reporting healthier bookings. So, as you can see, Mr Speaker, the visitors are slowly returning, still a far cry from the 150,000 per month we were receiving pre COVID, but increasing every month.”
And with the re-opening of several hotel properties across the country, Mr D’Aguilar said officials are feeling more optimistic that things in the tourism sector are improving.
He said: “Atlantis re-opened on December 10, Baha Mar and the Hilton followed shortly thereafter, Sandals Exuma opened at the end of February, and just last week the Rosewood and SLS have opened.
“The gears of the tourism machine—for many months ground to a halt—are churning once again, albeit not on all cylinders. But the pistons are beginning to fire, and we are moving closer to returning to the glory days of Bahamas tourism.”
His comments came as the country received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine yesterday, a gift from the Indian government. Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis told reporters that people will begin receiving the vaccines next week after a weekend of trials.
With the roll-out of vaccination campaigns both in the country and abroad, Mr D'Aguilar said he expects that more visitors will want to travel here.
Yesterday, the minister also announced his intentions to take the COVID-19 vaccine and urged his constituents in Freetown as well as other Bahamians to do the same, insisting the revival of the country’s leading industry is “dependent “on it.
He said: “I predict, Mr Speaker that visitor arrivals will progressively improve during the course of this year culminating with a good Christmas when hopefully, all of The Bahamas and all of our core source markets like the US, Canada and the UK, will have been mostly vaccinated and the pent demand for travel will have been unleashed.”
“…Our country, the revival of our critical tourism industry, employment, incomes is dependent on tourism and tourism, trust me, is dependent on people getting vaccinated. So, please, my fellow Bahamians get vaccinated.”
He suggested that only when the country has vaccinated most of the population against the virus, then will more restrictions be eased.
He said officials are confident in the current COVID-19 travel protocols in place, pointing to the low number of infections and hospitalisations recorded in the last several weeks.
“On most days, the number of positive cases is less than five percent of those tested. I am advised by the health professionals that if five percent or less of the persons tested are positive, we have a handle on things,” he told Parliament. "And, on most days, I note that there are less than 20 persons in hospital for COVID – a far cry from August and September when the number of persons hospitalised for COVID was over 100 and we were building additional hospital beds."
He also sought to address complaints made about the ministry’s travel health visa, a protocol that has not been welcomed with open arms by some visitors and locals.
He added: “Despite these numbers, despite the 125,000 air arrivals we have seen since November, and despite the fact that the number of COVID-19 cases brought about through tourism have been virtually non-existent, there is very sadly, and regrettably, a strong vocal minority—of both Bahamians and foreigners alike—campaigning to make you feel that the health visa is hurting our tourism product.
“It is definitely an impediment to travel but let me be clear and direct - since the onset of COVID-19, my ministry’s top priority has been to navigate this crisis in such a way that balances the public health and safety of all Bahamian citizens and residents first whilst also ensuring the safe re-opening of our tourism sector.
“…When we made the decision to extend the existing safety measures instead of relaxing entry guidelines, we did so to prevent placing an overwhelming strain on our healthcare systems and practitioners. Quite simply, we were looking after our own, and protecting our Bahamian tourism product such that we would have an industry to welcome tourists back to in the future.”