• BHTA president: ‘We’re not looking backwards’
• Christmas/New Year to start earlier, last longer
• Harbour Island described as ‘chock-a-block’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Major Bahamian resorts are set to enjoy occupancies “in excess of 90 percent” over the Thanksgiving holiday, a top hotelier disclosed yesterday, adding: “We’re not looking back.”
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that based on advanced bookings the Christmas/New Year festive period is likely to start “earlier than normal” and last longer - providing increased earning opportunities for COVID-battered properties and their employees.
While the Christmas/New Year period traditionally provides a week-long boost for the Bahamian resort industry, he added that it could extend to ten days in 2021 with heavy business volumes forecast to arrive in The Bahamas from December 20.
Given these trends, Mr Sands said the hotel and tourism industry was poised for business “levels that we have not seen in many years even prior to COVID”, with airlift into the destination likely to be back and pre-pandemic capacity by January 2022 and advanced bookings for the New Year putting The Bahamas in position to “certainly exceed 2019 levels”.
“All indications from industry partners are, yes, it will be a very strong Thanksgiving,” the BHTA chief said. “I would certainly say it is similar to levels seen in 2019, and maybe stronger than 2019; much stronger than 2019.
“I can tell you it’s [occupancies] extremely high, in excess of 90 percent speaking generally, for the Thanksgiving weekend; the period. It is very robust.” Mr Sands said the two Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournaments, men’s and women’s, plus events staged by Baha Mar were helping to kick-start the peak winter tourism season.
He added that “pent-up demand” post-COVID, as well as The Bahamas’ upgrade from ‘Level 4’ “do not travel” status with the US health authorities to a ‘Level 3’, were further driving visitor demand.
“We’re beginning to see a pick-up in advance bookings, all forward bookings for the period,” Mr Sands said. “It’s looking very favourable and very encouraging. I would say it’s a very noticeable uptick in terms of seeing what booking levels are like.
“I would say that these are some of the highest levels that we have not seen in many years. I would say that is even compared to pre-COVID. The trends are there as well, and the festive season is very strong. This year, the busiest period is starting earlier than normal. It’s not limited to just a few days. It may be a ten-day period of very robust occupancies.
“Christmas to the New Year is usually six to seven days, but it could be ten days. We’re beginning to see busy period even prior to Christmas.” Airlift capacity into The Bahamas was said to be sufficient, with Virgin Atlantic’s arrival and British Airways’ expansion to six days per week service boosting European arrivals, while other carriers were adding routes from the US.
“There appears to be adequate airlift,” Mr Sands added. “We’re not quite there back to 2019 levels, but were seeing an increase in seats coming into the destination month-on-month every month, and by the time we get to January momentum will have certainly built back to 2019 levels in terms of airlift.
“The Bahamas has always been considered a safe destination. I think we’ve demonstrated to the world that our safety protocols are strong notwithstanding we have had some [COVID] waves and increased cases, but we have taken action that has inspired confidence in the travelling public.”
With current hotel booking pace set to exceed 2019, a record year for Bahamian tourism with 7.2m arrivals, Mr Sands said the possibility of further COVID-related disruption was far from his mind.
“I’m not even thinking negatively at this point in time,” he added. “We continue to point out to industry members the need to be safe, to put all the protocols in place and ensure any Ministry of Health issues are addressed. We’re not looking backward; we need to continue to look forward.”
Meanwhile, Harbour Island was yesterday said to be “crazy, crazy” and “chock-a-block” as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties, told Tribune Business that both resorts were 100 percent occupied and “it’s the same all around”.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been crazy since the middle of October,” he revealed. “The pick-up has been very significant. There’s big jets landing it seems every minute in north Eleuthera. It’s one private jet after another private jet. It feels like we’re back.
“We’ve constantly been in the high 80s to mid-90s on occupancy. It’s at least in the high 80s. We’re continuing at that level through Christmas and then there’s a little dip before things pick back up again.”
Mr Simmons said the Christmas and New Year’s period had been fully booked since almost 12 months ago, and added: “We’re very thankful that there seems to be some stability returning to the market to some degree.
“I keep harping on about weddings; that’s our core business and there’s a continuing backlog. It’s not just us. Coral Sands and Pink Sands have both had weddings these past two weekends. The backlog of weddings that people have rescheduled and are booking is huge.”
Mr Simmons said his hotels and others were struggling to find sufficient part-time employees, who they rely on heavily for weddings, to meet the demand. Many, he added, appeared to have found other jobs in a sign that the wider economy continues to recover from the pandemic.
“It’s coming back. It’s coming back,” he said. “We’re just hoping that whatever the winter brings in terms of COVID-19 that it doesn’t create any hurdles where we have to take one step forward, two steps back but, touch wood, it feels like there’s some stability back. Fingers crossed.”