By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Virgin Atlantic’s just-launched Bahamas route is already “pacing ahead” of forecast business volumes for its first six months, the country’s top tourism official said yesterday.
Joy Jibrilu, the Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation’s director-general, told the weekly media briefing by the Prime Minister’s Office that “the proof is in the pudding” that demand for a Bahamian vacation has increased among UK and European travellers.
Virgin’s two flights to Nassau per week from the UK now join the six provided by its rival, British Airways (BA), to make eight weekly flights to The Bahamas, and tourism officials are hoping their London Heathrow hub will provide better connectivity to this nation from India and regions such as the Middle East and Far East.
“We’re so grateful to be in the position we’re in this year as compared to 2020,” Mrs Jibrilu said. “For a very long time we were at ‘Level 4’ [with the US CDC] and now we’re at ‘Level 3’. That will have an impact on us.
“Yesterday was a great day for us as we continue what has been an excellent rebound for tourism, for the rebound and recovery of tourism.” That was a reference to the arrival of Virgin’s inaugural flight to Nassau from London Heathrow, which will be a twice weekly service moving forward.
Mrs Jibrilu, who was on the flight, said just over half the passengers - 120 out of 230 - disembarked in Nassau. The rest travelled on to Jamaica’s Montego Bay destination, and Mrs Jibrilu said: “For a new flight, new airlift coming in, that is tremendous news.
“With the introduction of Virgin into The Bahamas’ airlift space, that means there are eight flights a week coming from the UK. Airlift is ramping up because demand is there. Virgin is already saying they are pacing ahead of their projections for the first six months of their new flight.
“The proof is in the pudding, with BA starting with two flights in July and now up to six flights a week, the most flights BA has ever offered.” Mrs Jibrilu conceded that some may be puzzled over the Ministry of Tourism’s excitement about increased UK airlift when the bulk of visitors - over 90 percent - come from the US and Canada.
She explained, though, that BA and Virgin’s flights from London Heathrow provided seamless connectivity to markets such as the Middle East, India and the Far East - all of which The Bahamas has previously struggled to penetrate in any meaningful way due to the travel distances involved.
“Just to be clear, when we open up the UK it’s not just the UK; it’s not just London; it’s not just England; it’s not just Scotland which is opening up to us. It’s the relationship with that side of the world. It’s the Middle East, it’s India, it’s Asia, because both of those airlines connect directly to flights going on to India, the Middle East, the Far East.
“They all connect through Heathrow. The Bahamas can boast of every flight departing from Heathrow, which cannot be said for the rest of the Caribbean.” But, with COVID cases rising in nations such as France and Germany, Mrs Jibrilu acknowledged that plans to increase European airlift via Heathrow could still be derailed by lockdowns there and other restrictions.
Generating increased airlift from the US west coast remains a MInistry of Tourism priority, she added. “We’re looking for fresh gateways as well, where we’d like airlift to come from,” Mrs Jibrilu said. “The west coast of the US is a key one. We know that’s within our top five source markets for the US.”
She added that the airlines were now coming to The Bahamas rather than the other way around, explaining: “A few years ago, while we were fighting for appointments, they’re now seeing how well we’re doing and coming to the table.”