• And full return ‘quite achievable’ in 2022
• BHTA chief’s optimism contradicts Moody’s
• But higher CDC rating need ‘sooner not later’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas’ stopover tourism business will be “close to 85 percent” of pre-COVID levels by the 2021-2022 winter season, a top hotelier is predicting, with a return to full business levels “very achievable” next year.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that current booking pace and trends suggest this nation’s key industry will have recovered much of its pre-pandemic volumes by the Christmas/New Year period and the first four months of 2022 that represent the winter peak.
“I would say close to 85 percent,” he replied, when asked to estimate land-based tourism’s recovery compared to pre-COVID levels by this winter. “I think that is a significant improvement, but the bogeyman remains COVID-19 and its management, plus the impact COVID has on the travelling public and the protocols that are in place that can act as a deterrent to travel.”
Calling for the safety of hotel staff and guests to be sufficiently balanced with ensuring health measures do not drive business away from The Bahamas, Mr Sands said a return to 100 percent of pre-COVID levels for the stopover tourism segment was “very achievable” for 2022.
He added that this would be reflected in the further increase in hotel staff recalled from furlough, adding that the numbers returning to work will “be even better by the winter and festive period of this year”.
“It’s a mixed bag,” the BHTA president added. “For some hotels they may be 100 percent staffed, some close to 100 percent, some at 85 percent, but it’s going in the right direction. Obviously those staffing levels may be even higher if some of the type of services here-to-before offered but not able to be offered - such as buffet restaurant dining - were to come back or group level business come back even quicker.”
Mr Sands’ estimates contrast with those of Moody’s, the credit rating agency, which in plunging The Bahamas further into non-investment grade or ‘junk’ status with Friday’s one-notch creditworthiness downgrade predicted that the tourism sector will not fully recover until 2024 at earliest.
“Even with the relatively strong recovery in recent months, we expect tourist arrivals to take several years before returning to the pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019. We do not expect stopover arrivals – the key measures of tourism activity as it relates to economic output and earnings - to return to 2019 levels until at least 2024, while tourists arriving by cruise ship will be even slower to recover,” Moody’s said.
“The key risk to the economic recovery is the evolution of the pandemic. The Bahamas, facing a new wave of coronavirus cases, reintroduced health and safety protocols for arriving travellers, while also tightening restrictions on social gatherings, including a nightly curfew. In August 2021, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) placed The Bahamas among the highest-risk destinations for travellers, designating the country with the ‘Level 4: COVID-19 Very High’ travel advisory list.
“In our baseline, The Bahamas’ tourism sector will remain resilient to the current Delta variant of the coronavirus. We expect pent-up demand for travel to continue through the end of 2021 barring an increase in infections that prompts a government response to restrict access to The Bahamas for international tourists.”
Mr Sands did echo Moody’s somewhat contrasting assessment in one place - the need for The Bahamas to rapidly escape the CDC’s ‘Level 4’ designation as rapidly as possible to ensure that it does not frighten away potential visitors whose travel decisions are influenced by such assessments.
Pointing to the increasing number of COVID-19 vaccinations in The Bahamas, the BHTA chief voiced optimism that it is impacting this nation’s case numbers and “that augurs well for a reassessment down from ‘Level 4’ to ‘Level 3’ sooner rather than later.
“That is extremely important, and also it’s a designation that we as a destination do not wish to have,” Mr Sands added of The Bahamas’ ‘Level 4’ rating with the CDC. “It has an impact on everything, but certainly has an even greater impact on the group business as well because that is booked in advance.
“If you lose the booking opportunity in this time period, you create a lull for yourself in terms of arrivals. It [group business] creates a base upon which you can build and work out how to price and yield manage your business going forward.
“I would say that the optimum point for group business is a minimal level of around 25-30 percent for hotels. The interest has been increasing. We have seen an increase in interest in terms of group bookings. It is coming back slowly but surely.”
Group travel is one of tourism’s last segments to bounce back from the pandemic, not only because persons are concerned to avoid large crowds and being bunched up in one room, but because many US companies have curtailed travel incentives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Sands, meanwhile, said September bookings and business volumes are trending ahead of prior years. However, he suggested comparisons with both 2019 and 2020 were relatively meaningless due to Hurricane Dorian’s devastation in the former year and then COVID-19’s presence some 12 months later.
“I would say we’re trending much better,” he added, “but this time of year is traditionally very slow, so the volumes or percentages are not translating into a tremendous number of people. I think there are pockets of success, and some pockets of disappointment, but in the main occupancies are certainly not where we’d like them to be although they’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
The BHTA chief also expressed confidence that the vast majority of visitors to The Bahamas are fully vaccinated, with the figure at his Baha Mar property “in excess of 80 percent”. He added: “I would venture to say that while it may not be that high everywhere else, I would think there’s a high level of vaccinated visitors coming to The Bahamas.”