By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior hotelier yesterday voiced optimism that The Bahamas’ achievement in attaining the highest-possible COVID rating with US health regulators “paves the way” for both to review the testing protocols required to enter their nations.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that the ‘Level One’ or ‘low risk’ designation from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could enable the US to view this nation as “a preferred destination” and relax the 24-hour COVID test requirement for its citizens to return home as well as for Bahamian visitors.
Suggesting that The Bahamas, too, could look at easing its 72-hour test requirement for visitors coming to the destination, he added that the latest CDC move potentially gives The Bahamas a competitive advantage over rival Caribbean and worldwide tourism locations by sending a message that this country is both safe and “open for business”.
Mr Sands said the latest CDC action, which means The Bahamas has been reduced from a ‘Level Three’ or ‘high’ COVID risk to low-risk in just three weeks, eliminates any reason group planners and other travellers have for selecting other destinations based on health grounds. He added that it will further solidify “pen-up demand”, translating into increased forward bookings and a faster return to pre-COVID business levels.
However, the BHTA chief also urged Bahamians to continue complying with COVID-19 health protocols given recent outbreaks in China and parts of Europe. And he acknowledged that achieving so-called ‘herd immunity’, where 70-80 percent of The Bahamas’ population is fully vaccinated as opposed to the current 50 percent, remains “the missing piece of the puzzle”.
“I think this puts us in a very good position for the Government of The Bahamas, and perhaps the US, to view The Bahamas as a preferred destination and begin to have discussions on what other protocols in place for travel to this destination can be eliminated,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business.
Confirming that he was referring to the COVID tests required to enter The Bahamas, and return/travel to the US, he added: “I think it absolutely paves the way for them to revisit the need for those two issues to remain in place. I think it’s important to say ‘thank you’ to the people of The Bahamas for helping us get to this point and achieve our ultimate of helping our government to eliminate the need for a test to enter our country and a test to leave the country to go back to the US.”
As to the immediate impact from the CDC’s re-rating, Mr Sands said: “It demonstrates The Bahamas is serious about being open for business, and that the people of The Bahamas take COVID-19 seriously. It also demonstrates that we want to remain in this particular position and send a message to the world we take COVID-19 seriously and are open for business.
“It eliminates any discussion from those group business decision makers on booking The Bahamas as a group destination. I think it also puts in place the fact we welcome those groups, we are able to take care of them in an environment that is safe, and they can appreciate the destination of The Bahamas takes COVID-19 seriously.”
While the CDC has yet to upload the full list of ‘Level One’ nations to its website, Mr Sands said the BHTA’s review showed that The Bahamas along with Jamaica was “one of the few Caribbean countries” to achieve this designation thus providing it with a potential competitive advantage.
“It only adds to the fact that, with the increased pent-up demand to visit the islands of The Bahamas, this takes away any possible decision not to travel to The Bahamas, and creates a positive decision to travel to The Bahamas,” he added.
Ministry of Health data showed that some 20 new COVID cases were detected between Good Friday and Easter Saturday, with nine on the former and the remaining 11 uncovered on the latter day. Some 131 cases remain active, with just five patients in hospital, all of whom are moderately ill.
With these results encouraging the CDC to give The Bahamas what amounted to an early Easter present, Mr Sands said: “It augurs well not only for the tourism industry but The Bahamas as a destination. We recognise there’s some things we have to do to get vaccinated, and this augurs well for a positive, continued recovery of our Bahamian economy.”
He described further increasing Bahamian COVID vaccination rates as “the biggest opportunity we have as a nation” in moving towards so-called ‘herd immunity’. Dr Michael Darville, minister of health and wellness, recently said he wanted to increase Bahamian vaccination rates from 50 percent to 70 percent, which was backed by Mr Sands.
“That’s our great opportunity in insulating us from the difficulties that may occur from COVID-19 in the future,” he told this newspaper. “That is the missing piece of the puzzle, and I encourage, certainly as a representative of the major industry in our country and which is pivotal for the economic engine of our country, for Bahamians to heed the clarion call to become vaccinated.”
Calling on Bahamians to obey the remaining COVID-19 protocols, Mr Sands said ‘Level One’ status with the CDC will further boost forward bookings. And, while it will aid the return to pre-COVID tourism performance, the BHTA chief said it was imperative that still-closed resorts or those struggling to re-open be provided with all the assistance they require so that The Bahamas’ room inventory can meet demand.