By NEIL HARTNELL and YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporters
A senior tourism official yesterday said he would have been more “worried” if Air Canada had suspended its weekly Exuma flight for commercial reasons rather than COVID-19.
Kerry Fountain, the Out Island Promotion Board’s executive director, told Tribune Business that “anecdotal” evidence suggested that Air Canada Vacations’ 136-seat flight had been enjoying load factors in the low 80 percent range since it started its Toronto to Georgetown service on December 19.
Describing these volumes as “not bad whatsoever”, he added that while the service’s suspension at end-January was “certainly bad news” for Exuma’s tourism industry and wider economy, there was no suggestion that it will not resume once the threat posed by the Omicron variant - and Canada’s tightened travel restrictions - pass.
“That’s beyond our control,” Mr Fountain said of Air Canada Vacations’ move to pause a service that had been due to end on April 17, and was billed as kickstarting a travel “hub” in the central and southern Bahamas. “If you had told me that Air Canada ceased the service because it was not realising the load factors it had planned on realising, I would have been worried.”
However, the move has been attributed to the Canadian government’s response to the explosion in worldwide Omicron cases, and its advisory warning against all non-essential travel by its citizens.
“All we can do is hope we get past this hurdle and, once we do, that they [Air Canada] see fit to continue with the service,” Mr Fountain added, “and hopefully extend it into Spring/Summer. The last flight was scheduled for April 17.
“Based on, again, anecdotal reports they were in the low 80 percents on load factors. That’s not bad whatsoever. There’s absolutely nothing we can do except pray.”
Exuma-based businesses, meanwhile, yesterday said they are dreading the loss of potential business as a result of Air Canada’s decision. Julian Romer, owner/operator of Cheater’s Bar, George Town, Great Exuma, told Tribune Business the move will “affect us bad.”
He said: “We have plenty Canadian tourists. This whole Christmas I had a lot of Canadian business. So Air Canada leaving is going to affect us bad, we wouldn’t do better.”
Mr Romer also criticised Exuma residents for failing to comply with COVID-19 protocols, warning: “We have all kinds of cases in Exuma and they are hiding it. I know of ten people that have COVID-19 but the dashboard is saying four. We need to do better.
“Right now, do you know how many cancellations I have for February for people who were coming down? I do catering as well, and a couple of my clients, they have homes here and they are out of Canada. We have lots of Canadian Airbnbs in Exuma.”
Mr Romer said he lost three bookings for Christmas due to Omicron-related concerns, and for the New Year has lost two already. “The one I got this past Sunday was a cancellation on something I would have made $2,000 on,” he added.
“As a small businessman, I understood what it is. Those people are not coming around COVID-19 and Canada is the real people who don’t play. Canada isn’t playing with us and that is what we have going on right now.”
Pedro Rolle, Exuma Chamber of Commerce president, said: “The implications of COVID-19 notwithstanding, for the economy of Exuma we feel that it is fundamental to have a balancing thing [between] Air Canada and then the US market, so it gives us a nice economic hedge that we are not reliant on predominantly just one market.
“We think if we can get over the issues of the travel stuff it will continue to be a bonus for Exuma, and I think it will make a huge difference for our economy.”
Another Exuma businessman, speaking under condition of anonymity, added: “I think Air Canada leaving will have a big impact. It will have a huge impact on the Exuma economy. We depend a lot on Canadian tourists. Canadian tourists are a big industry here on the island.”