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Omicron ‘pushes back’ pre-COVID for tourism

• Variant creates ‘rough couple of months’ for industry

• Cancellations ‘going down’, online searches off 50%

• Out Island hotels targeting 86% of ‘19 room revenue

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Tourism’s hoped-for return to 2019 business volumes this year has been “pushed back” several months by Omicron with Internet searches for The Bahamas now “half” of pre-COVID levels.

Fred Lounsberry, the Nassau/Paradise Island Promotion Board’s president, told yesterday’s Bahamas Business Outlook conference that the industry was working feverishly to regain pre-Christmas “momentum” that had been disrupted by the new COVID variant and market confusion over the Government’s constantly changing entry/testing protocols.

Revealing that he had been told visitor cancellations “have gone down”, and bookings are improving, he nevertheless voiced optimism that the tourism industry would finish “close” to 2019 numbers for the 2022 full-year despite having to endure “a rough couple of months” due to the ongoing pandemic.

Others were more optimistic. Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, that he was “bullish on 2022” and predicted that it was “going to be a banner year for The Bahamas”.

And Kerry Fountain, the Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board’s executive director, told conference attendees he was forecasting that member properties will collectively generate room nights sold equivalent to 96 percent of what they achieved in 2019. As for total room revenues, he is predicting they will be 86 percent of what was achieved in that last pre-COVID year.

“Short-term, obviously we’re getting through this rough patch of water we’re dealing with right now with Omicron, its impact on travel and communicating the benefits of the destination to customers to build demand,” Mr Lounsberry said. “We are seeing short term impact as we go through the next few weeks. Short-term we have to build back demand, which impacts airlift short-term and long-term......

“We continue to build the story and narrative for groups. Groups are a critical piece of the tourism pie that have suffered greatly. They continue to show support for the destination, but obviously what is going on now is going to push that back.”

Pre-COVID, groups, meeting and conventions accounted for around 30-40 percent of all business for major Bahamian resorts with conference centres, representing a solid and predictable booking block around which other guests are fitted. However, this market segment is arguably the one COVID has impacted most of all given the need to social distance and meet other health protocols.

However, Mr Lounsberry said Omicron’s impact has not just been confined to The Bahamas’ group business. “We’ve all talked about 2019 [numbers] being back in 2022 and, quite frankly, that’s been pushed back,” he added. “We had good momentum going into the end of the year, which saw everybody quite optimistic, and then came Omicron and testing challenges with that.”

Referring to traveller confusion over the revised COVID testing and entry protocols that The Bahamas released before Christmas, and which the Government subsequently altered by abandoning RT-PCR tests for vaccinated travellers, the Nassau/Paradise Island Promotion Board chief said it was critical not to put “unnecessary” obstacles and impediments in the way of visitors.

Mr Lounsberry said “literally the phone starts ringing” the moment any such entry/testing protocol changes are announced, and the Bahamian tourism industry needs sufficient time to alert its airline and travel partners so they can communicate the adjustments to their customers.

“The role of government is to protect its citizens and the destination, but also to facilitate travel,” he added. “We have a big job ahead of us in 2022. We’re on a good track now. We had a setback with the Omicron situation, but from everything I’m hearing cancellations have gone down and bookings have improved. Hopefully we can get that momentum going again...

“A statistic I got this morning is that it’s still impacting demand to travel. Search demand is half of what it was in 2019. It’s improving a little as we go forward. We’re still not out of the woods. There’s no way to candy coat this. We’ve a long way to go. We’re doing everything we can, but the impact through 2022 is going to be a challenge.

“We’re going to get through it. The hotels and everybody are very enthusiastic. Nobody is thinking about throwing in the towel or anything crazy like that.” Voicing hope that there would not be any further COVID variants “to put cold water on everything we’re doing”, Mr Lounsberry said the industry was getting “a bit fatigued” and wanted to put the pandemic behind it.

“I think we’re turning the corner,” he added. “The numbers are recovering slowly, but we recognise that if we get group momentum back by Spring it will make 2022 a very good year..... The market is out there. They want to come to The Bahamas. The folks in the US, the UK love The Bahamas and they can’t wait to come back.

“I think we’re going to have a bit of a rough couple of months, and then come back. I think we will get close to 2019, but had a setback for the first couple of months. The pent-up demand is still out there. It’s been on again, off again, and if we do our part we will have a good 2022.”

Meanwhile, Mr Sands said he was more confident on The Bahamas’ tourism prospects for 2022. “I think 2022 is going to be a banner year for The Bahamas,” he added. “I’m very optimistic. Our tourism industry is very resilient and there’s significant pent-up demand.

Mr Fountain, too, said the forecast was for continued recovery among the Out Island Promotion Board’s member hotels, with those on islands such as Exuma and Eleuthera set to fare best and see the greatest growth. Not all properties, he added, would see growth in 2022 with some only maintaining their post-COVID recovery.

Ian Rolle, the Grand Bahama Port Authority’s (GBPA) president, who also heads the island’s Tourism Board, described 2022 as “a very promising and hopeful year” despite the multiple Dorian and storm-related setbacks the island has suffered.

He said the Carnival cruise port was set to “break ground” this year after issues with the protracted permitting process were overcome, while Royal Caribbean’s deal with Freeport Harbour for the cruise port expansion was expected to make similar progress.

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s first Margaritaville-branded cruise ship was set to make its maiden voyage to Grand Bahama on April 20 this year, Mr Rolle said, adding that the Tourism Board was hoping the Jimmy Buffett-inspired label would get involved with other activities on Grand Bahama.

The GBPA chief said the Western Atlantic University School of Medicine was now talking to the GBPA about a second $20m expansion, having completed the $30m first phase, while the Grand Bahama Power Company was having meetings with two independent power producers (IPP) interested in supplying it with renewable energy.

Comments

Alan1 7 months ago

So many of these self-described experts fail to understand that our Bahamas will not be receiving the numbers of visitors we had pre-Covid because it is too difficult and time consuming to enter our country. Tourists can go to most other southern destinations without all the hassles we impose on them. The Health Visa has greatly harmed our tourism. Would those who design these policies be willing to wait in long queues to get a rapid antigen test and take time off of work to get the test? Highly unlikely. There is no consideration that tourists want an easy booking and easy entry. They do not have the time or money to be paying for all kinds of tests to enter and then leave The Bahamas and all the measures to get and pay for the Visa and then be in our country in three days . There is such a shortage of antigen tests in both the U.S. and Canada that it is mostly now impossible to find a place who will give people a test. When will our Tourism officials wake up to the real world?

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nolasailor 7 months ago

The decision to let tourists into the Bahamas or not, is a difficult question for the Bahamian Government. I am not questioning the Travel Visa Program or whatever testing and vaccine rules are put in place.

I just would like to post my experience, traveling in and out of the islands. I have had my sailboat in Nassau for some time. In 2020, traveling back and forth to the US was extremely difficult and I ended up just leaving with the boat in July 2020. I came back in May of 2021 when Covid seemed to be settling down. The Travel Visa Program works but adds an additional expense to a trip to the Bahamas $40 for the Visa, $100-$200 for a rapid test in the US, then $$40-$100 for a rapid test in Bahamas (if staying longer than 48hrs), $40-$100 for a rapid test to return to the US. Add it all up for a family and it makes going to the Florida Keys look like a better option.

I don't know what the answer is but the current Visa situation can add over $1000 for a family trip.

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ThisIsOurs 6 months, 4 weeks ago

How can you tell the travel visa "works? Tge objective was to ensure only persons with valid COVID tests enter the Bahamas. They have no way to validate every test. How is that "working?

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whogothere 6 months, 4 weeks ago

The entry testing policy is a disaster and at this point does more harm than good. People should be able to travel with the 'sniffles' which is essentially what COVID19 is at this point. Testing should be prioritised for the at risk population; vast testing at this point in the pandemic is waste of resources...and only undermines economic recovery.

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ThisIsOurs 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Havent they realized yet that exponential spikes in tourism have a high probability of bringing new variants? The new variants (to date have) caused like spikes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. All of which then cause a slowdown in tourism due to CDC action, updated policies and consumer behaviour.

"if you love it let it kill you"? That describes tourism in the COVID era

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whogothere 6 months, 4 weeks ago

And so what - fried food and lack of exercise gives you heart disease…? Which kills more people than than COVID. Guns, cigarettes, alcohol same deal - accepted killers… Existence about is understanding and accepting appropriate levels of risk. The problem with COVID is that risk has been hugely and glamorously inflated for around 90+% of society and still is. With omicron the emperor clearly has no cloths, people are waking up COVID cases and deaths are completely decoupled and it has nothing to with health measure or vaccination but a predictable viral evolution…at this we have to accept that COVID exists and that most people will get and be fine. If you re sick, fat and old take precautions.

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ThisIsOurs 6 months, 3 weeks ago

You missed the point. They continue to cycle between tourism is great and omg look at the numbers. Its exactly like someone eating that fried chicken you speak of and saying omg look at my weight, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels!

Nobody talks about addressing obesity more than me and well before COVID. Maybe Shaun T

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whogothere 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Shaun T and maybe Tony Horton...

The point is you can't control this and you can't close borders...and more importantly we're beyond that now.. stop mass testing, stop counting cases, stop prioritising COVID over everything else.

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