By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian tourism operators yesterday shrugged off the latest downgrade by US health authorities, arguing that constant changes in this nation’s COVID protocols are “more alarming” to visitors.
Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties on Harbour Island and Eleuthera, told Tribune Business that “we’ve weathered the storm before” after the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) downgraded this nation to ‘Level 4’ “do not travel” status once again due to the surge in Omicron cases.
Disclosing that such changes had not significantly impacted his and other Family Island hotels in the past, he said: “I would say that we’ve had two to three guests, per level change, who have said that they are not travelling to the destination or cancelled.
“It seems like most people take it with a pinch of salt. It’s vastly different, the Out Island case load, from Nassau and we communicate that to the clients - that The Bahamas is a very diverse country with regional differences. What happens in one part of The Bahamas does not reflect what’s happening in this destination.
“People do ask, but usually that explanation is sufficient to save some of the business from going elsewhere.” With just eight out of 147 patients hospitalised with COVID-19 presently requiring intensive care, Mr Simmons voiced hope that The Bahamas was starting to reach “the endemic part of the pandemic”.
“I don’t think that the CDC thing will impact us too much,” he reiterated. “We’ve weathered the storm before. People are used to these kinds of changes happening. The vast majority of our clientele are vaccinated so they don’t have the same concerns.”
Mr Simmons said the hotel and tourism industry similarly had to explain that no two parts of The Bahamas are alike when Hurricane Dorian struck Abaco and Grand Bahama in September 2019, thus ensuring other islands retained their travel business.
And he added that the constant changes in The Bahamas’ testing requirements and entry protocols were likely more off-putting for tourists than any CDC advisory. “We have to be wary of these curfews,” he said. “I think one thing that has brought great stability is what the current rules are. The medical guidelines are pretty fixed.
“There’s less nervousness about getting here and there suddenly being a lockdown and curfew. That’s what’s more alarming to people: The constant change in regulations.”
The Bahamas’ inconsistency, and frequent changes in testing and entry requirements, are thought to have previously created uncertainty that deterred some visitors from travelling, while also sparking complaints that it was difficult to get tested and obtain the results in the required timeframe.
“February is slow,” Mr Simmons told Tribune Business. “This month is a little slower than I’d like it to be at 75 percent occupancy. We’d lost one or two events which was more to do with changes in regulations on the US side of things. For March and April we’re back up to 85-90 percent, for which we’re very grateful. We’ll take the win.”
The CDC, in downgrading The Bahamas back to ‘Level 4’ due to the recent spike in COVID numbers, said: “Avoid travel to The Bahamas. If you must travel to The Bahamas, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel.
“Because of the current situation in The Bahamas, even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants. Travellers should follow recommendations or requirements in The Bahamas, including wearing a mask and staying six feet apart from others.”
The Bahamas recorded a further 173 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, taking the total number of active cases to 7,314. Some 147 COVID positive patients are in the hospital, of whom eight are in intensive care.
However, Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers (BHCAWU) president, told this newspaper that pent-up travel demand - especially among vaccinated Americans - was likely to overcome any concerns related to the CDC’s Bahamas downgrade.
“It is concerning but people are travelling no matter what,” he said. “That’s something they [the CDC] from time to time because of the numbers. That never really affects the travelling public because they want to travel no matter what. They’ll take whatever precautions are necessary.
“That’s never really had an effect on travel before, and I don’t see it having an effect now because people are more anxious to travel than ever before. They want to take a chance now. Let’s hope and keep our fingers crossed that they follow suit.”
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, though, voiced concern that the CDC warning could disrupt efforts to revive the group, meeting and convention business upon which larger resorts rely for 30-40 percent of their bookings.
“There’s no question that this is a move in the wrong direction and we have to do our level best to get back down the scale,” he told this newspaper. “It’s not good for our destination at this time. We have to correct this very quickly.
“The numbers are higher than we’d like them to be, but they appear to be plateauing and hopefully it plateaus very quickly to get this downgrade reduced to a ‘Level 3’ and then back to a ‘Level 2’.”