By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Andros has exceeded last year’s total stopover visitors by 66.5 percent in just the first four months of 2022, it was revealed yesterday, despite airlift woes being “the bane of everybody’s life”.
Dr Kenneth Romer, the Ministry of Tourism’s deputy director-general and acting director of aviation, told the Andros Business Outlook conference that the island appeared set for “a banner year” after attracting some 5,626 air arrivals during the period to end-April 2022.
Disclosing that Andros received “a fraction less than 1 percent” of all air arrivals received by The Bahamas in 2019, when a record 1.8m stopovers arrived on these shores pre-COVID, he added: “We need to change that narrative.”
While the pandemic’s lockdowns and related travel/border restrictions dropped stopover visitors to just 1,982 in 2020, they bounced back to near pre-COVID levels last year at 3,378. And, for 2022, Dr Romer said this number has jumped by two-thirds in only four months to beat 2021’s full-year total.
“So Andros is already among the leaders in terms of overall foreign air arrivals,” the aviation chief. “I believe this year, 2022, is going to be the banner year... I believe we are climbing, taking flight, with opportunities for growth in air travel.”
Andros’ niche tourism sectors, such as diving, snorkelling, bird watching, eco-tourism and flats and bonefishing will likely have helped spur this increase, together with the pent-up demand for travel post-COVID and a desire by many vacationers to explore more remote destinations.
However, Dr Romer, who was moderator for the Andros Business Outlook’s panel discussions, earlier had to listen while hotel operators and airlines listed multiple concerns and complaints relating to airlift into the island - the sector that falls under his watch.
Michael King-Hew, chief executive and director for Kamalame Cay Private Island Resort and Residences, said simply: “Airlift is the issue. It is the constant issue and bane of everybody’s life...We either do a good job or a terrible job.”
Pointing out that the cancellation of fully-booked flights left passengers, who have already checked out of their resorts, with nowhere to go, he added that reliable, consistent flights and schedules were vital if Family Island tourism is to prosper.
Urging the Government to help “accelerate” the build-out of airport infrastructure and technology, Mr King-Hew also urged The Bahamas to straighten out its pre-clearance facility in Fort Lauderdale. Asserting that this had been “messed around with for two years”, he said the pre-clearance experience was “magic” and “you are treated like a superstar” but too often persons are having to navigate a crowded airport terminal.
“We have to be candid about the terrible state of the airports,” Mr King-Hew said, singling out San Andros in particular. With no covered area where passengers can wait for their flights, they either have to wait in a taxi or “cluster” inside the Customs and Immigration office - especially if it rains. Addressing these issues, he added, would help give Andros the airlift it requires.
Lee Quittner, vice-president of marketplace for Tropic Ocean Airways, backed Mr King-Hew by agreeing that “pre-clearance in Fort Lauderdale will be a game changer. It will open up things for us nicely”. He added that “the biggest opportunity” was to try and get ahead of pent-up travel demand and provide the “five-star experience” travellers are seeking in an environment impacted by post-COVID pilot and plane shortages.
Chad Chorney, the Bahamas programme director for US-based Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventure, a travel agency, identified “reliable and consistent air and flight services” as being among the top challenges in clients getting to The Bahamas - especially the Family Islands.
With flights and routes cut during the pandemic, he added: “I hope that bounces back and increases going forward..... Right now we’re seeing an increase in air fare prices. That’s a concern to some folks with rising fuel costs, but hopefully that’s alleviated.”
Cheryl Bastian, owner of Swains Cay Lodge, told the conference that freight challenges were compounding airlift woes. “One of the issues is getting our freight in,” she said. “While our freight providers are pretty good with what they have to work with, it’s pretty concerning when they can’t get it in and expenses are escalating. That’s creating significant challenges and expenses for the bottom line.”
A lack of airlift availability, and challenges in getting guests in and out of Andros, represented a further challenge, Ms Bastian added, as she called for Mangrove Cay Airport to be designated as an international port of entry. The lodge proprietor also called on Androsians to become more involved by developing activities for visitors to experience while on the island.
Jeff Birch, the resident family manager for Small Hope Bay Lodge, described the “acquisition of middle management at an affordable price” as being among his greatest challenge. He added the cost involved in finding someone with “the ability to maintain the business at the level you want”, and enticing them to move to Andros, was “significant”.