By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
High-spending tourism markets have hailed the elimination of COVID entry testing and the Health Travel Visa as a potential “game changer” for The Bahamas given the reduced “hassle” involved in accessing the country.
Rick Gardner, director of CST Flight Services, which provides flight co-ordination and trip support services to the private aviation industry throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, told Tribune Business he had received “immediate positive feedback” after posting news of The Bahamas’ COVID restrictions relaxation to private pilot social media forums last Wednesday.
While unable to predict figures, he fully expects the move to boost private aviation traffic to The Bahamas over summer 2022 and beyond, adding: “It’s like the high jump. Any time you lower the bar more people get over it.”
Meanwhile, Peter Maury, the immediate past president for the Association of The Bahamas Marinas (ABM), voiced hope that the end to COVID entry testing for vaccinated travellers as well as the Health Travel Visa would help to partially ease the pain associated with soaring fuel costs for the boating/yachting sector.
Asserting that it was too early to tell how the increased expense of travelling to The Bahamas and its multiple islands will impact the summer season, he recalled how one boater recently told him while in San Salvador that “what cost me $1,500 now costs me $5,000”. That illustrates the potential impact from surging global oil prices which last night remained at $109 and $112.3 per barrel on the West Texas and Brent Crude indices, respectively.
Meanwhile, Mr Gardner, a Bahamas Flying Ambassador, told this newspaper that he immediately posted The Bahamas’ elimination of the Health Travel Visa on private aviation forums having received “early warning” that it would be coming out last Wednesday. “The question I got was ‘what about the testing’, and then they released that there was no more testing for the vaccinated, so I posted that and the feedback was immediate and very positive,” he recalled.
“That, coupled with the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) eliminating the testing requirement to go back to the US, it’s a game changer. It releases that burden, that hassle of where do I get tested, how do I get tested, especially if you are staying in the southern half of Long Island or some place where the infrastructure is less. People stress about how to get tested to go back to the US.
“It’s like the high jump. The lower you set the bar, the more people get over it. Anything that simplifies, removes the burden and lowers the complexity is going to be good. It will be very good. A couple of people that responded said they are only just planning to go in July. There was a lot of good feedback immediately,” Mr Gardner continued.
“I can’t give you that there will be a 5 percent increase. I don’t know. But any time you simplify a process more people are willing to tackle it.” The elimination of the COVID entry test for vaccinated travellers and the Health Visa Travel comes just weeks after The Bahamas eased fears of further bureaucracy, red tape and cost to access this nation when Customs indefinitely suspended applying its Click2Clear system to private pilots and their passengers.
“Unfortunately I got an e-mail from a private pilot for a wealthy individual who said they were moving to Turks & Caicos because of Click2Clear,” Mr Gardner recalled. “He was the first one to call me. He was flying to Exuma and in Exuma they thought Click2Clear went into effect on May 18. He told me he was tired of waiting, and the boss had moved to Turks & Caicos. That was one person, but how many more.”
Both the private aviation and yachting markets are highly lucrative for The Bahamas because they attract high-spending, high-yielding tourists who typically stay in the destination for longer and can move about at will, thus spreading the tourism industry’s impact into the Family Islands.
Mr Maury, meanwhile, told Tribune Business he had been “pushing all along” for the elimination of COVID entry testing for the vaccinated and the Health Travel Visa given that it represents an opportunity to lure higher spending visitors into The Bahamas.
“It was not the visa; it was the testing because it was getting harder and harder to get a test over there [the US],” he said. “It all adds to the price of travel. Obviously in the maritime industry fuel is a huge expense. Having the testing and Travel Visa on top of it made the Florida Cays and free places easier to go to.
“This week we saw the highest increase in fuel; they’re over $5 in the US. Hopefully the fact they don’t have to get a visa and find a test will compensate for that. June is a busy time, and July and August are big. It’s right before peak season, so I think it’s perfect. It certainly helps with the summer business.”
While voicing optimism that the COVID restrictions ease will partially offset the fall-out from higher fuel prices, Mr Maury expressed concern that the increased cost associated with travelling 200 miles from Florida to The Bahamas could dampen summer season traffic and that for holidays such as the July 4 weekend.
“I had a guy say while I was in San Salvador last week that what cost him $1,500 now costs him $5,000,” he revealed. “That’s pretty expensive, and that was just a sports fishing vessel. It’s on everyone’s minds. How many times are they willing to pay that expense to get a lot less? I’ll know more in July when we see a lot of boats travelling this way. I talked to a yacht captain in Exuma yesterday, and he was surprised there were not as many boats as the year before.”