• Chamber chief receives ‘outraged’ complaints
• Urges businesses against exploiting inflation
• Post-Dorian revival picks up in past 6 months
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday appealed to businesses not to price gouge for fear it could drive away “the loyal visitor base” that has stuck with the island through its Dorian and COVID travails.
Daphne Degregory-Miaoulis, speaking as Abaco and the wider Bahamas remember the victims of the devastating Category Five storm that struck exactly three years ago, urged the private sector not to exploit inflationary pressures and soaring costs to push their prices to “unreasonable” levels.
She told Tribune Business she has received complaints from long-standing visitors, who have been coming to Abaco for decades, who were “outraged” at the prices they were being charged. Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis said they were increasingly eating at home, or where they were staying, because “they will not tolerate” what is being levied by restaurants and other tourist-related amenities and attractions.
Describing increased costs, driven by external inflation, as “a huge challenge” for Abaco’s recovery and “not something that we have any control over”, she added: “I made an appeal to the business community, especially here in Abaco, not to use that as a reason for price gouging.
“Everybody wants to recover their losses, but this is a time when Abaco needs to give impeccable customer service to everyone, local and foreign. We’ve all gone through, and are going through, difficult times and we have to be more compassionate towards one another and grateful for our visitors for coming back to an island that has not recovered 100 percent, and does not off all the amenities they are accustomed to and would like to enjoy.
“I’ve had complaints from visitors,” Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis continued. “They’re able to afford to pay the prices, but are outraged at them because they’re unreasonable. I’m not talking about every day visitors to the island; I’m talking about people who’ve been coming here every year for 20 years and who love Abaco.
“But they’re buying and eating at home more often than they go out, and that’s because they feel the product they are getting is not up to standard, and the service and price is not what they will tolerate. We have to be really, really careful we don’t lose that loyal visitor base we have by price gouging.” No names, products or prices were cited.
Despite these concerns, Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis, a realtor by profession who owns and operates the Abaco Neem organic farm with her husband, Nick, said the island’s economic recovery momentum appeared to have picked up over the past six months with more micro, small and medium-sized (MSMEs) enterprises opening outside the traditional Marsh Harbour corporate space.
“I did have a meeting yesterday with one of the bank managers here, and according to her in the last six months there has been a real increase in business banking,” she told Tribune Business. “There are a lot of SMEs, small and medium-sized businesses, popping up and opening up and that’s encouraging because they’re what drives the economy.
“I’m also happy to say that those businesses are opening in areas outside of Marsh Harbour’s main business centre - in Dundas Town and areas that are more locally populated - which is also a positive shift in my opinion. It is probably because the rents are more affordable, the rents are lower and the rental properties in Marsh Harbour proper are not readily available. Cost, I think the primary reason.
“I see this as a positive, all in all. Definitely, within the last six months activity has picked up, which is great because we’ve gone into a real lull that is normal for this September/October/November peak hurricane period when second home owner and visitor numbers are decreasing. We have more business activity in the local market. I had a beautiful lunch at a brand new restaurant, Sugar Cane, which is right next to Abaco Suites. Several new eateries have opened up.”
Utilities, especially a “reliable” electricity and water supply plus Internet, are critical for businesses to properly function but remain a challenge for many on Abaco. “I just spoke to one of our second homeowners who lives in Eastern Shores, one of the most expensive areas where the Government collects handsome real property tax,” Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis disclosed.
“They still don’t have water supply. They are still dealing with Water & Sewerage to get a steady water supply. They’re rebuilding but are having to truck water into their properties so that they can function. We’ve had three years to bring infrastructure, basic water supply. That’s the very least we should have done.”
The Abaco Chamber chief forecast that it will likely take up to five more years for the island to recover, physically at least, from the catastrophic devastation inflicted by Hurricane Dorian. “I always said it was going to take at least seven to ten years to get back to being the viable city we should be and can be,” she told Tribune Business.
“Where are we now? Three years? I’m sticking to that timeframe. It’s at least another, at best, three to five years barring any unforeseen new obstacles that may come about....Abaco has come through the toughest times. We are resilient. We will come back. We do have a loyal customer base. We think we will be the second biggest economic-generating island in the country again if we are not already there.”
Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis renewed calls made by herself, and her Chamber predecessor, for the Government to provide greater and earlier clarity on its plans for extending the tax breaks and other concessions granted to aid post-Dorian reconstruction.
The latest are due to expire on December 1 this year, and she said Abaco and Grand Bahama cannot afford for the Government to “present further obstacles to us in our disaster region by not giving us all the concessions we need to fully rebuild”.
Arguing that both islands should have been “exempted altogether” from having to pay VAT, Mrs Degregory-Miaoulis asserted that they had only enjoyed “three real months of benefit” from the Special Economic Recovery Zone (SERZ) designation due to the COVID lockdowns and restrictions that were swiftly followed by supply chain bottlenecks and inflation.
“We’re hoping that the Government will continue the SERZ exemptions as we still need to rebuild,” she said. “I haven’t heard of any definitive decision on it, but the Government tends to wait until the 11th hour to make a decision, which I expect is what will here again unfortunately. It always affects people with their planning, especially business planning.
“The thing is that we know from the Ministry of Finance’s perspective they have seen considerable growth over this past year in Abaco. I understand that is what they have advised. They expect it will continue over the next year. The fact of the matter is that if building and reconstruction slows because costs have increased, that defeats the whole purpose.”