• Industry back to pre-COVID ‘certainly in 2024’
• Cruise visitors 79% of arrivals through August
• Plans for TV/film to be ‘big in the destination’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president yesterday disclosed some resorts are enjoying “even stronger” growth than the near-13 percent jump in advanced bookings through to February 2024.
Robert Sands told Tribune Business that the hotel sector will return to pre-COVID business levels “certainly in 2024”, and possibly even in this year’s final quarter, with the upcoming winter poised to show improvement over prior comparatives.
He spoke after Latia Duncombe, the Ministry of Tourism’s director-general, told the State of the Tourism Industry Conference (SOTIC), which ends today in Turks & Caicos, that The Bahamas was enjoying “an average growth” of 12.7 percent in advanced bookings for the six-month period between September 2023 and February 2024 when compared to pre-COVID levels.
“In 2019, we celebrated our banner year as we welcomed 7.2m visitors to our shores,” Mrs Duncombe said. “In 2022, although we saw Omicron at the start, we hit the seven million mark again. Year-to-date, January to August, we welcomed 6.6m visitors to our shores.
“We’re projecting to hit at least eight million this year, and we’re pretty pleased with the results we are seeing. We are well on the way. We are about 30 percent above 2019, and 54 percent above last year. Our forward bookings remain strong, and as you can see, an average growth of 12.7 percent [compared] to pre-COVID levels when you look at September 2023 to February 2024.”
Mr Sands, confirming this is the level of growth being enjoyed by the industry as its post-COVID rebound continues, told this newspaper: “I think you’ll find it may be even stronger for some properties. We continue to see growth year-over-year, month by month, in the tourism sector. We continue to see growth across all sectors.”
Asked whether resorts and stopover numbers have rebounded to pre-COVID levels, the BHTA chief replied: “I think we’re getting there. We’re not quite there yet. We’ll see how this final quarter works out, but certainly by 2024.” Turning to the six-month period referred to by Mrs Duncombe, and wider peak winter period, he added: “It’s shaping up to be an increase over last year, and it’s showing quite positive signs based on advance bookings.
“We don’t see any headwinds currently. I think 2024 is shaping up to be very strong. We also see more and more groups. We’re seeing the manifestation of those bookings take place as well in 2024. It’s very strong.” Mrs Duncombe, meanwhile, emphasised that much of the visitor arrivals growth continues to be driven by the cruise industry.
“Cruise tourism is really big in the destination,” she said. “Cruise is huge in The Bahamas. Of the 7.2m visitors to our shores in 2019, 5.4m came by cruise. Of the 6.6m you saw up there [for the first eight months of 2023], 5.2m came by cruise, so cruising in The Bahamas is very big.”
The statistics disclosed by the tourism director-general show that The Bahamas received 96.3 percent of the total cruise arrivals it attracted in 2019, the last pre-COVID year, within just eight months. And those 5.2m cruise passengers also account for 78.8 percent, or more than three-quarters and three out of four visitors to set foot in The Bahamas this year.
Cruise tourism is The Bahamas’ volume business, as compared to the higher-yielding and spending stopover visitors. There has been a consistent argument over the years by some observers that by focusing solely on arrivals numbers, which are skewed to lower-spending cruise passengers, The Bahamas is not placing enough emphasis on tourist spending and ensuring the impact from this is maximised to benefit as many Bahamians as possible.
Meanwhile, Mrs Duncombe said The Bahamas will again placed renewed attention on attracting TV and films to come on location to this nation. The Ministry of Tourism’s recent Atlanta mission, where it staged both the Bahamas Film Awards and Friends of The Bahamas Awards, which honoured producer Will Packer, actor and musician Tyrese Gibson, and former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, was designed to place this nation back on the TV/film map.
“Film is big in the destination, and we’re certainly looking to do a lot in that space, and so through this partnership we expect for the islands of The Bahamas to be used in a very significant way,” the tourism director-general added.
Pointing to The Bahamas’ efforts to protect and conserve its environment, especially the marine portion, which attracts so many of its visitors, Mrs Duncombe added: “From a sustainability perspective, we’re doing so much in that space. The amount of initiatives we have going on in that space is too numerous to mention, but sustainability is front and centre for the islands of The Bahamas....
“Our Bahamas, we are a tourism-driven destination, and what is key for us is to maintain all things Bahamians and also to export it to the world in a very sustainable way. The involvement of our locals as part of this process is up front and centre, and the economic empowerment of our locals is very important to support our tourism sector.”
Noting The Bahamas’ growing interest in public-private partnership (PPP) deals, where private capital and investors partner with the Government on key public infrastructure projects, the tourism director-general said the planned transformation of 14 Family Island international airports is projected to cost at least a collective $250m.
Mrs Duncombe said The Bahamas’ focus on Saudi Arabia and Qatar was designed to get markets, where travellers have relatively high levels of disposable income and purchasing power, to consider this nation as a vacation and travel destination.