• Hotels chief: February ‘still strong’ despite drop-off
• Bran hit by seven Airbnb cancellations on warnings
• Says decline ‘almost another COVID-19 pandemic’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian hotels yesterday revealed recent crime alerts have sparked “a drag on the booking pace” while a former DNA leader blamed seven cancellations at his vacation rental business on the warnings.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business the industry is still trying to “quantify” the precise impact from international media “misrepresentation” of US and Canadian travel advisories although February “still remains a very strong month”.
While short-term bookings for the peak winter season, vital to the health of resorts, all tourism-related businesses and the wider Bahamian economy, have not been impacted thus far the fall-out for longer-term visitor bookings remains unclear.
And Mr Sands told this newspaper that while the effect has “not been material”, he cannot deny that there have been some tourist cancellations although it is uncertain whether they are directly connected to fears sparked by saturation TV and print media coverage of the crime alerts.
However, Branville McCartney, the ex-Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader, disclosed to Tribune Business that his vacation rental business has been hit by seven visitor cancellations through the peak winter season months of March and April as a result of visitor concerns surrounding The Bahamas’ crime situation following the continuing murder spike.
Comparing the situation to COVID-19, when his vacation rentals went from being “booked out” to almost zero overnight, he branded the cancellations as “almost another pandemic” as he urged the Government and authorities to “stop playing around” with the criminals who are “wreaking havoc” on the safety of Bahamians, residents and tourists alike.
Vacation rentals are more vulnerable to travel alerts and crime advisories because they are often located outside traditional tourist and hotel zones, and therefore have less security and persons around, while also being based in or near areas suffering criminal activity. Mr Sands and Mr McCartney’s comments indicate the tangible impact that the negative global media blitz is having on The Bahamas.
Mr Sands, noting that the US has not altered its ‘Level Two’ travel advisory since 2022, nevertheless revealed that the decline in the pace of tourist bookings has coincided with global media coverage of the crime and murder spike in The Bahamas. He added, though, that a two week drop-off is no indication of a lasting trend, and said the outlook for this nation’s winter tourism season remains strong.
“There’s been a drag on the booking pace, but February still remains a very strong month in terms of bookings,” the BHTA president told Tribune Business. “We have to continue to monitor the situation on a monthly basis. January finished strongly, almost the same as last year or slightly behind last year. We await to see the results of that.
“But, by and large, we have been seeing a slowdown in booking pace. I would say that’s been in the last two to three weeks, a similar time as the misrepresentation of the advisories which the industry is working diligently to correct and the US embassy is contributing to that position as well. We are going to monitor the booking pace going forward.”
Asked by this newspaper about the magnitude of the booking pace slowdown, Mr Sands replied: “It is something we are trying to quantify. It has not begun to impact short-term bookings, but we have to investigate to see if it’s impacting long-term bookings.
“It also gives the opportunity for people who are satisfied that the destination is safe to book again in the future. We cannot treat the booking pace for two weeks as a trend.” He told this newspaper that any recent hotel booking cancellations are insignificant in number, and that they cannot be directly linked to media reporting on the crime/travel advisories.
“I would say that where there have been cancellations, they have not been material, but I would not deny that there have been incidents of cancellations,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business. “I cannot say unequivocally how it has been, but there have been some cancellations and it may be directly related to misinterpretation of the advisories.
“The best efforts of the collective country, both internationally and locally, are at work to begin to reverse the current trend. Misinformation does not help the tourism sector, but correcting the information saves us from any further demise.”
Mr Sands pointed out that The Bahamas’ has not been downgraded by the US as the latter’s travel advisory has remained at ‘level two’ since 2022. Instead, the US merely urged its citizens to take care - and be aware of - the recent spike in murders in New Providence with the 25th and latest killing taking place yesterday.
However, this has received extensive media coverage in New York and the north-east, which is the primary tourist source market for this nation, as well as across the US with much of the reporting giving the impression - described by Mr Sands as a “misinterpretation” - that the travel advisory has been elevated.
It has featured on major TV networks, such as NBC, ABC and CNN, as well as in newspapers including the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today. The New York Post told Americans to “think twice about a tropical getaway to the Caribbean this winter”, adding: “Safety concerns have reached a point of severity where US officials say people shouldn’t even try to ‘physically resist’ being robbed.”
Mr Sands said industry is working closely with the Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation to correct this, adding: “Stakeholders are doing their part to get that message out; that travellers should stay informed and make decisions on accurate information, and that tourists are coming on a daily basis and we are working with our travel partners to ensure they enjoy the warmth and hospitality of the destination.
“The overall level of safety in the country remains stable. While isolated incidents occur, they also happen in other jurisdictions. They are not unique to us but they continue to be unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”
Mr McCartney, meanwhile, told Tribune Business that private sector frustration with the Department of Inland Revenue’s tax reporting portal woes was now spilling over to the crime situation. “We’ve had different countries put out some advisories over tourists coming to the country. That has a tremendous effect,” he said.
“I’m involved in real estate. We’ve had persons cancel as a result of this. I have Airbnb’s and we’ve had persons, because of these advisories, come out and say they have cancelled their bookings. This is up to April of this year where we have had bookings set and had persons cancel. We’ve had seven persons cancel since the advisory, since the advisory.
“This reminds me of prior to the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic we were booked right out. This is almost another pandemic. I equate this to the pandemic.” Mr McCartney argued that The Bahamas must go further than the crime-fighting strategies announced by the Government and Prime Minister Philip Davis KC.
“I saw where the Prime Minister came out and did what he had to do to try and insist it’s a safe country and what have you, but he didn’t go far enough,” the Halsbury Chambers principal said. “Just talking is not good enough. We need to show we are doing certain things, not just talking about it.
“I agree with and applaud what they are trying to do with the Bail Act and amendments there. We need to go further. Increase the fines for those small offences. We have capital punishment on our books. Change the law so the Privy Council cannot wiggle their toes out of it in any form or fashion. They will then have to follow our laws in making their decisions.
“We have to show the system is working properly. More courts, more judges. The prosecutors need the necessary tools in order to do their jobs. If we have to work around the clock, work on the weekends to get these things in place, then the international community will say they’re serious and pull back on the advisories,” Mr McCartney added.
“Stop playing around with these people wreaking havoc on our safety, tourists and locals alike, and wreaking havoc on our businesses. Stop playing with these people. Get serious with it.” Mr Sands, meanwhile, said none of the murders to-date had involved tourists, with all the incidents taking place largely in New Providence in residential areas hardly or never frequented by visitors.
The BHTA president pledged that the Government, industry, police, church and other stakeholders are “all working collectively to treat the safety of our visitors as the single top priority they give to this sector and they are doing that every single day...
“The ‘Level Two’ travel advisory rating of The Bahamas has not changed and has been in place since 2022,” Mr Sands added. “The Bahamas is ranked alongside 70 of the world’s top tourism destinations such as the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands. It’s not bad company.
“I think the US charge d’affaires stated it properly. This is not a situation about being concerned about the safety of tourists in The Bahamas, but an issue of advising their citizens to be aware... The Bahamas has been in the tourism business for 200 years. We’ve seen the ups and downs, but we’ve learned what’s important as far as tourists are concerned.
“First and foremost, their safety. Second, the product offering of the destination and, third, they leave here satisfied. I can say without fear of contradiction that the overwhelming majority of tourists over those 200 years have done that.”