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Tourism relief: Biden doesn’t kill Christmas

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ROBERT SANDS

• Peak season ‘intact’ as US opts against quarantine

• Narrowed 24-hour test window deemed ‘manageable’

• Hotels chief says ‘important not to panic’ over change

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Bahamian tourism industry yesterday voiced relief that the US chose not to impose harsher COVID border restrictions that would have undermined the peak Christmas/New Year season.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that what is forecast to be an exceptionally strong period for occupancies and room rates would have been threatened if Joe Biden had opted for mandatory quarantines for all incoming travellers to the US.

The US president, seeking to head off a fresh winter COVID surge and the virus’ new Omicron variant, instead decided to narrow the window in which all returning US citizens and international travellers must produce a negative test. They must obtain this result within 24 hours of departing for the US as opposed to the currently-permitted 72 hours.

Asserting that “it’s important not to panic”, Mr Sands said the new US regime creates a situation that is “manageable” for the Bahamian hotel and tourism industry. He added, though, that the greatest challenges will be faced on remoter Family Islands that may lack both the personnel and supplies to administer the tests within the time required.

Confirming that discussions are already underway with the Government and health authorities to ensure the necessary resources are in place for when the new US regime comes into effect early next week, the BHTA chief expressed confidence that the tighter testing timeframe will not deter persons from visiting The Bahamas.

And Mr Sands confirmed that the greatest potential disruptor for The Bahamas’ key winter tourism season has been avoided, at least for now, after the Biden administration did not impose mandatory quarantines for returning US citizens or incoming international travellers. 

“The other position being discussed was about quarantines, which were not introduced,” he told Tribune Business. “That would have been a significant impact to tourism if that was implemented. I think it is significant because it would have been the single major reason for people not to want to travel. As we build up for the busiest period of the year, it is still intact.”

Mr Sands added that the new US border control policies require a rapid antigen test, rather than the so-called “gold standard” PCR test, which is more expensive. This, too, minimises the costs and bureaucracy that could deter American tourists from travelling.

“The 24-hour requirement, I think, is certainly manageable” he said. “Many of the hotels will have to put in place management structures to deal with peak time periods, which will be the festive season when occupancies are extremely high. 

“Certainly the larger Family Islands may not have an issue, but we have to look at the smaller islands where there’s less consistency of service in place. And, if those areas are not operating tests seven days a week, now they have to be seven days a week. We have to take this into consideration, and the logistics for smaller islands, and put the necessary mechanisms in place.”

Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board’s executive director, told Tribune Business his “only concern” with the new US COVID testing regime was whether a PCR or rapid antigen test is required. Mr Sands said it was the latter, but Mr Fountain pointed out that “we don’t have that in writing”.

The Promotion Board chief was also more relaxed about the Out Islands’ ability to handle the tighter testing window, saying: “If it’s a rapid antigen test I don’t think it will impact us that much. We have a lot of outlets throughout the Family Islands administering rapid antigen tests three days’ out from departure.

“All it means is stepping that up so persons departing for the US get their antigen test and results within 24 hours of departure.”

Meanwhile, agreeing that New Providence and Grand Bahama, plus the likes of Abaco, Eleuthera and Exuma, would have little trouble adjusting to the new US stipulations, Mr Sands added: “The change will not be too difficult but certainly management of it becomes very necessary. 

“I don’t think 24-hour testing will deter travellers from coming. Once they are satisfied testing will be done within that timeframe, they will want to come. It’s a rapid test, not a PCR test.

“I am satisfied that we can cope. Unfortunately, we have to manage our way out of this pandemic. This is another safety protocol being implemented, and I think we’ll be better off for it and the industry will be better off for it,” he continued.

“It creates some additional issues, but we’re going to have to work our way through it. The issues are that we’re going to have to constantly remind people the test has to be done within 24 hours, and we just have to make sure there is a consistency of medical professionals administering it and multiple places to take it for persons travelling back to the US.”

Results will also have to be returned to US travellers in time, and Mr Sands said discussions had begun with the Government and relevant public health authorities to ensure all needed human and physical resources are available.

“This is a situation that is fluid but, yes, parties have been alerted to some of these concerns,” he added, suggesting that the new US measures will take effect from Tuesday. “I think it’s important not to panic. It’s important to work through the management of it.

“It’s something we’re going to have to live with. It’s not going to go away in the short-term and will become a part of how we operate. The message coming from this is to encourage the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, and those that have the opportunity do so.

“To me, the future protection of our sector is in the level of persons we’re able to fully vaccinate - and perhaps even boosted with a third shot - because a significant amount of our guests are fully vaccinated and some even have booster shots.”

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