Hotels won’t rebound to pre-COVID employment



• BHTA chief: ‘Very difficult’ to recall all in new norm

• But hails VAT cut for vacation-boosting cost slash

• Industry’s ‘bull in china shop’ remains CDC warning•


Tribune Business Editor


A top hotelier yesterday conceded it will “be very difficult” for existing Bahamian resorts to fully return to 100 percent of pre-COVID staffing levels due to the changed working environment.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that ongoing health protocols and the increased use of technology meant industry employment - while recovering to numbers “fairly close” to those enjoyed prior to the pandemic - was unlikely to fully rebound.

Voicing optimism that tourism and resort expansion will “absorb some of those displaced”, he expressed confidence that business volumes for The Bahamas’ main industry and economic driver will return to pre-COVID levels during the January-April peak winter season in 2022.

With multiple factors dictating the sector’s outlook, Mr Sands said the Government’s planned VAT rate cut to 10 percent will provide a further boost to tourism demand by reducing the cost of a Bahamian vacation and giving potential visitors the impression they are getting “increased value for money”.

Hopeful that 50 percent of Bahamian citizens and residents will be fully vaccinated by Christmas this year, he warned that “the bull in the china shop” for tourism is The Bahamas’ continued ‘Level 4’ or ‘do not travel’ status with the US federal health authorities due to the recent surge in COVID-19 infections and cases.

Improving this ranking “in the shortest possible time” would “be a major, major plus” for tourism’s ongoing recovery prospects, Mr Sands added, given that the present Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranking is a major deterrent to both leisure and, particularly, group travel.

Asked about the hotel industry’s prospects of returning to pre-COVID employment levels, the BHTA chief told this newspaper: “I don’t think it will be right back to pre-COVID levels, but it will be fairly close, would be the honest answer.

“I think COVID has introduced certain conditions that have resulted in the reduction of some manpower needs, and the use of technology, and it will be very difficult to get back to pre-COVID manpower levels but the expansion of the industry will absorb some of those displaced individuals.”

Mr Sands said he did not possess exact figures for how many staff have been recalled to work by Bahamian resorts and other tourism-related businesses, but added that “opportunities are being created for people to be re-engaged in other areas”.

He added: “I can tell you the overwhelming majority have been recalled, and as some of these emergency orders fall away and curfews are lifted etc, there will be greater opportunities for more opening of facilities in hotel, which will cause for more and more people to be re-employed.”

With the COVID emergency powers set to expire on November 13 and not be renewed, employers and employees will have to brace for the end to the furlough period some 30 days later in mid-November. The non-renewal means that previously suspended Employment Act provisions, which required employers to recall furloughed workers after 90 days or pay due severance, kick back in.

Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union’s president, recently estimated to this newspaper that between 35-45 percent of his members and resort workers in general were still on furlough, although he did not possess exact numbers.

Based on Mr Sands’ comments, a minority will not be recalled and will have to seek employment elsewhere. However, opportunities do exist, as indicated by the recent Sandals job fair where it is seeking 300 new recruits - 200 for the Royal Bahamian property, and 100 for Emerald Bay. The hotel chain is also recalling hundreds on furlough for Royal Bahamian’s end-January 2022 opening.

The BHTA president, meanwhile, said the upcoming VAT rate reduction from 12 percent to 10 percent would benefit the hotels and wider tourism sector given that the tax is levied on virtually all aspects of their business and the services/amenities provided to guests.

Room rates, food and beverage, spas, and even golf and other visitor attractions all attract VAT, Mr Sands added, noting that even a two percentage point could provide tourists with significant savings given that a Bahamas vacation is a high cost, big ticket item.

“The VAT reduction will help the cost of vacations,” he told Tribune Business. “Where you make the vacation where the visitor feels there’s tremendous value for money, and you are able to provide savings for the traveller, that’s a very significant motivator for people to travel.”

But, while bookings and reservations continue to increase, Mr Sands warned that the pace had tapered off - which he attributed, at least in part, to the CDC’s ‘Level 4’ “don’t travel” warning against The Bahamas due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

“The bull in the China shop that remains for us is a reduction in the CDC’s ‘Level 4’ for The Bahamas to something better than that,” Mr Sands revealed. “That would make a tremendous difference.”

The impact was acknowledged by Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister and minister of tourism, investments and aviation, during his House of Assembly presentation earlier this week, and the BHTA chief voiced optimism that his advocacy efforts, as well as those of the Prime Minister and Fred Mitchell, minister of foreign affairs, would bear fruit “in the shortest possible time”.

“The sooner that happens it will be a major, major plus for the tourism sector,” Mr Sands said of an improvement in the CDC assessment. “It hurts both travel segments, but certainly hurts the group sector more and delays decision-making for future groups. It’s an opportunity lost in the short-term but also applies to the medium and long-term.”

Still holding to his prediction that the hotel and tourism industry will have recovered 85 percent of pre-COVID business volumes by year-end, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons fast approaching, he added: “Business continues to trend in an upwards direction. It has slowed, possibly as a result of the ‘Level 4’ advisory, but I’m confident we will get to that level.

“Things have slowed, but we’re still seeing a week-on-week increase in the numbers. The removal of ‘Level 4’ would make a significant difference, but they are trending positively.”

Mr Sands also voiced optimism that improving Bahamian vaccination rates, and the increased availability of vaccines with more than 125,000 Pfizer shots arriving yesterday, would further aid tourism by giving potential visitors the impression this nation is relatively safe and sticking to health protocols.

“We’re certainly not where we want to be for vaccines, but soon we will be close to 40 percent fully vaccinated and hopefully by Christmas we will be at 50 percent, so that is an important motivator for people to travel,” he added.

“At this point in time we have to live with it, and just manage the situation in such a way that we continue to create a safe environment not only for the people that want to come and stay with us but also work for us.”


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