0

‘Rescue’ peak tourism: Gov’ts last-ditch action

photo

ROBERT SANDS

• Mandatory PCR tests from Friday halted

• Response to growing cancellation fears

• Festive occupancies 5-15% off forecast

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Government last suspended the mandatory COVID PCR tests for all visitors due to take effect from January 7 after being urged to “rescue” the peak winter tourism season.

The Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation announced the move after Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) president, yesterday told Tribune Business the “jury is not out yet” on plans that would have both narrowed the testing window and required a negative RT-PCR test with effect from this Friday.

He explained that the industry had “alerted” the Government to growing fears that the peak winter tourism season, which typically lasts from February-April, would be severely curtailed and undermined if The Bahamas followed through with plans to reduce the timeframe in which visitors must obtain a negative PCR test from five to just three days before travel.

With COVID’s Omicron variant exploding virtually unchecked through The Bahamas’ key tourism source markets, and testing centres in many US states almost being overrun, hotel and tourism operators were becoming increasingly concerned that many potential visitors - as well as those already booked - would be unable to access PCR tests and get the results in the timeframe required.

This, combined with the greater cost of PCR tests compared to the rapid antigen equivalent, was viewed as a major deterrent/impediment to travel that could help encourage a significant proportion of The Bahamas’ expected winter tourist bookings to stay at home, especially given mounting concerns about Omicron’s rapid spread.

The Government last night indicated it has responded to the industry’s last-ditch pleas in a release from the Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation, which said The Bahamas has “suspended the mandatory RT-PCR testing requirement for vaccinated travellers, which was expected to take effect on January 7, 2022”.

The revised COVID-19 entry protocols allow vaccinated visitors, as well as children aged between two and 11 years-old, to present either a negative rapid antigen or PCR test to secure entry to The Bahamas.

However, while the testing type has been eased for vaccinated visitors, who account for between two-thirds to three-quarters of all visitors to The Bahamas, the window in which to obtain a negative test remains narrowed at three days as opposed to the current five - something Mr Sands said the tourism industry would accept if PCR tests were not mandatory for all.

And all visitors staying in The Bahamas longer than 48 hours must, with effect from yesterday, take a rapid antigen test regardless of vaccination status.

However, Mr Sands yesterday revealed that “some market confusion” over the revised entry requirements that had been due to take effect from Friday may have contributed to some Bahamas resorts missing their projected Christmas/New Year occupancy forecasts by up to 15 percent, although he was quick to point out that all still enjoyed a strong festive period.

As a result, he disclosed that the BHTA and industry members had intensified their talks with the Government over the past ten days, in particular, with “an appeal” to reconsider the insistence on PCR tests for all visitors regardless of vaccination status given that time was running out to take “corrective action” before the peak season.

Last night’s announcement is thus a direct response to these concerns, while seeking to balance The Bahamas’ economic revival - which has to be driven primarily by tourism - with efforts to mitigate the explosive spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The episode again exposes the delicate balancing act the Government has been forced to try and achieve over the past two years between protecting lives and livelihoods, with The Bahamas having reported a record 1,850 new COVID cases over the past five days - an average of 360 per day. Hospitalisations are also rising, albeit at a slower rate, with 58 in such status as of Monday, three of whom are in intensive care, and the balance

“Let me just say to you that the BHTA has been in constant communication with the Government of The Bahamas, particularly in the last ten days, given the emergence of the Omicron environment but also with regards to the new entry requirements put in place,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business before the ministry’s announcement.

“We’ve alerted the Government to see if they cannot strike a balance between the health and well-being of our visitors and people, and the economy, which has been on a fairly firm foundation for recovery for the future.”

In remarks that proved to be accurate, Mr Sands added of the proposed January 7 testing protocols change: “The jury is not out on that yet; that final decision. We’ve made an appeal to the Government to reconsider certain aspects, certainly for them to give some consideration to removing the PCR test on the third day.

“We’ve made some interventions on behalf of the entire tourism industry. They’ve [the Government] advised they will give a detailed review and revert to us in the shortest possible period of time, hopefully before the implementation date.”

The Government’s revisions substantially reduce the number of visitors who will be required to produce a PCR test within three days of travel, thus easing somewhat the barriers to accessing The Bahamas.

Asked how the original January 7 protocols would have impacted tourism, Mr Sands replied: “I don’t want to be a dooms player without having the Government’s position based on the collaborative intervention of the industry at this point in time.

“The Government has kept the channels of communication open with us, giving us an opportunity to provide critical and crucial tourism input on decisions that impact the industry’s ability to operate in a healthy, safe and robust tourism environment.

“We’re hopeful, based on the latest presentation to the Government, that they will study it and get back to us in due course. And, if they so strike a balance that we consider to be extremely important, then I think some of the fears we may have been concerned about with the winter season testing period and negative impact on bookings will go away.”

The Bahamian tourism industry’s hope will be that winter tourism season bookings will be relatively unaffected as a result of the Government taking action now. “Any corrective measures done early will have a dramatic impact on bookings for the winter season, which were very positive up until late December,” Mr Sands added.

However, the episode also underlines complaints from some in the tourism industry that The Bahamas needs COVID-19 travel protocols that it sticks to rather than constantly changing them due to the uncertainty it produces in the tourism market.

While some observers will argue that uncertainty has become the norm with COVID-19, the planned January 7 tightening in its original form has already resulted in cancellations and impacted the tourism industry’s Christmas/New Year performance.

“I think there’s no question that against the expected levels there was some fall off due to a number of issues,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business. “The issues were rising COVID cases in the US, number one, weather interruptions and some flight cancellations, number two, and there may have been some marketplace confusion over the requirements for entry, number three.

“All of these together may have contributed to some shortfall, but overall most hotels are happy with what they achieved.... I will say to you that, compared to the level of occupancy anticipated, it could have been anywhere from a 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent fall-off for various properties. It’s a range.’

Acknowledging that the tourism industry did suffer “some cancellations over the festive period”, the BHTA chief added: “I think we still have time on our side to avoid any large cancellations for the rest of the winter season other than those confirmed by bad weather, flight cancellations or mother nature-type issues....

“I believe a number of providers of accommodation have raised certain concerns about the procedures put in place, but corrective action will be able to rescue and save some of those concerns from actually becoming reality.”

As to the importance of this year’s winter tourism season, Mr Sands said: “I think companies need it, number one; the country needs it, number two; the general population needs it, number three, and I think we have to do everything in our collective power to ensure this is a very good winter tourism season.”

Comments

Sign in to comment