‘Christmas comes early’ for tourism with COVID easing



• Industry hails entry test, Travel Visa elimination

• Says it may now ‘exceed recovery expectation’

• Promotion Board chief adds: ‘We’re in the game’


Tribune Business Editor


Tourism operators yesterday said “Christmas has come early” after the Government announced the elimination of COVID entry testing for vaccinated visitors and the Health Travel Visa with effect from this Sunday.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that the Davis administration’s moves place the industry in a position where it “may even exceed our expectations” for a post-pandemic recovery now that the greatest impediments to visiting this nation have been removed.

Describing tourism stakeholders as “ecstatic” over the twin announcements, he added that they now placed The Bahamas on a “competitive level playing field” with rival Caribbean destinations - many of whom have long since eliminated their own COVID entry testing protocols and equivalent of the Health Travel Visa.

“It puts us on a level playing field, and puts us on a path for the sustained recovery of our industry that may even exceed our expectations. Christmas has come early,” Mr Sands told this newspaper. “What this has done is eliminate all the inhibitors to growth. It puts us on a competitive level playing field. The Bahamas is just poised for growth. This is excellent news for the industry and The Bahamas; very positive and welcome news.”

Asked how great a boost this latest COVID easing may have for The Bahamas’ visitor numbers, Mr Sands replied: “It’ll be difficult to put an an assessment on that at this point in time, but certainly the value it creates in eliminating these additional costs will go a long way with the decision-making process and interest in The Bahamas.”

Kerry Fountain, the Bahamas Out Islands Promotion Board’s executive director, told Tribune Business that as a result of the COVID-related adjustments this nation is “in the game” when it comes to further increasing its share of the tourism business.

“Amen, amen. Beautiful,” he responded when informed by this newspaper that COVID entry testing requirements for vaccinated travellers will be ended with effect from Sunday, June 19. “It removes the friction and also lowers the cost, and as soon as we do that it makes it easier for the tourist to come to The Bahamas. They will start to come in the numbers we want.

“It allows us, and I don’t want to use the word salvage, because July is not looking bad at all, but it allows what is looking good to become better. We’re competitive, and removing the friction and lowering the cost, to get to The Bahamas and that’s certainly welcome news.”

Mr Fountain said the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board’s hotel members were “excited” when news filtered through at their morning meeting yesterday that the Government was eliminating the Health Travel Visa with effect from 12.01am on Sunday, June 19. However, that was only viewed as “step one”, as the Family Island hotels were eager for the Government to “go ahead” and end COVID entry testing for vaccinated visitors.

The Davis administration duly obliged yesterday afternoon, and Mr Fountain added: “Now we’ve done that we’re in the game. We’re in the game.”  The BHTA, in a statement, hailed the “swift and decisive move to eradicate the Bahamas’ Travel Health Visa and the underlying testing requirements in tandem”.

It added: “The move to eradicate both the Bahamas Travel Health Visa and the testing requirements is a prime example of the respective government ministries working in concert, effectively and efficiently, to ensure The Bahamas is indeed ‘open for business’.

“The announcement to remove both friction points highlights the synchronistic approach by the respective government ministries and their ability to work together, alongside private sector tourism stakeholders, to strike a balance between the tourism economy and the health and well-being of Bahamian citizens, residents and visitors. This is without a doubt excellent news for our tourism industry and our nation as a whole.

“This move will not only position us to be on par with our Caribbean competitors and other global jurisdictions including the US, as it pertains to entry protocols, but it will put The Bahamas on firm footing to continue, if not accelerate, the momentum of our upward-moving trajectory of success. The Bahamas is well positioned to exceed expectations for the full and sustained recovery of our tourism industry. We are ecstatic about this announcement by the Government.”

The Government unveiled the twin COVID easings in a slightly peculiar and confusing way yesterday by making separate announcements. Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister, announced the Health Travel Visa’s end during his Budget debate presentation in the House of Assembly yesterday morning. However, under questioning from Kwasi Thompson, Opposition MP for east Grand Bahama, he said “we are not eliminating testing” for persons to come into The Bahamas.

The Government confirmed this position in a subsequent release, which read: “Deputy Prime Minister Cooper also stated, however, that COVID-19 testing remains in effect prior to entering The Bahamas.” This position, though, changed in a matter of mere hours when Dr Michael Darville, minister of health and wellness, confirmed in his own Budget presentation that the Government was indeed eliminating the COVID entry testing for international travellers.

It is unclear why the announcement of the two COVID-related relaxations could not be made together, although it could be argued that they fell under separate ministerial portfolios. Mr Cooper, in ending the Health Travel Visa that was introduced by the Minnis administration as a means to verify whether visitors were compliant with The Bahamas’ COVID entry and testing protocols, said this nation was “still not quite there yet” in returning to pre-pandemic visitor levels.

“The rules regarding air travel and the changing guidelines have reshaped the airline landscape. And we have had to adjust. We will continue to do so. Our goal is to encourage more flights in our key markets so that we can get more people here safely, quickly and affordably, whilst protecting public health,” Mr Cooper, also minister of tourism, investments and aviation, added.

“Yes, I support the review of travel testing rules. We must continue to reduce the friction as we ramp up for the summer months. Therefore I am pleased to announce the Cabinet of The Bahamas has approved the elimination of the Bahamas Travel Health Visa. This is going to take effect at 12.01am on Sunday, just in time for Father’s Day.”

Mr Thompson later questioned Mr Cooper on whether the Health Travel Visa’s elimination meant COVID testing to enter The Bahamas was ending, and if such an action was supported by the medical advisers to the Government. The deputy prime minister, in reply, said: “I announced the elimination of the Travel Health Visa, not the elimination of testing.

“As the member would already be aware, Bahamians do not require a Travel Visa but they are still asked at the counter, at the airline, to demonstrate they are COVID negative. This is going to continue.”

While acknowledging that Dr Darville could speak to the testing issue, Mr Cooper added: “My intervention was simply to say that we are eliminating one of the pain points, one of the friction points for travellers to our country to make it easier, make it less expensive, and more convenient.”

He reiterated that the Health Travel Visa is being eliminated for all visitors coming to The Bahamas, and replied “yes” when asked by Mr Thompson if the COVID testing requirement remains in place. “The answer is we are not eliminating testing. As I have indicated before, everyone travelling to our country until it is changed and announced by the Government of The Bahamas has to demonstrate they are COVID negative,” Mr Cooper said.

“Let me be clear. We are eliminating one of the friction pain points ahead of the peak summer season so we are able to ensure we get the numbers we need for our tourism product and our economy, and we are satisfied and comfortable this is the right thing to do at the right time.”

Mr Cooper’s COVID testing comments were contradicted and overturned within hours by Dr Darville. He told the House of Assembly: “Follow up meetings at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles helped to solidify many plans, inclusive of the US CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) announcement on the removal of the COVID testing requirements inbound to American citizens as of Monday, June 13, 2022.

“This is good news for our tourism sector and begs the question: When will The Bahamas follow suit and revisit the testing and mask mandate currently in place in our country?”

“These questions have been addressed by the EOC (Emergency Operations Committee) and my ministry,” Dr Darville added, “and I am pleased to report, inclusive of the removal of the Travel Health Visa....effective June 19, 2022, at 12.01am the Ministry of Health and Wellness will remove the testing requirements for all vaccinated persons entering The Bahamas.”

“This decision is based on science and recommendations from both local and regional epidemiologists. The decision to remove the testing requirements at our borders for vaccinated persons is consistent with global recommendations. This decision is consistent with US CDC guidelines, which came into effect Monday of this week.”

The Bahamas was always likely to follow the US lead as soon as this nation’s major source market altered its COVID entry requirements. The regime unveiled yesterday matches the US version almost exactly, with only unvaccinated visitors now having to produce a negative COVID PCR test taken within 72 hours of travelling to this nation. The requirement for vaccinated visitors to produce a rapid antigen test within the same time period now falls away.

The Bahamian tourism industry has been agitating heavily for the relaxations unveiled yesterday, especially given that they eliminate the bureaucracy/red tape associated with post-COVID travel as well as significantly lowering the cost for vaccinated visitors. Major US source markets have seen a reduction in COVID testing availability and an end to free tests, while insurance is often not covering these costs.

The reforms mean that the $40 Health Travel Visa fee is now eliminated, potentially saving a family of four $160. And, when added to testing costs now exceeding $100 in many locations, the savings for such a family could amount to several hundred dollars on the cost of a vacation - possibly even as high as $700.


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