Getting Grand Bahama’s economy back on track will take more than a multimillion-dollar airport redevelopment, says Pelican Bay Hotel General Manager Magnus Alnebeck.
“It will take a product that drives demand, airlift and then a workable airport that can safely accommodate the arrivals,” he added.
In an interview with Grand Bahama News, the veteran hotelier, who has spent 18 years on the island, opined that constructing an extravagant airport without having a product that appeals to international travelers is “useless”.
“That is just not how it works,” he stated.
“For example, look at Exuma. Right now, they have six times the amount of airlift than Freeport has. Why is that? Because they have a product that drives demand.”
Alnebeck was referring to Sandals Emerald Bay, which officially opened on that Family Island on January 22, 2010. The property was acquired from a Japanese company that operated the Four Seasons brand.
Sandals Emerald Bay was forced to close at the onset of COVID-19 when stiff travel restrictions were implemented by both the Bahamian and US governments.
On February 24, 2021, the resort reopened, its executives citing a demand from customers to return to The Bahamas.
“This is a product that has an appeal,” Alnebeck declared.
“Now in comparison, let’s look at the airport. No offense to the Exumians, but the airport is not so great, and they have Air Canada, Delta and others flying into that facility.”
Alnebeck said it begs the question, “What makes Grand Bahama so different?”
He believes the island lost a major opportunity when the US government removed pre-clearance following Hurricane Dorian.
“After the damage to the airport, the US authorities were lenient and said as soon as we were ready, they would bring back pre-clearance. However, after two and a half years, we were unable to satisfy them.
“That is going to be a hard thing to get back, especially with Grand Bahama International Airport (GBIA) being among the six busiest facilities in the country,” he noted.
Alnebeck is of the opinion that the island’s downturn is too often simplified and blamed on hurricanes.
“But if we go back and check, this slump has been gradual. It started long before and if you look back at airlift into Grand Bahama for the past two decades, there has been a constant decline with or without hurricanes,” he said.
“The only time we saw an increase in substantial airlift is when Sunwing was operating Memories at Grand Lucayan. They came in with a product that drove demand with the right contact.
“For two and a half years, they ran an 80 percent and above occupancy and the whole island benefited.”
Alnebeck noted that he was disappointed when owners of the resort, Hutchison Whampoa, did not renew the lease with the Canadian airline in 2017 and Sunwing discontinued its flights to the island.
However, earlier this month, the Ministry of Tourism announced Sunwing’s return to Grand Bahama with two flights once a week from Montreal and Toronto.
“Luckily, Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach Resort has not closed, even though that’s been touch-and-go. So, that is why we can suddenly get Sunwing interested in a winter rotation, because Viva has the product that appeals to that market,” said Alnebeck.
He insists that the challenge for the government is finding the right partner for the Grand Lucayan.
Acknowledging that the issue is not a new one, Alnebeck said over the years and successive governments the problem has existed.
“We’ve had the Westin and Sheraton, Radisson, The Reef and Grand Lucayan operated by high-level brands, but they did not work,” he said.
Alnebeck believes it will take a product like Sandals or an Atlantis, which was once a dream in the mind of the late Sir Sol Kerzner, to fuel demand.
“So, when some people say, ‘All we need is a rich owner and a well-known brand,’ let’s be careful what we ask for,” he said.
“We have already had that. The perfect scenario would be to find the next Sol Kerzner or Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart to purchase the Grand Lucayan and create a product that functions and drives the demand.
“That is what is going to be the game changer for Grand Bahama.”