As major cruise lines announce yet another delay in their planned return to sailings due to the impact of COVID-19, and there is a two-month wait until American Airlines returns to Grand Bahama on August 18, the island’s tourism plant is seeing some of its toughest days.
Together with Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar’s announcement to Parliament that the sale of the Grand Lucayan to the Holistica group, which was scheduled to close this month, will be completed “in the coming months”, followed by a planned commencement of construction early next year, hoteliers and residents are in an uncomfortably familiar “wait and see” mode.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced on Friday that major cruise lines will extend their suspension of sailings from ports in the United States until September 15.
Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruise lines initially announced plans to resume sailings on August 1.
The CLIA advised, “Due to the ongoing situation within the U.S. related to COVID-19, CLIA member cruise lines have decided to voluntarily extend the period of suspended passenger operations.
“It is increasingly clear that more time will be needed to resolve barriers to resumption in the United States,” the association which represents the world’s largest cruise ship companies said in its statement.
When Perspective spoke to taxi drivers, tour operators, straw vendors and retailers a day before the initial suspension of major cruise line services took effect back in March, they all expressed hope that the hiatus would not have lasted for more than the announced 30-day period.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, whose vessels bring much-needed stopover visitors to Grand Bahama, said it expects to resume sailings in late July, which if it holds would be the island’s first opportunity for cruise passengers in four months.
Freeport’s Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach is scheduled to reopen to guests on November 1, and questions we put to Michael Scott, chairman of Lucayan Renewal Holdings, on whether the Grand Lucayan will open for the July reopening of the country’s borders to tourists, were not responded to up to press time.
The Grand Lucayan is the island’s largest resort catering to overnight leisure tourists.
Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown period, the Pelican Bay Resort remained open for business, and though the property has been able to avoid layoffs thus far, General Manager Magnus Alnebeck told us occupancy levels will need to significantly increase to avoid “trouble” for the operation.
“We’ll see what happens”
Alnebeck reminded that, “Everything is dependent on something else; hotels reopening is dependent on the airlift and the airlift is dependent on [us] having the hotels, and it seems like in Grand Bahama we have problems with getting both things going.”
Bemoaning ongoing conditions at the island’s temporary airport facility, including its inability to accept flights after 6 p.m., he added, “I was out there receiving some cargo and we are still operating under a tent that isn’t big enough, and when it starts raining then all the cargo gets wet.”
Though signals have been given, the government has not yet confirmed a conclusion regarding its planned acquisition of Grand Bahama International Airport, which sits on the island’s flood-prone north shore and sustained severe storm surge damage in Hurricane Dorian.
Pelican Bay caters mostly to business clients, and the property’s general manager disclosed that forward bookings at this stage are “extremely slim”.
Alnebeck explained, “We really need to get up to at least a 40 percent occupancy to be able to sustain the operation and if we don’t get up to that, then we are in trouble. At this present moment we’ll see what happens here in the next few weeks.”
The resort was running at between eight to 10 percent occupancy at the time of our interview, and had been running at less than five percent occupancy during the lockdown period.
“It is very, very grave,” Alnebeck conceded, “and we feel that we have an obligation to be at least one hotel open in Grand Bahama because if not, where is anybody going to stay that comes here?”
Boaters “excited” to return
Weekends at the marina-driven resort property of Old Bahama Bay in West End are typically booked out during the summer, according to its General Manager James Culmer, who said this trend is subject to any changes related to COVID-19.
Referencing the current spike in confirmed cases throughout the U.S., he noted, “Obviously, we have to react here in The Bahamas, so those bookings would only hold if, in fact, conditions hold.”
On a positive note for the resort and its workers, the resort is booked for the July 4 holiday weekend in the U.S.
Culmer said many of the resort’s customers have contacted the property to get clarity on current entry requirements.
And though both he and Alnebeck indicated that boaters experienced initial confusion about entry requirements when borders reopened to them on June 15, he stated that Old Bahama Bay’s boaters “have been excited to come for a long time”.
Like Pelican Bay, Old Bahama Bay has retained its full staff complement and, according to Culmer, the plan is to continue to keep staff members employed.
“We are a good weather property, and if the weather is good we are going to have a full house,” he pointed out, “so the staff is hopeful that business will pick up.”
Tempering the optimism with the realities of business, Culmer stressed that, “We need to do something now. We need to be able to make some money now to be able to sustain employment.”
Concerns continue to be expressed about entry requirements for travelers to The Bahamas, with some residents applauding pre-testing requirements as others express fear that the entry requirements could result in would-be tourists choosing not to travel to the destination.
Culmer indicated that Old Bahama Bay’s clientele of repeat visitors do not view the requirements as deterrents to their travel plans.
“We get repeat customers who have made this their family destination so their only issue is they were having difficulty understanding what the requirement was, and once they know that, they are fine,” he assured.
Several boaters were in at the time of our interview.
“They see this as an escape,” Culmer continued, “and I see them out there now and they are just happy to be away from America; they find this as a peaceful refuge and they’ll put up with the challenges of testing.”
The caveat to this, he stressed, is that officials do not “keep moving the goal post” with respect to entry requirements.