While shuttling a group of tourists from The Cove at Atlantis to the Coral Towers on Sunday night, Carven Evans, who has been in the hospitality industry for 25 years, was especially cheerful.
“I am so incredibly happy to see all of you,” Evans said loudly enough for everyone on his bus to hear.
“It is so good to have you all in The Bahamas. Welcome!”
His enthusiasm was such that we had to chat with him after he dropped off his passengers at Marina Village, which was filled with tourists, many of whom were standing in line to enter popular spots like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor and Marina Pizzeria.
Ordinarily, the image of a busy Marina Village would not have been anything special, but at a time when The Bahamas is trying to claw its way out of the economic doldrums brought on by a once-in-a-century pandemic that had completely shut down the nation’s tourism industry, it was quite a sight to behold.
“I was out of work for 14 months,” said Evans, who is married and has two children and two grandchildren.
“We were called into the office in March 2020. It was very hard, couldn’t find nothing to do. Trying to find food alone was hard. Even though you get the government vouchers it was still hard. My rent was due. I had the landlord come inside and was ready to kick us out.
“The church helped a little bit, but it was very hard being a married man and you got kids and there’s no pay check, no source of income coming in so it was pretty hard; but through it all, me and my wife were able to stick it out, stick together. We prayed with the kids and everything and we ended up making it through.”
Evans was among thousands of Bahamian workers who lost their jobs last year when the coronavirus reached our shores.
Many in the tourism industry were hit especially hard.
One industry worker remarked on the weekend – only half-jokingly – that another month of no tourists and he would have been on a raft headed to Florida.
The lucky ones have been called back to work after extended furloughs. Some have been made redundant and are trying to stretch their severance payments while seeking work in a job market that remains particularly challenged. Others are still collecting the $100 weekly unemployment assistance being provided by the government.
Speaking in Parliament in June, Minister of Public Service and National Insurance Brensil Rolle reported that the National Insurance Board (NIB) spent $263.6 million in unemployment benefits and assistance since Hurricane Dorian.
While tourism is showing definite signs of recovery, many still need that assistance, which is a drop in the bucket in addressing their monthly financial obligations.
It’s why Evans and so many others are so excited to see the tourists back.
“I was excited, ecstatic, just to have tourists in my presence. It was awesome,” he told us as he got ready to shuttle more visitors.
“I feel good. I feel energetic just to have tourists in my presence. I’m going now beyond the call of duty to make sure that these guests who also suffered during the pandemic have an experience they never had before. Once they are on my bus, this is my place, this is my office.”
Evans has been working for Leisure Travel Tours for 13 years.
He was not aware he had the media on his shuttle on Sunday night, so we know he was not acting for our benefit.
Evans shared his story of struggle and perseverance when we introduced ourselves at the Marina Village stop.
With Atlantis officials recently reporting strong occupancy levels for weeks to come, it appears he will be busy for a while.
The country is benefiting from the pent-up demand of Americans, who prefer to travel short distances to vacation during the pandemic, according to government and tourism officials.
Fourteen months after he made the chilling declaration in Parliament that there will be no tourists, Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar reported during his contribution to the budget debate last month that The Bahamas is bouncing back.
Up to June, he said, 300,000 visitors had come to The Bahamas.
While the numbers are down compared to the same period in 2019, the year with a record 7.2 million visitors, the increase in arrivals is promising for tourism’s rebound following the calamity caused by COVID-19, the minister noted.
Evans hopes they keep coming.
‘It was tough’
At Atlantis this past weekend, restaurants and retail stores were buzzing.
At Seafire Steakhouse in Marina Village, the staff worked swiftly and flawlessly to accommodate those dining there.
Tristen Symonette, who is employed at the restaurant, told us of the challenges he had faced being off from work from March to December last year.
“It was tough while we weren’t here,” Symonette said.
“We are glad to be here right now. We’re still looking forward to seeing most of our colleagues come back.”
He described the furlough experience as “frustrating” given his financial obligations.
“It’s just good to have employment,” added the young man, who is expecting the birth of his child in several days.
While walking through the Atlantis casino in the Royal Towers late Sunday night, we stopped to talk to an employee about the impact the pandemic had had on him and his coworkers.
“It was an experience, not just for myself but many people in this country,” noted the gentleman, who spoke on condition of anonymity given that he was not authorized by company officials to speak with the media.
“It was the first time we were faced with what we were faced with in regards to a pandemic. Fortunately for me … I was faced with no mortgage, no school fees, no bank loans. Therefore, I was able to get by and survive during that time.”
It was a significant adjustment though, he added.
Looking around the busy casino, we asked him what it was like to see all the guests on property after the kind of year he and others had had.
“It is a pleasure,” the employee quickly told us, “not only for the property, but for the country on the whole. During that time, to not be able to see a US dollar circulating through our country, and now that you can see foreign currency, I think it speaks to good things to come.”
At The Cove on Monday afternoon, we spoke with Wilbert Knowles, a bellman with a broad smile and an effervescent personality, who told us you can’t teach hospitality, it’s in the blood.
“And that’s what keeps the guests coming back,” he said.
Knowles said he returned to work about two and a half weeks ago after being off for more than a year.
Asked how he felt to be back, he said, “It’s a pleasure. I’m humbled that I am back on the job doing something that I like doing. I am skilled in communications. I have a passion for this industry.”
We also asked Knowles – who has spent nearly 20 years in the business – what it was like being off from work.
“Not good,” he said. “Boring. Mentally, financially, it takes a toll on you, but I kept the faith. I believe in my faith so I try to stay focused, but the fact of the matter is I’m back. I’m on the job, I’m meeting people. It’s a good feeling. We have to be thankful and we have to keep smiling.”
Knowles added, “I came from humble beginnings, so I was taught to save for rainy days. I didn’t see this coming but the motto is ‘be prepared’. I had to make some adjustments. It was difficult, it was a challenge but we have to overcome challenges in our lives.”
Challenges and lessons
While they said they are grateful to have business again, two taxi drivers parked outside The Cove pointed to ongoing challenges.
Judy “Pink Lady” Hanna, who has been driving taxis for over 30 years, said many taxis remain off the road because some drivers can’t afford to license and insure them.
Hanna said notwithstanding that, due to the saturation of the industry it is still difficult for many who are on the road to get work.
“The tourists are coming, yes, but we still do not have enough work to maintain the taxi system because there are so many,” she said.
While waiting on her next job, Hanna spoke with us about what life was like when the industry was shut down and there was no work.
“You had to have a strong sense of how to make it. It was hard for some people, but for me I made it work; the little that I had, I made it work,” she said.
“If you couldn’t make it, it would break you. When you worked, if you didn’t save anything then down the drain you went.”
COVID taught a few lessons, she added.
“COVID taught me how to trust in God as a Bahamian and he will make things happen for you,” she said. “As a taxi driver, we cannot play dead [given] the plight we’re in, but if you trust in God, he’d work it out.”
The other lesson is the importance of saving for hard times, she said.
“If you make $10, you better try save $5 because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” Hanna said.
“We know COVID is not going anywhere right now so, therefore, you just have to settle yourself down, take care of your body, keep your face mask on … and move on.”
The other driver, Alphonso Canter, said he, too, was elated to be on the road again.
Speaking of the many months he was without work, Canter, who has three children, including a daughter in college, said, “It was hard. I had to go back into another trade. It’s a good thing I had another trade other than this taxi.
“I grew up with a dad who showed me how to make a living. You had to think and take life one day at a time, hustle. You have a family. Make an honest living and do what is right.”
He said while it is good to see so many guests in The Bahamas, the lack of activities for them to enjoy away from the hotels means limited business for taxi and tour operators.
“They basically just stay in the hotel because there’s nothing much for them to do or see. Downtown is like a ghost town. Most of them come to see the shops downtown, the straw market.
“It’s still a challenge because some of them who come here for the first time, they want to do tours. We normally take them to the fort, which is closed, the Sixty-Six steps, but that’s closed. They normally have a tour guide to give them a little history lesson but most of the tourists, the only thing for them to do is stay at the hotel and go to the beach.
“For the taxi drivers, it’s pick them up from the airport, take them to the hotel, take them back to the airport so business still is down, but thank God it’s still an honest living.”
Canter recognized, however, that the situation is significantly improved than it was a year ago.
The Bahamas is far from booming though.
We still have significant challenges ahead.
In its most recent economic and financial report released late last month, the Central Bank of The Bahamas said expectations are that the domestic economy will register modest growth in 2021, undergirded by the gradual resumption of tourism sector activity, including the start of homeport amenities for cruise lines.
“In this environment, the recovery of the tourism sector will be dependent on the elimination of all globally imposed travel restrictions, the pace of progress on the international health front, the effectiveness, availability and distribution of vaccines,” the bank said.
With regard to the labor market, the unemployment rate is projected to remain elevated over the near term, with any job gains mainly concentrated within the construction sector, and the limited re-employment of tourism sector employees, it added.
In a report on July 8, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported that The Bahamas’ GDP fell by 14.5 percent in 2020 and is projected to grow by 2.3 percent in 2021 and 8.5 percent in 2022.
For many in the tourism industry who have gone through the most economically and mentally challenging times of their lives, there is cause for some optimism.
“Thank God we can see the light at the end of the tunnel coming to fruition,” Canter said.
“I like it. People are coming back. Slowly, but surely it’s going to get better.”