Protecting tourism, protecting The Bahamas

The need for The Bahamas to facilitate a new COVID-19 travel policy by the United States underscores the reality that if the administration worked to ensure nationwide capacity to manage and enforce its own travel policies designed to protect the country, it could be better positioned to protect the country’s principal industry in a fluid global tourism environment.

The United States announced this week that as of January 26, proof of a negative COVID-19 test result will be required for entry for passengers on all international flights.

To assure visitors of the destination’s ability to accommodate the new US policy, the Ministry of Tourism promptly issued a statement advising that all travelers to The Bahamas “readily have access to the viral tests now required to enter the US”, and that the country “can now offer a turnkey, affordable and reliable testing process that meets US requirements”.

This statement came just days after health officials revealed that close to half of all travelers required to submit to that “reliable” testing process since November 1 were not tested, and stands in contrast to Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar’s previous acknowledgement that testing capacity was limited on some Family Islands.

D’Aguilar told reporters that the Minnis administration is “fighting like hell” and “appealing to anybody that we know in the US government” to get a waiver from the new US travel policy, arguing that “we’re small enough and have very few cases of COVID comparatively to the United States, Canada, and we should be considered for exemption”.

The Bahamas remains under a Level 4 COVID-19 Travel Health Notice by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommending Americans avoid all travel to the country, and is under a Level 3 travel advisory by the US State Department, which recommends Americans reconsider travel to the destination.

It is not known whether the Minnis administration had by similar means, sought to have US travel advisory levels for The Bahamas lowered using the same rationale, but it is noteworthy that the administration is asking the US to consider a travel policy waiver that The Bahamas has not seen fit to grant to countries irrespective of their incidences of infection.

Notwithstanding the ministry’s statement that The Bahamas is “well positioned” to adhere to the new US travel policy, the administration’s fight for a waiver therefrom suggests that the country has been caught flatfooted to what ought to have been an anticipated move by the US, given that country’s struggle to contain its deadly and record-breaking third wave.

D’Aguilar laid at the feet of public health, the charge of an unhurried approach to managing fifth day antigen testing on Family Islands where private testing facilities do not exist, an assertion that is not only indicative of longstanding under-resourcing for Family Islands, but that shines a telling spotlight on the management of responsibilities under the charge of the minister of health.

It would not have been the first time both ministers presented disparate views on the handling of the current fifth day antigen test protocol, but it speaks to concerns that run deeper than the appearance of opposing points of view.

The administration has had over two months since last year’s relaunch of commercial tourism to build antigen testing and enforcement capacity on all islands, but has also had over 10 months of emergency management to build adequate testing infrastructure and resources nationwide.

If government had “fought like hell” to build the kind of nationwide testing capacity health professionals and the general public have been calling for throughout the pandemic, a higher degree of security for residents, guests and core industries could be assured.

Whether the US grants the government’s request for a waiver remains to be seen.

A CDC spokesman told The Nassau Guardian yesterday that “airlines or other aircraft operators request the waivers” and that waivers are granted based on CDC’s determination that a country lacks sufficient testing capacity.

The waivers are limited to 14 days in length unless renewed by CDC, the spokesman said.

If only for the sake of tourism’s viability, the new US policy might push the administration to develop a sense of urgency in its management and enforcement of The Bahamas’ existing travel protocols on all islands.

In so doing, government might be moved to ensure a quality of risk mitigation against the importation of COVID-19 that ought to exist regardless of changes to travel policies on the part of our largest tourism market.

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