National Review

Signs of life

Flattening of COVID curve needed to get tourism off life support

Until major resorts like Baha Mar and Atlantis are confident enough to reopen, getting the tourism industry off life support is virtually impossible. 

But with no clear signs that The Bahamas has gotten its second wave of the novel coronavirus under control, the properties are making no commitments on when they will be back up and running.

When he spoke with National Review yesterday, Baha Mar President Graeme Davis remained hopeful, but also highlighted the importance of Bahamians and residents playing a critical role in getting tourism restarted by following health protocols and flattening the curve.

“We had a goal for October,” said Davis, when asked about reopening.

“We are looking at what is happening here in The Bahamas as it relates to the controlling of the coronavirus, how the citizens and residents of The Bahamas are certainly getting the coronavirus under control.

“We need to see it down to a flatline level here in The Bahamas, and then of course we’re certainly keeping a very close eye on our key markets in the United States to see how they’re controlling the coronavirus and how the market demands are looking to come to The Bahamas.”

While Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar outlined plans for jumpstarting the tourism industry when he delivered a major address on Monday, he was unable to speak with any degree of certainty about the prospects.

The Ministry of Tourism’s recommendation to the government will be the implementation of an October 15 reopening for hotels on all islands to resume full operations and full use of the beaches — the number one reason why individuals come on vacation to The Bahamas.

“This will allow our land-based tourism industry enough time to slowly ramp up to benefit from the traditional Thanksgiving travel period leading into the Christmas and new year season,” D’Aguilar said.

The closure of Baha Mar, Atlantis and other properties in The Bahamas in March led to thousands of people who earn their living directly and indirectly from tourism ending up unemployed.

The director of labor has estimated that unemployment is around 40 percent.

In June, Baha Mar made 20 percent of its staff redundant. 

Davis said the property has suffered tens of millions of dollars in losses during the pandemic.

Baha Mar still employs nearly 4,000 people, most of whom are furloughed. 

“Since we closed in March, we have provided tens of millions of dollars in support to our associates here at Baha Mar through support in ex gratia payments to all of our associates, and we obviously had some severance, which was announced back in late June,” Davis said.

“Our associates that are continuing on are receiving ex gratia payments and full medical benefits, and so we’ll continue doing that until such time that we can make a decision here to reopen.”

The prime minister, no doubt aware that the continued closure of the domestic economy was creating untold suffering, recently took his feet off the brakes and eased restrictions. That unfortunately may have the impact of delaying the much-desired flattening of the curve and adding pressure to a healthcare system that is nearing its limits.

While opening the domestic economy has allowed many businesses to get going again and many people to return to work, even if it is only on reduced days or with substantially reduced business, the continued halt in tourism activity means the economy is unlikely to see any meaningful relief in the near term.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reported recently the results of an online socioeconomic survey taken in April as a combination of job losses, the shuttering of businesses and rental income losses took effect: 72.5 percent of households in The Bahamas reported some income loss resulting from the pandemic, with less than half of those participants having adequate savings in place.

During this protracted economic crisis, a familiar call for economic diversification has been made — repeatedly. While there is certainly a need for a serious conversation in this regard, realistically, tourism is today our best bet.

As D’Aguilar pointed out on Monday, “no industry takes better care of Bahamians than tourism”, and talk of diversification should in large part focus on diversification of the tourism industry.

Challenges and sustainability 

With strict measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID-positive individuals coming to The Bahamas, the country is barely seeing any tourism activity.

Visitors can only travel to The Bahamas if they have a negative COVID result from a test taken within five days of travel, and they must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, or for the duration of their stay if it is shorter. Also, beaches are only open for several hours early in the day — that’s enough to discourage anyone from traveling to The Bahamas.

D’Aguilar has instructed his team to avoid using the term “quarantine” and to use instead “vacation in place (VIP)”.

With hotels designated as quarantine facilities, the Baha Mar president sees the language change as a positive move, notwithstanding the fact that the Cable Beach property remains closed.

“Obviously, this new approach of a vacation in place is a positive direction, with an up to 14 days, not 14 days in total,” Davis said.

“It’s helpful and we are certainly looking both at what’s happening in The Bahamas, in the United States, the demand to travel, and then we’ll make a decision (on when to open). We obviously want to make sure that when we open it’s sustainable for us as a business and what’s most important, sustainable for our associates as well.”

With all the travel restrictions in place, interest in The Bahamas is down.

“The interest started to wane when our cases here in The Bahamas started to increase, in addition to the 14-day quarantine, which was negatively received in the travel industry community, our travel partners and the traveling public,” Davis observed. 

“They obviously did not understand that it was a quarantine in place up to 14 days. Those type of things, the minister of tourism as well as the director general are working hard to properly communicate that it’s a vacation in place option up to 14 days. That needs to get clearly communicated out there. In addition to that, the travel visa program needs to be very easy to fill, easy to get a response.”

At his press conference on Monday, D’Aguilar encouraged hotel workers to get tested prior to returning to work. 

But this is a difficult prospect. Getting tested through the public system is virtually impossible without symptoms, and it has taken up to 30 days for some people to get results. Private testing costs over $200. 

Baha Mar is being proactive on the testing issue.

“We just had all of our associates tested; our essential workers that we have at the moment have all been tested this past week and the cost of over $200 is a challenge,” Davis told National Review.

Asked about testing for the wider staff before opening day, he said, “We’re in discussions. Obviously, the minister of tourism on television yesterday recommended that we come up with widespread testing of all of our associates in a low-cost manner that’s in striking range of accuracy of a PCR test, which has to be approved by the CDC. So we’re looking at those options as well. They’re currently not available, so we need to certainly find an affordable approach to testing for our associates.

“And certainly, the greater Bahamian population would benefit. The more testing that can be done, which can allow citizens and residents who come up positive to quarantine and start to get the virus under control, [the better].” 

Davis said Baha Mar wants the reopening to be sustainable — a point D’Aguilar made generally about the tourism industry’s eventual return to normalcy.

“We cannot afford to open and then close right back down again,” the minister said. “That was too traumatic for the tourism sector and significantly impacted our relationship with our travel partners.”

Both D’Aguilar and Davis noted that the successful path to reopening would depend largely on the actions of Bahamians and residents, with the minister advising, “We must understand that each of us has an innate responsibility to ensure that we reopen safely and in a sustainable way.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Despite the massive losses suffered and the uncertainty surrounding the industry right now due to the pandemic, Baha Mar is positioning itself to be even more competitive with its offerings, according to Davis, who highlighted a few “bright spots” during our conversation yesterday.

“We are continuing our efforts to improve our experiences for our guests,” he said.

“We are well underway on our $300 million Baha Bay water features that will be open next year.

“We have two restaurants under construction at the moment. One is Marcus Samuelsson (Marcus at Baha Mar), which is an $18 million beachfront restaurant that has two floors. We have the Sugar Factory well under construction that will be opening as well, and we have significant more retail shops under construction at the moment.

“We’ll have Tory Burch, we’ll have Christian Louboutin, we’ll have Hackett of London, Montblanc; we’ve got some [other] significant retail coming in as well.”

The Baha Mar president added, “It’s important — and I can’t stress it enough — that Bahamian citizens and residents do their part to stop spreading the virus and wear a mask, and wash your hands and let’s get this virus under control here in The Bahamas, back to where it was before July 1. That will be a great start.

“Hopefully we’ll get things under control here and we’ll see a vaccine coming soon. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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