Keith Cooper, a Grand Bahama resident, has owned and operated West End Ecology Tours for nearly seven years.
He is one of the scores of small business owners working in the tourism industry who have no other choice but to endure a sad reality foreshadowed by Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar in March, “There will be no tourists.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit The Bahamas three months ago, the government imposed a series of curfews, lockdowns, border closures and a plethora of other restrictions.
Cooper said all this has been difficult to endure.
“Oh God, don’t even talk about money,” he told The Nassau Guardian.
“It’s been heartbreaking to know that you’re about to come up from a crawl out of Hurricane Dorian and then all of a sudden right in the middle of an upward climb, everything just stops.
“That really broke my heart, because it was like there isn’t anything anyone can do except go along with the program because this virus was such a fast-moving disease. Who could stop it?”
Cooper said inquiries for bookings following a phased reopening of The Bahamas’ borders, which is set to begin on Monday, have been coming in slowly.
“People overseas are monitoring and watching the dates and can get bookings for flights, then they’ll actually start to make their reservation,” Cooper said.
Dwight Hart, owner of the Exuma Palms Hotel, said he is also suffering from the negative impact of the pandemic.
“We’ve had zero business at the hotel since the end of March,” said Hart who has owned the hotel for four years.
“Fortunately, for us, we also have a restaurant and bar component. We’ve obviously had to do a lot of adjustments with staffing and so forth.
“Fortunately, we were able to keep all of our staff, but on reduced hours — 50 percent hours for all staff members. So, we’re able to keep everybody on.
“But, with zero business from the hotel and reduced opening hours at the restaurant, it was really, really harsh. We were able to generate some revenue, but month over month revenue is down by about 60 percent.”
He said the nightly curfew, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and strict physical distancing protocols have not been good for his business.
“What has damaged me in this process has been the curfew more than anything else because the majority of our revenue traditionally comes in between nine and 11 p.m. on a given day,” Hart said.
“So, we had to obviously re-adjust to people who were coming in earlier. But on the Family Islands, for an establishment like mine, early evenings are not a very high-revenue time. We usually see our business later at night. So, I’m very, very hopeful that we will soon get the curfew lifted.”
The Bahamian economy came to a near halt in March when the government made the decision to close the borders to citizens and non-citizens.
Nearly 50 percent of the Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP) is directly attributed to tourism.
Two in every three jobs are ultimately as a result of the industry.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has announced that domestic tourism and travel will resume, and visitors will be allowed to come to The Bahamas, as of July 1.
However, Hart remains pessimistic about the amount of time it will take for tourists to return to The Bahamas in the capacity in which the country is accustomed.
“[W]e hope that things sort of kick back into gear as soon as possible,” he said.
“But, I’m not overly optimistic that international arrivals will come in before November.”
The United States is The Bahamas’ primary tourism market with approximately 1.45 million American stopover visitors last year.
In recent weeks, the United States has also led global charts with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Some U.S. states have seen a spike in new COVID-19 cases since last week.
Florida, for example, has reported more than 1,000 new cases each day since the middle of last week.
It appears the spike in new cases will not derail The Bahamas’ reopening plan.
“We’re still full steam ahead on June 15,” D’Aguilar said yesterday.
“We consider those foreign visitors, as we said in our initial release, those coming in on private charter, those coming on yachts and pleasure crafts to be very low risk passengers in terms of quantities. Everyone up to July 1 is going to still require a COVID-19 test in order to enter the jurisdiction.
“Every single person entering the country, whether they’re Bahamian or not Bahamian, until the first of July, will require a COVID-19 test as we phase the opening of the sector.”
He said there is “concern” as it relates to the spike in cases in some parts of the U.S., “but we are still holding to that date”.
“There’s always the chance for reassessment, but we’re staying focused on that date right now and it’s full steam ahead for that opening,” D’Aguilar said.
“We think that we have the necessary protocols in place to mitigate it; not eliminate the risk…and we’re going to hold to those protocols.”
As The Bahamas heads full-throttle into restarting its economy, Carl Rolle, owner of the Rollezz Villas Beach Resort on Cat Island, said he is ready to do whatever it takes to ensure his guests are safe during their stay.
“We have gotten our digital thermometer,” he told The Guardian.
“We are letting our guests know the procedure and the protocol that we are enforcing. As they come, we’ll get their temperature. We’ll do a temperature of ourselves so they know that we are on board and to give confidence.
“We are sanitizing, not just cleaning, with bleach. You’re going to have the handsfree sanitization stations around. We’re going to have at least three of them on a seven-unit property because we want people to know and have confidence that anyone who comes in this area, they are in good condition.”
He said he has enough masks in stock to ensure guests have an adequate supply during their stay.
Boaters, yachters and private aviation will be allowed to enter The Bahamas when the phased reopening starts on Monday.
During this phase, commercial airlines will also be allowed to bring in Bahamian citizens, legal residents, homeowners or the immediate family members.