By NEIL HARTNELL, The Tribune. Bahamas
Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union’s (BHCAWU) president, told Tribune Business that workers in all tourism-related businesses “need to step up our game” and “wow and woo” travelers to believe there is still value in vacationing in this nation despite all the deterrents being implemented by the US and others.
With US authorities adding a further layer of cost, bureaucracy and complication to Americans overseas travel plans by requiring that they present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days prior to returning home, he added that this would inevitably cause the market that supplies 82 percent of The Bahamas’ visitors to “second guess” their travel plans.
With much depending on how quickly, and successfully, the US and other tourist source markets roll-out the COVID-19 vaccine and restore traveler confidence, Mr. Woods said it seemed that the recovery window for The Bahamas and its tourism-dependent economy was increasing rather than shortening.
And, with the likes of the UK implementing similar travel and quarantine measures, Mr Woods predicted that it may not be until “the final quarter of this year” that the Bahamian tourism industry starts to experience a firm rebound given that the summer and fall months are traditionally the slowest parts of the season.
Disclosing that he had just flown back to The Bahamas on a plane with few tourists and local passengers, he told this newspaper: “It appears that it’s going to be very difficult now with the US saying you have to get a test to return.
“It seems like the deck is being stacked against us right now. You’re talking about added costs before you start thinking about taking a vacation. It’s very concerning. It’s already difficult to travel now with some of the things being put in place. It’s always been our view that we have to wait and see how the US adjusts to the significant increase in cases in their market.
“People are going to think: Is it worth all the hassle to travel? They could jump in their car and go from Miami to Orlando. It’s going to cause people to second guess, and you don’t want that in any business. You always want to be the first option.”
January is traditionally the slowest part of the winter tourism season, falling between the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays and the Easter ramp-up that normally begins in February. However, the impact of travel restrictions and surging COVID-19 cases in The Bahamas’ key visitor source markets, together with the pandemic’s impact on their economies, is already hitting Bahamian tourism hard.
Atlantis previously furloughed some of the 2,500 staff it recalled pre-Christmas citing low January occupancies, while Sandals pushed back the re-opening of its Emerald Bay and Royal Bahamian properties from February 1 and January 28 to February 24 and March 31, respectively.
RIU Paradise Island also closed its doors until March yesterday, furloughing between 85 percent and 90 percent of staff, again in response to low occupancies and forecast business volumes. Mr Woods said this exposed “the lack of confidence that things are going to get better in the short term” among hotel and tourism operators.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, agreed that the latest industry moves were “a product of how the market is”. He added: “Obviously we have top react to business-led demand. I think what you are seeing is simply a number of hotels reacting to what the external market demands are at the moment.”
“We in the tourism industry, whether unionized or not, need to step up our game and make people think it’s worth coming,” Mr Woods added. “Wow them and woo them to make them think they’ve got to be here, and when they come here treat them good.
“Otherwise things are going to start to dry up. We’ve still got to hope and pray for the best. If you look around now it’s difficult to find US dollars on the street now. We don’t have that US currency being exchanged. We have to try and shorten the timeframe between COVID-19 and the rebound. That time seems to be opening up rather than closing.”
Mr Woods likened the current situation facing the Bahamian tourism industry and its recovery plans to a boxer.
“You can’t continue to sustain body and head shots. Eventually you’re going to get knocked out,” he said.
When you think you have your hands up, and are ready to deliver a good blow, something comes up from the blind side and catches you off guard.
“It’s [the travel restrictions] going to have a serious effect as we try and make our way back to the top. It’s like a battle trying to climb out of it.” The hotel union chief suggested the Ministry of Tourism work to ensure The Bahamas have a “banner off season” during the summer to hasten the start of tourism’s rebound.