Monday, September 14, 2020
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The deputy prime minister yesterday admitted the delayed re-opening by top hotels has thrown "a major wrinkle" into the Government's plans with Sandals' flagship property not returning until January 28.
K Peter Turnquest told Tribune Business the Government will make "adjustments as necessary" once the Ministry of Finance assesses the likely economic and fiscal impact, with the fall-out potentially affecting the already cash-strapped Public Treasury's ability to fund the individual and business COVID-19 assistance initiatives beyond their planned end-September close.
He spoke out after Sandals Royal Bahamian seemingly joined its Cable Beach neighbours, the Baha Mar mega resort complex and Melia Nassau Beach property, in electing not to re-open on the October 15 date recommended by the Ministry of Tourism for the resort industry's return.
This newspaper's check of Sandals' group website shows the all-inclusive resort chain, which is controlled by Gordon "Butch" Stewart and his family, advertising a January 28, 2021, re-opening date for the Sandals Royal Bahamian property.
This date, while enabling the resort to catch the peak February-April winter season, is more than four months' away and represents a further endurance challenge for hundreds of Sandals Royal Bahamian staff who have gone without work and regular income ever since the Bahamian resort industry's March/April 2020 shutdown.
The property's re-opening date is also much later than those for all other Sandals properties throughout the Caribbean and The Bahamas, with the website showing November 1 as the latest return date for any other resort - including Sandals Emerald Bay in Exuma.
No explanation was given for why Sandals Royal Bahamian's re-opening has been delayed longer than all other Sandals-branded properties and pushed into the New Year, and Tribune Business was unable to reach anyone connected with the resort chain for comment.
However, the situation is not dissimilar to that in July 2020, when Sandals Royal Bahamian was shown as opening in November 2020 - again much later than others. Sandals is likely assessing multiple factors to determine when to re-open its resorts, not least of which will be anticipated booking/business volumes and COVID-19 infections in its major source markets and hotel locations.
Both Baha Mar's and Sandals' decisions to delay their re-openings beyond the mid-October/early November tourism rebound target dates further exposes the difficulties and uncertainties involved in restarting the industry that is pivotal to The Bahamas' economic rebound because of all the jobs and foreign exchange earnings it brings.
It also means that arguably two of New Providence's three major properties will not re-open on the timeline envisaged by the Ministry of Tourism's re-opening strategy, with all eyes now turning to Atlantis and the decision it makes given that this will be key to determining near-term airlift supply for all hotels in the capital.
And the fall-out is not just confined to the private sector, for the hotels' moves also threaten the Government's fiscal and economic projections for 2020-2021 since these were based on tourism starting to ramp back up in late October and early November.
Asked by Tribune Business how likely it was that Baha Mar's delayed return will force the Ministry of Finance to revise its forecasts, Mr Turnquest replied via What's App: "Too early to say, but obviously this is a major wrinkle in our plans. In collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism we will assess the impact over the next week and propose adjustments as necessary."
During his House of Assembly presentation last week, Mr Turnquest warned that the Ministry of Finance’s planners would face “a more troublesome scenario” come year-end if the tourism industry’s re-opening from October 15 onwards fails to produce the “jump start” that the industry and wider economy so badly need.
He had also voiced hope, in a subsequent press conference, that the hotel and tourism industry's re-opening would reduce the number of unemployed persons seeking assistance from the Government and National Insurance Board (NIB) and thus lower social security pressures.
This, the deputy prime minister added, would hopefully provide some leftover funds for the Government to continue its COVID-19 individual and business assistance programmes beyond end-September when they are due to expire, although no decision on an extension has yet been taken by the Minnis administration.
Asked whether Baha Mar and Sandals' moves had added to the pressure and urgency to continue these assistance schemes, Mr Turnquest replied: "We will have to determine how to proceed with the assistance programmes given the prolonged impact on revenue any tourism adjustment may bring." The Government is already projecting a record $1.3bn deficit for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
However, Obie Ferguson, the trade union leader who acts as the attorney for the Bahamas Hotel, Maintenance and Allied Workers Union, which is the bargaining agent for Sandals Royal Bahamian's line staff, told Tribune Business he was understanding of why the resort may have elected not to re-open in line with the Ministry of Tourism's re-opening date.
Although unaware of the January 28 target, Mr Ferguson said there was little point in returning if insufficient business volumes meant the resort would incur further losses in addition to what has already been sustained due to the COVID-19 lockdown and associated restrictions.
"Even if we delay in opening the hotel, that period can be used to ensure all the workers are trained, and become the ambassadors," he said, "making it safe for themselves, the guests and their co-workers because they interact with each other and the Bahamian community. I am certain they are remaining closed because the volume of business is not there.
"If the business is not there, it's very difficult to ask a businessman to open their business and there's no revenue. You need revenue for a business to function, and once revenue comes in you need to have a reasonable level of security for your guests to feel safe that all reasonable steps have been taken to make sure we have the COVID-19 situation under control."
Mr Ferguson said the union was due to meet today, having already held discussions, on "the appropriate steps we should now take to begin the process of with the operator of the hotel [Sandals Royal Bahamian] to see how we can hammer out some sort of agreement that will be to the benefit of the employer and employee".
He indicated that the union would be prepared to settle for something less than an industrial agreement, and was ready to accept some kind of "working relationship", while avoiding the "fanfare" and heated rhetoric/action that often accompanied such talks in The Bahamas.