Tourism's 'competitive disadvantage': Rivals eliminate quarantines

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Bahamian tourism is facing "a competitive disadvantage" because it will not "be so bold" as Caribbean rivals in eliminating COVID testing and quarantine requirements, a Cabinet minister said yesterday.

Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that the Dominican Republic - which already has no quarantine requirements for incoming travellers - will eliminate the need to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test upon arrival as of tomorrow.

And, with Mexico already allowing Americans to visit tourist hot spots such as Cancun, Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas without quarantining or producing a negative COVID-19 PCR test, Mr D'Aguilar said The Bahamas' continued insistence on these stipulations meant it faced a tough fight for market share upon its return to the tourism marketplace.

The minister added that Bahamians had already shown they would not accept a separate two-tiered COVID-19 testing regime, where foreigners did not have to be tested or quarantined but they do, meaning that this route to addressing the problem was cut-off.

And, noting that it was unlikely that the Ministry of Health would accept an end to testing/quarantining for visitors, Mr D'Aguilar said nevertheless "robust discussions" were being held between health officials and the Ministry of Tourism on how the effects of these requirements can be "managed and mitigated" to facilitate the rebound of the country's largest industry.

Confirming that he personally backed the need for such anti-COVID-19 measures, Mr D'Aguilar said The Bahamas was not going to follow the lead set by the likes of Dominican Republic and Mexico given the health risks.

"We're not going to be so bold," he told this newspaper. "I don't think the citizens would support that. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage, but I don't think the Bahamian people are willing to create two separate systems. We have to live with the system that operates for all.

"I don't think the health professionals are willing - and I agree with them - I don't think they're in a position to do it; to revise the requirements for the testing and quarantine. It's required to stop what happened last time.

"I hear everybody running on about this, the taxi drivers, and I get it, but unfortunately if a person comes into the country infected with COVID-19 even if they have a negative test, the generally accepted way to address that concern is to put someone in quarantine for 14 days."

The Bahamas currently requires all visitors to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within five days of travelling to The Bahamas, together with accompanying health visa.

But, to guard against the infection occurring within days of a person's arrival to this nation, the country requires all travellers to quarantine for 14 days - be it in a hotel, on a yacht or some other form of accommodation.

While many see this as an acceptable risk mitigation practice, many independent tourism operators view it as having turned the industry into an all-inclusive model where visitors stay on-property all the time and there is no trickle down or 'value-added' impact beyond the resort.

Mr D'Aguilar said such descriptions of The Bahamas' post-COVID-19 tourism product were "100 percent correct in that regard", but he added: "If we want visitors to move about we have to allow them to come out of quarantine, and our citizens are going to want to to the same. I've got letters from people saying we just need to social distance and wear masks. Been there, done that and the results we have.

"We have to figure out how to mitigate this 14-day quarantine. We have to manage that, and think of a way to make that work.... The public health officials say you have to quarantine. How do you have a tourism sector without quarantine?

"We tried as best as possible through the VIP (Vacation in Place) that allows persons to come to the hotel and enjoy hotel facilities. The bigger the hotel, the better it is. For it to trickle down the hotels have to allow vendors on to their property to sell goods to tourists, but they will have to test them," Mr D'Aguilar continued.

"It's not going to help Bay Street. It's not going to help the major centres where tourists go, which is predominantly Bay Street, but we have to figure out how to manage quarantine. and discussions are ongoing between the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Health.

"This discussions about quarantine are very much front and centre, and there are very robust talks between the health sector and the tourism sector on how to mitigate that. Quarantine is very tourism unfriendly but we understand the necessity. Tourism is trying to work within the confines of the health requirements. It's not open the borders and let everyone in. We understand we can't do that."

Mr D'Aguilar said Baha Mar had informed him that it would not meet its previously targeted October 2020 re-opening prior to his national address last Monday, and had instead said it was "tentatively" looking at a November return prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Any time you go to open up a property of that size you have to be comfortable there's substantial demand to allow the opening of the hotel to be economically feasible," he told Tribune Business. "There's a lot of factors to take into consideration. It's a lot more complex to open a property of that size than it is a boutique hotel. There's a heck of a lot of moving parts in a property that size.

"We'd love them back to get going, get people back to work and come back to the destination." Mr D'Aguilar acknowledged that the Ministry of Tourism had picked the second slowest month in the industry's calendar for the re-opening as this would allow resort properties to "walk before you run", and get all staff trained and the necessary health protocols in place ahead of the peak winter season.

"We had to pick a day and we have to start the process," he added. "We cannot wallow in the end is nigh. It won't go from zero to 100 on October 15. It will ramp up. It's not going to be as robust as it was in the past by any means."