By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas “cannot” relaunch its vital tourism industry until the latest COVID-19 outbreak is contained and a “strict 14-day quarantine” regime in place, a Cabinet minister warned yesterday.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, warned that “you cannot sell the country” as a potential destination until the current surge in COVID-19 infections - another 20 were confirmed yesterday, taking total active cases to 777 - is brought under control.
Describing this as merely “the first step” in reviving The Bahamas’ primary foreign exchange earner, Mr D’Aguilar said the country “still has a couple of months in our quiver of arrows” to get its COVID-19 protocols right ahead of the impending peak winter tourism season that traditionally begins with the late November Thanksgiving holiday.
However, with tourism’s return in any significant mass now looking increasingly unlikely before 2021, he added that The Bahamas’ immediate focus beyond this outbreak needed to be placed on developing a quarantine regime that was both sufficiently robust to prevent future COVID-19 surges but did not turn-off potential visitors from travelling.
Mr D’Aguilar said the “ideal” scenario might be one where Bahamians did not travel abroad, but the borders were opened to allow tourists to come in. However, acknowledging that the government “cannot mandate that”, the minister agreed that Bahamians had already shown their opposition to any solution that was based on “two sets of rules”, and was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
“The desire is to get tourism back up and running again, but we have to figure out how we do that without surge number three or a new COVID-19 outbreak,” Mr D’Aguilar told this newspaper. “I think the Bahamian people are getting tired of lockdowns, and the effect on the economy is horrendous, but we have to fix what’s causing that before we restart tourism.
“The first step is to get this surge under control. You cannot sell your country until you get this surge under control. Everyone complains it’s a nightmare, but we cannot even contemplate tourism until we get this surge under control.”
A prolonged tourism shutdown, especially in the absence of alternative sources of foreign currency earnings, could start to impose increasing pressure on the external reserves that are key to supporting the one:one fixed exchange rate peg with the US dollar going further into 2021.
John Rolle, the Central Bank’s governor, hinted at such concerns last week when he called for “urgency” to tap other potential foreign currency sources such as foreign direct investment (FDI) if tourism’s shutdown/recovery looked like extending beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas into the New Year.
However, Mr D’Aguilar yesterday dismissed pressure for a rapid restart to the tourism economy, saying: “We’ve still got a couple of months in our quiver of arrows. We still have a couple of months to get it right. We’re in August, and are going through a lockdown now to get surge number two under control.
“It’s very painful. We’re going through a two-week lockdown to flatten the curve, and will go from there. It does not make sense to actively promote tourism yet. We need some time. I won’t put a date on it, but we need time to put our house in order again and think long and hard, if we launch again, about how we do it safely. I don’t see any way around it.”
The renewed surge in COVID-19 cases, which has brought to reality the Government’s worst fears about an overburdened public health system unable to cope, has cost The Bahamas’ its key selling point of being a relatively virus-free destination - something it was relying on when the borders re-opened on July 1.
The outbreak has been blamed on a combination of personal irresponsibility by Bahamians who raced away on non-essential travel to COVID-19 hot spots such as Florida, and who brought the virus back with them, as well as the “loophole” created by the Government in allowing persons who went away for 72 hours or less to come back without a negative PCR test and self-quarantine.
However, The Bahamas’ reliance on the US for 82 percent of its visitors, and especially the COVID-19 hot spot of Florida, represented another potential danger. The US has now reported over 5m COVID-19 cases, making it the world leader, with more than 500,000 detected in Florida.
“One of the issues we’re seeking to fix is the oversight of quarantine,” Mr D’Aguilar said. “What we saw in surge number two, when we allowed persons to travel to the country, is we also allowed our citizens to travel. When they travelled, they travelled to COVID-19 hot spots and came back. We have to fix that.
“You can travel, and if you don’t come home and don’t quarantine, you’re going to create community spread. If those people had sat in their rooms for 14 days, we would not have community spread. We need to fix that problem of people not adhering to it, so we must put in place an oversight regime that is quite robust and imposes significant penalties if you don’t follow the protocols.”
Pointing to the quarantines mandated by the likes of Canada, New York and Europe, Mr D’Aguilar said that without the imposition and enforcement of such a regime locally The Bahamas could “quickly go to surge number three”.
He acknowledged, though, that just the mention of a mandatory “14-day quarantine” was enough to deter many tourists from visiting The Bahamas. “Bahamians are very adamant that it’s one rule for all,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business of COVID-19 travel protocols. “Obviously is is very difficult for leisure tourism and quarantines to mutually exist.
“The conundrum is how to attract persons to visit your country when you apply these rules..... It’s very hard to sell your country as a place to visit with a 14-day quarantine, but if you don’t have a 14-day quarantine apply to your citizens you’re going to have another outbreak.
“That’s a difficult nut to crack when you need foreign tourists to come in, you need foreign exchange to come in. But if there’s no quarantine we won’t get this virus under control. You have to go down for 14 days, no exceptions. The COVID-19 test on the way in mitigates some of the risk, but quarantine mitigates all the risk, and we’re into mitigating all the risk now.”
Mr D’Aguilar said requiring Bahamians travelling abroad to specify where they will quarantine upon their return might be one way to avoid COVID-19 spread without burdening the taxpayer with the cost of a government-run facility.
He also acknowledged that the requirement to produce a negative COVID-19 test and government-approved health visa were further deterrents to potential tourists. However, the minister said The Bahamas needed to get the message out that “14-day quarantine” meant visitors were restricted to their hotels, and that they did not have to stay for that full two-week period.
Mr D’Aguilar said Jamaica had benefited from the all-inclusive nature of its resort industry to restart its tourism product. With all amenities present on-site, visitors were confined to their properties but still enjoyed their experience. However, he conceded that a mandatory 14-day quarantine would likely close down the vacation rental market as no guest would want to stay in a property for two weeks.