By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday said The Bahamas “must be creative” in filling COVID-19’s “tourism gap” as Barbados moves to allow visitors to stay for one year.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, while revealing that The Bahamas has expanded the pre-travel COVID-19 PCR test window back to 10 days, described the move by its Caribbean rival as “very, very interesting”.
Barbadian premier Mia Mottley last week unveiled the Barbados Welcome Stamp proposal, which would allow tourists to stay in that country for 12 months working remotely from hotels, condos, rental villas and other accommodations. Work spaces would also be made available.
The move represents Barbados’ response to the loss of its traditional leisure tourism market due to the global pandemic, and Mr D’Aguilar agreed that similar innovative, out-of-the-box thinking was required if The Bahamas is to compensate for an anticipated one to two-year slowdown in its largest industry.
He added that another possibility lay in The Bahamas offering itself as a nearby offshore base for foreign students attending American universities who are being prevented from remaining in that nation by the US Border Protection regime, but nothing has been determined by the Minnis administration yet.
“The What’s App channels have been abuzz about this innovative Barbados approach to attract visitors back to the island on a one-year annual stay. Very, very interesting,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business.
“We know in countries that are as tourism-dependent as ours that we need to recognise business is going to be down, and the numbers are going to be lower for a certain period of time, maybe one or two years.
“It behooves us to be creative in developing other sources of visitors to our country; in essence, to fill the gap created by this COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Barbados initiative, besides boosting the island’s tourism product, also holds out the promise of potentially attracting permanent new businesses and industries if those taking advantage of the Welcome Stamp in initiative - which is due to start on August 1 - find the business climate to their liking.
This would potentially aid economic diversification. But anything similar in The Bahamas would have to receive approval from this nation’s Immigration regime, and Mr D’Aguilar said such Barbados-type initiatives would have to create - rather than take away from - local employment as well as generate foreign currency earnings.
He suggested another potential opening for The Bahamas lay in US policies that prevent foreign students, who are taking “a certain portion of classes” online, from remaining in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr D’Aguilar said The Bahamas can offer itself as a temporary base for these students in close proximity to their universities, so that when they are recalled to the classroom they do not have far to travel, but he added that neither this nor anything similar has yet been considered by the Minnis Cabinet.
“There are ideas floating around, but the Government has not given consideration as yet to them,” he added. “There are ideas floating around that are quite interesting and attractive, but they require some thought to flesh out. They’ve not been discussed in the upper echelons of the Government.
“We have to look at it, think about it, consider it, mull on it and, at some make a decision on it. It behooves us to be innovative and creative. We have to think about all sorts of new lines of business.
“Our usual business lines have been substantially reduced, and it behooves us to explore new lines of business and sources of business. We cannot replace all but every little bit helps.”
Mr D’Aguilar then revealed that the Government has restored the window in which travellers to the Bahamas must take a COVID-19 PCR test back to ten days, having previously reduced it from ten to seven.
Revealing that the adjustment was made because many potential visitors were unable to take the test, and obtain the results, in time to travel, the minister said it would be “naive” not to expect an increase in The Bahamas’ number of COVID-19 positives given that the borders have re-opened.
Bahamians are now able to journey abroad with effect from July 1, as well as tourists come here, with several of the recent Grand Bahama infections said to involve persons with a “travel history”.
Mr D’Aguilar said The Bahamas tourism re-opening has “gone alright”, adding: “When you’re trying to roll-out a completely new way of doing business there are going to be some bumps in the road.
“We’ve opened and are requiring everyone to get a COVID-19 test, and that’s something new. Persons have been showing up with the wrong type of test or an expired test, so there’s been frustration in that area. We have to ensure it’s the right type of test and approved in time for them to travel.
“Some people are showing up at the [airline] counter and do not know they have to apply for a Bahamas health visa online. There have been bumps in the road. We are 12 days into this. Every day gets better, and we have to find the happy medium on what the requirements are.”
Asked whether the recent surge in local COVD-19 cases, especially in Grand Bahama, will impact the re-opening of the tourism industry and wider economy, Mr D’Aguilar said: “You’re constantly walking a fine line between the re-opening of the tourism sector and not doing so to the detriment of the health of your citizens.
“It would be naive to think you’re not going to have some cases of COVID-19. You’ve got Bahamians coming back from Florida, visitors coming into the country. This is the conundrum we are faced with every day. We can ensure we have no cases by shutting the country down, but can we survive?
“We may be in great shape health-wise, but can you survive? We fight that dilemma every day. Are we going to get it right all the time? Probably not, but we will make adjustments as best we can,” he added.
“Tourism is not a sector you can turn on and off, on and off, on and off like a switch. You have to have a good go at it, and if it does not work, go back to the thinking board.... We’ll give it our best, and I pray we manage it just right where the community spread and development of new cases is kept to an absolute minimum.
“As every jurisdiction in the world is finding, you have to find a happy medium of continuing economic activity so people can go back to work but not jeopardise their health. What is that fine line? Your constantly asking that question.”