• Tourism to ‘explore’ if makes travel easier
• Bahamas now ‘in groove’ on Health Visa
• But 2019 numbers to only return 2023/2024
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government is “exploring” whether to adopt so-called COVID-19 “vaccine passports” in a bid to make two-way travel involving The Bahamas easier, a Cabinet minister revealed yesterday.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business he has asked officials to study whether this nation should follow other countries in developing documents and protocols that would enable tourists and Bahamians to prove they have been vaccinated against the potentially fatal virus.
Such a regime, if adopted, could facilitate the free flow of travel to and from The Bahamas by both locals and residents once global vaccination programmes achieve critical mass - a development that appears to be some months off yet. “Vaccine passports” showing a person has been inoculated could also dramatically reduce the need for pre-arrival and in-country COVID-19 testing.
The Tribune has for some months called for the creation of a “vaccine passport” regime, and Mr D’Aguilar confirmed to this newspaper yesterday: “I’ve just requested the Ministry of Tourism to explore that., explore what it’s all about and see whether we want to embrace that and morph into that proposed travel protocol.
“I’m having the technical people at the Ministry of Tourism review that, and see what the pros and cons are. It seems to be getting some traction in Europe and the Asian side, but I’m not sure it’s getting so much traction this side” of the Atlantic.
“I’ve read about it, seen it and want my technical team to see if it’s something we want to embrace, follow and be part of,” Mr D’Aguilar continued. “We’re looking at every possible way to facilitate travel and tourism to The Bahamas once we get on the other side of this pandemic.
“We have to study it, look at the advantages and disadvantages. If a number of countries are entertaining it, why? What do they find attractive about it? We will see if it’s something we want to embrace and work with. We are definitely looking at it, studying it, though our Bahamas Health Travel Visa is working quite well.
“We’ve settled into a groove, but it’s an impediment to travel and I continue to emphasise that all impediments to travel are not good.” Mr D’Aguilar’s comments came just days after the UK said it was looking at the feasibility of developing a “vaccine passport” scheme that would enable its citizens to prove they have been inoculated against COVID-19 when arriving at other countries’ borders.
UK media reports said the move was in response to other countries requiring that foreign nationals show they have been vaccinated before entry is granted. Greece, a holiday destination that shares sun, sand and sea characteristics with The Bahamas, was among the countries said to be willing to admit tourists if they have can prove vaccination.
Denmark and Sweden are said to already be working on plans for some form of digital certification for COVID-19 vaccination, while discussions were also under way about a European Union (EU) wide certification scheme.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, backed the idea in January of using certificates to identify people who have had COVID-19 vaccinations, but added: “Whether that gives a priority or access to certain goods, this is a political and legal decision that has to be discussed on the European level.”
Such “vaccine passports” could ultimately enable The Bahamas to scale down its present Bahamas Health Travel Visa regime, as well as the need for visitors to provide negative COVID-19 PCR results taken within five days of travel to this nation and be tested again after staying here for four-plus nights, once vaccination drives reach sufficient scale in key source markets such as the US.
Mr D’Aguilar, meanwhile, said The Bahamas’ present defences seemed to be operating well despite the travel impediments and hurdles that result as “very little COVID-19 is coming in from overseas” based on present infection rates locally.
“From a mechanics standpoint it’s working very well,” he added, suggesting Bahamas Health Travel Visa applications are being approved in as little as six hours if submissions are minimal. If the application volume is heavier, the minister suggested processing time could take up to “a day or so”.
“It’s a function of quantity, which is very light right now sadly,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business, revealing that confirmation of no mandatory quarantine for US travellers returning home has failed to produce an appreciable uptick in tourist numbers to-date.
While January numbers have yet to be finalised, he said: “President Biden’s comments certainly threw a curve ball, put a wrench in the works, so the numbers are still a sliver of their former selves. A lot of people heard about the quarantine, but not a lot heard it has been done away with.”
A briefing given by Ian Brownlee, the US State Department’s acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, and Marty Cetron, the CDC’s director for global migration and quarantine, recently confirmed that a quarantine for incoming and returning travellers will not be made mandatory at the federal level.
In response to questions on the issue, a transcript quoted Mr Brownlee as saying: “We’re not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders, but we do have - and have had - up on the CDC website guidance regarding the ways to increase the safety of international travel......
“Staying home for a period of time, seven days if you have a negative post-arrival test taken between day three and five, as is recommended on our website, allows the quarantine period to be shortened.
“Most of this return recommendation really falls in the jurisdiction of state and local authorities, and each, the state and local authorities, may have their own specific advice, but the CDC’s standard advice on this can be found on our website. So these are recommendations from CDC.”
Mr D’Aguilar, meanwhile, said “the general consensus” was that 2019’s tourism numbers will only return in 2023 or 2024 - a forecast that was recently given by Central Bank governor, John Rolle. “Everybody is adjusting now, seeing how things are going,” he added.
“The second half of this year will be considerably better than the second half of last year, but we just have to see how it shakes out.”