• Minister: ‘Keeps us on edge much longer’
• Stunned industry assesses new ‘deterrent’
• Operators fear it will ‘kill’ Bahamas revival
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday warned new US quarantine requirements are “simply devastating” for the Bahamian tourism industry’s rebound, adding: “This keeps us on the edge that much longer.”
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that Joe Biden’s executive order on COVID-19 restrictions relating to international travel are yet another “significant deterrent” that will hit every aspect of this nation’s tourism sector.
The newly-elected president, in a bid to contain skyrocketing US infection rates that have resulted in 24.5m COVID-19 cases and 406,000 deaths, yesterday implemented a policy that requires all returning American citizens and foreign travellers to “comply” with Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that include “recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation”.
These guidelines, according to the CDC’s website, include getting tested for COVID-19 within three to five days after arriving back in the US from “higher risk activities” during international travel.
They advise persons to “stay home” for seven days after travel, even if they test negative for the virus, while those who elected not to have the test are told to stay home for ten days after returning.
Mr D’Aguilar said “higher risk” international travel was defined as coming from countries that presently have a ‘Level 2’, ‘Level 3’ or ‘Level 4’ Health Travel Notice from the CDC. The Bahamas is presently in ‘Level 4’ and, while the minister argued that this risk rating should be much lower due to the decline in COVID-19 cases here, the country falls squarely within the new quarantine measures.
“It’s devastating. It’s simply devastating,” he told this newspaper of the new US president’s action, which came barely two days into his administration. “This is a significant deterrent to travel.
“The fact you have to get a COVID test to return to the US is an impediment we could potentially overcome, but this one - having to comply with the CDC guidelines on quarantine, which I think is for between five, seven, ten or 14 days..... I don’t know if we can get down to ‘Level 2’, but that’s what we have to push for.
“This is potentially economically devastating. COVID-19 took us to the edge, and this will keep us on the edge that much longer,” Mr D’Aguilar added. “It’s quite depressing really. It’s a major setback; a significant setback. I presume it’s going to be impactful on our hotel partners, our airline partners and certainly our cruise line partners, and all the spin-offs that feed those things.
“I cannot imagine what’s going to emerge from this, but at least we’re handling COVID-19 well, and hopefully that resonates with the powers that be at the CDC and we fall into a category that allows an exemption from those requirements. It’s a problem. It’s a major problem.”
He pointed to the findings of EndCoronavirus.org, a “self-described” volunteer coalition of 4,000 scientists, which placed The Bahamas among 27 nations “that have largely tamed the pandemic” as at December 19.
The Bahamian economy’s ability to rebound, and slash an unemployment rate still estimated at between 30-40 percent, is almost totally dependent on the tourism industry’s revival. That, in turn, relies heavily on US visitors, who traditionally account for up to 82 percent of all tourists coming to this nation.
The new US administration’s actions, adding a quarantine to obtaining a negative COVID-19 PCR test within three days of travel for all returning US visitors, thus adds another obstacle and cost for Americans seeking to travel to The Bahamas and elsewhere.
It thus threatens to cut-off, and have a potentially chilling effect, on the re-opening of the Bahamian tourism and hotel industry that began on November 1 last year. Atlantis recalled 2,500 staff, although some were subsequently furloughed again, while Baha Mar brought back 1,800 workers.
However, continued COVID-related uncertainty and low bookings prompted the RIU Paradise Island to close again, and the likes of Sandals to delay their re-opening further. The latest US moves threaten to only further unnerve the tourism sector, and prompt further closures, delays and furloughs.
Acknowledging that The Bahamas will now have to strive even harder to obtain exemptions from the latest US restrictions, Mr D’Aguilar said: “My take on it is that we’re a small nation. We have very low level of COVID-19. We present a very low risk to the US.
“We are in their sphere of influence, and a large portion of our economy - over 50 percent of our economy - is reliant on trade and tourism from the US. Certainly the Caribbean region, the English-speaking CARICOM countries, have a total dependence on persons travelling from the US.”
Voicing hope that the CDC may “tweak” the new Biden policy, Mr D’Aguilar reiterated: “It’s depressing. It’s really depressing. We were slowly trying to build back. December was 5 percent of the prior year, and it will be interesting to see what January’s numbers will be.”
Much depends on the new US “quarantine” policy’s details, with the timing and other critical factors yet to be unveiled, plus how it will be implemented and work in practice. However, with the COVID testing requirement set to take effect from January 26, it will likely prompt the Ministry of Finance to assess its growth and fiscal projections, and make some adjustments to the latter.
Stunned tourism industry operators were last night still digesting the implications of Mr Biden’s move for their businesses and the wider industry. Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that “the devil is in the details” and that the body was still reviewing the situation as well as the CDC’s website information.
He added that he was “not going to jump to that conclusion as yet” that the US quarantine move will present a major impediment to Bahamian tourism’s rebound, saying of the new policy: “The details, the interpretation of the language, is going to be extremely important.”
Mr Sands said in a subsequent statement: “We are reviewing the [US] executive order and ancillary documentation in detail, and are engaged in discussions with relevant government representatives, regional partners and tourism stakeholders.
“We will work immediately and assiduously with all relevant entities to clarify the specifications contained in the executive order, and the subsequent potential ramifications on tourism for The Bahamas and the region. We will continue to communicate with you, our industry partners and members”.
Others were more blunt, saying Mr Biden’s move will “kill The Bahamas”. Cheryl Bastian, owner/operator of Swain’s Cay Lodge in Andros, told Tribune Business of Mr Biden’s move: “I hope he doesn’t do it, because that would kill The Bahamas’ business.
“If they are asking people on their return to have a COVID-19 test, then why are they now asking for a quarantine?” But Alicia Moss, Premier Travel’s general manager, said she anticipated the US move and does not think it will affect The Bahamas significantly because people are “so eager” to travel to the country.
She said: “We expected the quarantine. It’ll be an adjustment but people are still eager to travel.”
But Ms Bastian argued: “We won’t be OK if they decide to quarantine. We attract an affluent and high net worth clientele with lots of money. So they spend a week away and then they have to quarantine to get back to work? That will cause employment issues and things like that, especially if the quarantine is for 14 days.”
Jeff Birch, owner/operator of Small Hope Bay Lodge in Fresh Creek, Andros, agreed with Ms Bastian and said it all depends on how long the quarantine is for. “Quarantine goes hand in hand with testing,” he added.
“In other words, if I don’t want to quarantine for longer than three to five days then I test. So if he’s allowing that then I don’t think that’s too big of a deal. But if persons have to stay in quarantine for 14 days then I think that’s a big problem.”
Ms Bastian added: “They need the vaccine, and they need to do this mandatory masks in public places for longer than the 100 days he said he would. It should be mandatory masks, period, until the virus is gone. And certainly now there shouldn’t be any quarantine. The CDC is proposing that you already have to take tests to get back in, and that’s really a big burden for us.”
Tommy Turnquest, Bahamasair’s chairman, told this newspaper that the national flag carrier was waiting for details on the US quarantine policy given that it will impact its Bahamian as well as US passengers. He acknowledged it could represent a significant deterrent to travel and tourism.