By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas will be “screaming from the mountain top” in a bid to ensure the planned US quarantine for incoming travellers does not devastate the tourism industry, a Cabinet minister pledged yesterday.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, pictured, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business the government will “explore every avenue” to influence - and potentially mitigate - the effects of president Joe Biden’s new COVID-19 travel policy which has already resulted in some Bahamian resorts reporting booking cancellations (see other article on Page 1B).
With The Bahamas and its tourism industry now facing a nervous 14-day wait to see how the new administration plans to implement the potential quarantine, and discover the details, Mr D’Aguilar said the Government was planning a proactive response rather waiting for the Biden administration to reach its own conclusions.
“We’re using all available sources, whether indirectly or directly,” he added of The Bahamas’ planned advocacy campaign. “I’m sure the US embassy is well aware of our concerns. We’re using all our available sources. The problem is the US government is in a state of transition, and a lot of appointees are not confirmed.
“We’re exploring every avenue. Until we get more specifics it’s impossible to highlight to the decision-makers or anybody that there is a strategic and economic impact to tourism in The Bahamas. But it’s always better to impact the outcome than change an outcome once a decision has been made.
“We’re in the mode of how important tourism and trade from the US is to our economic security. It’s very important we emphasise the concerns we have. We have to be proactive and not wait and let a decision be made, then act. By then it’s too late, in my opinion. We have to be proactive.”
The Bahamas’ fragile tourism revival was dealt a potential crippling blow last Thursday after Mr Biden, on just his second day as president, signed an executive order that many interpreted as imposing a mandatory quarantine on all incoming travellers to the US - citizens and foreigners - even if they could produce a negative COVID-19 test.
“In light of the new COVID variants that you’re learning about, we’re instituting now a new measure for individuals flying into the United States from other countries,” President Biden said during a press conference the day after his inauguration.
“In addition to wearing masks, everyone flying to the United States from another country will need to test before they get on that plane, before they depart, and quarantine when they arrive in America.” The costs and time associated with such a quarantine period, which could last anywhere from seven to 14 days, are being viewed as a major deterrent and turn-off to Americans travelling to The Bahamas and elsewhere.
Tourism industry operators raced to analyse the executive order that accompanied Mr Biden’s statement, with each developing different interpretations based on the language involved. Several argued that the actual order appeared to be less stringent on the “quarantine” aspect than the US president’s actual statement (see other article on Page 1B).
The order reads: “It is the policy of my administration that, to the extent feasible, travellers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country shall be required to produce proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry, and required to comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.”
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told this newspaper that several US boat/yacht captains he had spoken to were interpreting the use of the word “mandatory” as a sign that any quarantine will not be mandatory.
However, Mr D’Aguilar said “nobody knows” until the relevant US government agencies complete their assessment of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) January 12, 2021, order requiring all incoming travellers to the US to produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of their trip.
Mr Biden’s executive order says this assessment will examine “the feasibility of implementing alternative and sufficiently protective public health measures, such as testing, self-quarantine and self-isolation on arrival, for travellers entering the US from countries where COVID-19 tests are inaccessible”.....
Several tourism operators have suggested to Tribune Business that the US quarantine plan may not apply to travellers returning from The Bahamas at all based on this language, arguing that it will only be used for persons coming from countries that lack the testing infrastructure this nation and its tourism industry have put in place.
Mr D’Aguilar, though, argued that The Bahamas could not afford to take that chance. “It’s important we make the case that this is going to be impactful,” he said. “I would look at adopting an approach that first sees if someone is listening.
“There’s a theory that if you scream if from the mountain top someone might here. We’re a small country, and small countries have a small impact. That’s why we have to scream loud. I hope someone will look at the specifics of it and realise ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t apply to us.”
Mr D’Aguilar reiterated that The Bahamas and English-speaking Caribbean, with their low COVID-19 infection rates and small population sizes, did not represent a health risk to the US and should therefore be viewed as prime candidates for exemption from tightened US travel restrictions.
The minister added, though, that “the silver lining in all of this” is that Mr Biden’s travel restrictions and quarantine proposals - while harmful to The Bahamas in the short-term - could ultimately benefit its tourism industry and wider economy in the long-term if they succeed in finally bringing the raging COVID-19 pandemic under control in the nation’s major source market.
Michael Maura, the Nassau Cruise Port’s chief executive, pointed out that pressure from the COVID-ravaged airline and hospitality industries in the US would likely mean that the Biden administration will be unable to implement a mandatory quarantine on all incoming travellers for long given the further devastation it will inflict on already hard-hit industries.
“The American industry is not going to be able to tolerate the absence of international tourists coming into the US because of quarantine requirements,” he said, noting that there were 80m such visitors per annum pre-pandemic. “It’s self-destructive within the US from an industry perspective. That’s important for us as Bahamians to appreciate.”
The US Travel Association, an industry group representing businesses including hotels and airlines, argued on Friday that the mandatory negative COVID-19 test requirement eliminates the need for quarantining returning passengers, a step it said “could be extremely difficult to enforce”.