By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
TOURISM Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar says officials will have to determine what sort of mechanism will be needed to ensure visitors are not using false vaccination cards when applying for travel health visas.
Over the weekend, Tourism officials announced that with immediate effect citizens and residents who are fully vaccinated, having received two doses of the COVID-19 shot, are exempted from testing requirements when travelling domestically from New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Exuma and Eleuthera to any other island.
And, as of last Saturday, internationally fully vaccinated visitors to The Bahamas from other countries who have also passed the two-week immunity period are also exempted for entry and inter-island travel.
Speaking to The Tribune yesterday, Mr D’Aguilar said the possibility of people uploading false vaccination documents is a concern for his ministry, given the fact that many US states and other countries use different vaccination cards.
He added that while the situation is “unfortunate”, it’s something the government will have to deal with by implementing certain features via its travel health visa online platform to limit the risk of people entering the country by fraudulent means.
He said: “So let’s face it, 93 percent of our foreign visitors right now come from the US. Flights from Canada are not still operating and there’s no direct non-stop flight from Europe to the Bahamas so most travellers coming to the country are coming either by aircraft or by pleasure craft from the United States.”
“So, every jurisdiction, every municipality and every testing site seems to have a different document so there is that concern, clearly, that we will have to determine a mechanism in place as to how we’re going to vet these and how we’re going to process these and how we’re going to ensure that as many fraudulent documents as possible don’t slip through.
But, obviously, in every instance where you have to upload documents, there’s always the concern of fraudulent documents being uploaded.”
According to international reports, more than 100 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus to date.
This also means that over 100 million Americans are now eligible to enter the country without having to take a COVID test after Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis relaxed travel protocols for fully vaccinated people.
Yesterday, Mr D’Aguilar said he believes the vaccination perk will make the country a more attractive destination for visitors and added officials expect that the Bahamas will have a busier summer than was seen last year.
Asked if officials have seen an uptick in travel applicants since the latest travel announcements, the minister replied: “It is too early to tell. It’s being warmly received by the industry but it’s still too early to tell what the difference before the announcement and after the announcement, just not enough time has elapsed yet.”
Officials said yesterday that 64,047 travel visas were bought in April.
The new travel rules, however, comes at a time when the country is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with total infections at 10,549 as of Saturday.
Yesterday, Mr D’Aguilar reiterated the government’s stance on the new protocol despite concerns about the move, insisting officials are relying on the latest science.
He also noted that if fully vaccinated people do contract the virus, research has shown it is less likely for them to spread it to someone else.
“The reality is the risk is significantly diminished, not eliminated if you are vaccinated and we felt that it was safe and appropriate to remove any other requirements from vaccinated persons,” he told The Tribune.
Mr D’Aguilar also noted that once a vaccinated person gets their health visa approved, they will no longer need to be constantly “vetted” for the next six months, allowing for a smooth process.
“Once you upload evidence that you are vaccinated, the health visa system will allow you to travel without the need or the requirement to be constantly vetted and once you have uploaded your vaccinated details, the system will clear you to travel to the Bahamas for the next six months without the need to be vetted,” he told The Tribune.
“You’ll still have to apply but you won’t have to wait for someone to vet your trip each and every time that you wish to travel to the Bahamas so it will greatly expedite your approval to come into the Bahamas and hopefully reduce the stress that some travellers are currently experiencing to come to the Bahamas.”
However, this comes amid concerns about long waiting times for the visa application process after several Bahamians raised an alarm about the issue on social media yesterday.
One Bahamian even claimed that she and her family were forced to book a new flight because their travel health visa was not approved in time.
Responding to the concerns yesterday, Mr D’Aguilar said: “So, let me tell you how the system works. The system prioritizes those who are travelling the next day or the same day so if you travel and you’re intending to travel Friday and you upload your approved test on Tuesday, the system doesn’t prioritize you because you’re not travelling immediately.”
“Obviously, we want to prioritize those persons who are travelling today or tomorrow so sometimes you upload (all of your documents) on Tuesday and when nothing happens on Wednesday or Thursday, you happen to get stressed and that is causing some consternation but I am almost 99 percent sure that anybody who wished to travel to the Bahamas prior to them departing from where they come from, their travel health visa has been approved,” he added.
“Obviously we just prioritize those people who are travelling first versus those people who are travelling later and obviously if you tried to apply early for a later travelling date, you get stressed when it’s not processed immediately, but we’ve been experiencing some heavy loads and we expect that as the summer approaches, our indications are that we are going to have a busier summer and so the ability for persons to upload their vaccination details and get a blanket approval for the next six months, we hope that will reduce the number of applications that we’re having to process over and over again.”