• No COVID test for ‘fully vaccinated’ visitors from May 1
• North islands may see 70% of boating business return
• Hotel chief brands move ‘gutsy’; ‘softens’ latest advisory
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Tourism chiefs yesterday hailed the government’s plans to ease COVID testing for fully vaccinated visitors as a “game changer” that will “offset” the latest US warning against travel to The Bahamas.
Peter Maury, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) president, told Tribune Business the prime minister’s revelation that tourists will no longer have to produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test from May 1 if they can prove they have received two vaccine jabs was “a huge deal” for his sector.
Arguing that the move could pave the way for the return of up to 70 percent of the northern Bahamas’ boating market, Mr Maury branded Dr Hubert Minnis’ announcement as “timely” since it came just minutes after the US State Department revealed this nation is again subject to a so-called “Level 4” travel advisory that warns: “Do not travel to The Bahamas due to COVID-19.”
However, Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told this newspaper that The Bahamas’ release of a road map for easing COVID entry requirements will help “offset” and “soften” any fall-out among US travellers as a result of their government’s move.
Describing the prime minister’s disclosure as “gutsy”, he added that the removal of travel impediments such as the need to obtain a negative COVID-19 PCR test within five days before travelling to The Bahamas “creates an opportunity for the immediate growth of travel” and a faster post-pandemic tourism rebound.
The prime minister clarified in the House of Assembly that “fully vaccinated” means persons who have received two COVID-19 vaccine jabs, not one. “Effective May 1, those travelling to The Bahamas from outside of the country will be exempted from a COVID-19 test if they are fully vaccinated and have passed the two-week immunity period,” Dr Minnis said.
The “two-week immunity period” refers to current guidance from US health regulators on how long it takes for someone to become fully vaccinated once they have received their second jab.
The adjustment in border testing requirements is designed to exploit the fact more than 77m US citizens have achieved this status, and accelerate tourism’s rebound and that of the wider economy, given that more than 90 percent of The Bahamas’ visitor base currently comes from the US.
“It’s a game changer. It’s a huge deal, at least in our industry,” Mr Maury said of the COVID testing regime changes unveiled by the Prime Minister. “The majority of our customers in this industry have already been vaccinated. I think his [the Prime Minister’s] announcement is very timely.”
“This is one of the biggest questions I get. These guys, they were at the front of the line. At the Palm Beach Boat Show, I had people walking up to me and said they were fully vaccinated as at January 1. They were getting vaccinated [in the US] from November. By January 1, the US was vaccinating one million people per day, and now they’re doing over two million.”
The Bahamas imposed the condition that all incoming and returning travellers produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test, taken within five days before their flight or voyage, as it sought to balance the pandemic’s health and financial impact by minimising the threat of importing the virus from abroad.
The testing requirement, and the cost, logistics and uncertainty associated with taking the test, obtaining the result and booking travel arrangements within that five-day period, has been seen as a major deterrent and impediment to travel demand and The Bahamas’ wider tourism and economic recovery.
Mr Maury said the major impact from easing this process will likely come via an increase in the marina industry’s “mid-market” customers, which are typically “centre console” vessels with four engines that typically frequent the islands closest to Florida such as Bimini and Grand Bahama.
Their “fully vaccinated” owners, crew and guests will, from May 1, now be able to stay at a hotel or vacation rental property without encountering the inconvenience associated with having to take a COVID-19 PCR test, he added.
“It’s going to allow that mid-level market back into the country,” the ABM chief said. “I’m not saying it’s going to fill us up, but there’s another level of customer that will enter The Bahamas. For Freeport, Grand Bahama and Bimini, that’s probably 75-80 percent of their market.
“In the central Bahamas it’s not as big; it’s probably 35-40 percent of our market because we also get the larger boats. A good 40 percent of my business [at Bay Street Marina] is definitely that market.”
Mr Maury said increased boating and yachting visitors will translate into more spending on dock rental fees, food store groceries and fuel purchases, translating into salaries and income at Bahamian-owned businesses.
The details surrounding the testing exemption for “fully vaccinated” foreign visitors have seemingly yet to be worked out, though, especially what documentary proof they will have to provide to show they have received two jabs.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that what is presently being issued to vaccinated US citizens is similar to what is being used in The Bahamas and is “not in any way what would one deem a secure document”.
“We’re still deciding exactly what documents are required as opposed to uploading the COVID-19 test with the Health Travel Visa,” he added. “We’ll have to sit with programmers and work that all out.” Mr D’Aguilar indicated that proof of “full vaccination” would likely only be valid for a certain period of time, and whatever document is used will need to be “vetted” to prevent forgeries.
He added: “A lot of our customers, a lot of our visitors, have been asking how the protocols are going to end.”
Mr Sands, meanwhile, said of the planned testing relaxation that is set to take effect in nine days: “This is a very positive step, and gutsy and progressive. Whenever an impediment to travel is removed it creates an an opportunity for the immediate growth of travel. I view this as very positive and good news for The Bahamas going forward.”
Anticipating a boost in traveller confidence from the Prime Minister’s disclosure, Mr Sands said it would help counter the US State Department’s downgrade of The Bahamas to a ‘Level 4’ advisory.
“This announcement is one way of contesting and softening that particular point because it creates confidence in the travel marketplace that a receiving country is reversing some of the impediments to travel, recognises the importance of vaccinated travellers, and is creating a very, very positive environment for everybody,” he told Tribune Business.
“Maybe not totally, but it will offset, and as more people become vaccinated it will accrue tremendous benefits to us as a receiving tourism nation.” In an earlier BHTA statement, Mr Sands said: “The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association is fully supportive of the Government’s recent decision to make changes to our travel protocols for external travel into The Bahamas and within our archipelago.
“As more and more individuals within source markets, such as the US, get vaccinated, the removal of the requirement to have a RT PCR test for fully vaccinated persons who want to travel after the stipulated two-week period will have a decisive positive impact on visitor arrivals to The Bahamas.
“In addition, the removal of the requirement for fully vaccinated persons to attain a RT PCR test for travel to and from certain Family Islands will stimulate travel by locals, residents and visitors who may have deemed the added cost of the viral test to be prohibitive to travel,” he added.
“This is very good news for the economy as the population in the Bahamas will be better able to “Buy Bahamian” and support local tourism related businesses in islands such as Abaco, Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Exuma and New Providence.”
Dr Minnis said yesterday that Bahamians and residents who have also been fully vaccinated “will be exempted immediately from COVID-19 test requirements that are currently in place when travelling from New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Exuma and Eleuthera”.
This, though, remains something of an aspirational and longer-term objective given that the speed of The Bahamas’ vaccine roll-out is presently much slower than in the US.
Originally Appeared On: http://www.tribune242.com/news/2021/apr/22/game-changer-offsets-new-us-travel-warning/