The government was urged yesterday to scrap the country’s 48-hour COVID testing requirement for all tourists and make the Bahamas “more competitive” for the peak winter season.
Robert Sands, president of the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), told Tribune Business that the drop in infections fueled by Omicron means this nation must give “serious consideration” to parts of its COVID testing regime that may be “safely disposed of”. to maintain a “sustained pace” of visitor bookings throughout 2022.
Emphasizing that he was not suggesting that the Bahamas should be ‘jumpers’ when it comes to visitor safety, he argued that the focus should nonetheless be on removing all ‘impediments and impediments’ to travel where possible. , given the central role of tourism in the country’s post-war era. COVID economy.
The BHTA chief, in particular, has focused on scrapping the requirement introduced on January 4 that all tourists – regardless of their vaccination status – must take a rapid COVID antigen test if staying at the Bahamas more than 48 hours, claiming that the cost and “inconvenience” associated with it was no longer justified at this time by the receding Omicron threat.
He added that its removal would also make it “a little more difficult” for groups to cancel or reduce their bookings “without penalty”, and “to improve momentum” following the Christmas/New Year disruption caused by Omicron, converting it into “a robust rebound” in tourism in 2022.
“We need to take a serious look at what the barriers or impediments to travel are, and consider removing some that have been put in place,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business. “I would go out on a limb here and say maybe it’s time to consider, or reconsider, whether 48-hour testing on the island is still a viable option for the destination for a number of reasons.
“COVID-19 numbers are down. There’s the increased cost and inconvenience to the traveler, and third, competing destinations have that advantage over us if the same protocols aren’t in place in their respective jurisdictions. This makes us less competitive in the future.
“I say that the recognition of the safety of the destination, not only of the tourists and the associates who serve them, must always be maintained. I’m not saying to be cavalier about this approach, but serious thought needs to be given to what parts of the testing regime can be safely eliminated at this particular time and make us more competitive.
Mr Sands said the additional COVID testing costs involved in traveling to the Bahamas for a family of four, a husband, wife and two children, was a big factor behind his call for a partial relaxation of entry measures. on the border of this country and their downfall. “in line with what the rest of the world is doing”.
And, reiterating that he and the BHTA were not suggesting that COVID-related health and safety be compromised, he also called for more consistency with testing and travel protocols, as opposed to the constant tinkering in which Bahamas are committed.
“The multiple changes that have taken place in a very short period of time are very confusing for the traveling public, so we need to find a sweet spot that accomplishes all the results we want,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business.
“Although it may have been necessary at the time of their introduction, the conditions currently prevailing may suggest that the relaxation of some of these protocols could be considered. I think that if we are to continue with strong momentum in our tourism sector , these types of decisions will improve that and result in a more robust rebound for the rest of the year.
The government’s decision to reduce the COVID testing window to three days before travel and to require all travelers to obtain the more expensive RT-PCR COVID test, has been accused of confusing the travel market immediately ahead of the vital Christmas/New Year season.
This was later facilitated by rapid antigen testing for all vaccinated travellers, although the narrower three-day testing window was maintained, but many felt the constant changes created uncertainty among potential visitors, which added to the chilling effect caused by rising Omicron infections in the Bahamas. and major tourist source markets.
However, the number of COVID cases has fallen sharply, from more than 500 a day at the height of Omicron’s surge to just 29 which were recorded on Monday. Hospital cases have also fallen as the wave of infection subsides, with just 65 people needing such care on Sunday and just three in the intensive care unit (ICU).
Yesterday Mr Sands backed the government’s decision to keep the three-day pre-travel COVID testing window on the grounds that it was more likely to pick up virus carriers than the previous five-day window. And the 24-hour pre-travel test for returning US citizens must remain in place so they can meet their country’s entry protocols.
However, regarding the costs and time required for a family of four tourists, the BHTA chief said they must obtain an equal number of negative COVID tests within three days of travel and pay for a travel visa. health plan in the Bahamas of $50 per person – the latter bill alone amounting to $200.
Then they must pay for four additional tests while in the Bahamas if they are here longer than 48 hours, “although the government is considering this as part of the health visa agreement”, and four more tests to return to the United States.
Those costs, Mr. Sands said, were inflated by the price already paid for room accommodations, food and beverages and resort amenities, and threatened to fuel the perception that the Bahamas is an expensive destination and not competitive with the Caribbean and other rivals. Hence his plea for the 48-hour test to be eliminated to ease the burden amid falling COVID cases.
He added that such reforms would also help group businesses in the Bahamas, which are among the slowest travel segments to recover from the ravages of the pandemic. “This is a long-lead reservation deal,” Sands explained. “What a relaxation of the protocols can do is reduce the possibilities of reducing current room reservations.
“It will be a little more difficult to use the COVID-19 situation as an excuse to reduce reservations without penalty and allow groups to rebook with longer lead times. I think in places like family islands, where it may not be as easy to get tested, some easing will help increase their bookings which represent a significant amount of rooms in their hotel sector.
Revealing that the Bahamas tourism industry has already seen a ‘surge’ in tourism demand as Omicron declines, Mr Sands added: ‘I think the removal of the protocols will lead to an increase in demand. no doubt you will see an increase in demand once travel barriers are removed.
“We are looking at travel demand for what is traditionally the busiest time of the season, February, March and April, so the opportunity to increase volumes is not that great as bookings are already in place. I think it’s fair to say that bookings are close to pre-COVID levels and in some cases are exceeding pre-COVID levels.
“But I can say that for some bookings the pace has dropped because of the protocols that have been put in place. Removing these protocols will help us be strong in the pace of bookings for the rest of the year. The tourism sector is essential to government recovery and economic recovery, so it is very important that we have a very successful winter season.
Mr Sands said inbound air travel to the Bahamas was “not quite there yet” compared to pre-COVID volumes, but was “increasing every month”. While the reopening of Sandals Royal Bahamian will boost demand for air travel, he added that this was offset in the short term by the closure of Melia and the Beach Towers at Atlantis as well as the impending closure of British Colonial.