By: Mozelle Garcia, October 13, 2021
It will surprise no one to learn that in the Bahamas tourism makes up 50% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is also easy to fathom that countries reliant on tourism have been disproportionately affected by international travel bans.
After Global shutdowns in early 2020, the Bahamas, together with other Caribbean countries, was among the earliest to re-open for tourists on July 1, 2020. However, just a few weeks after re-opening, the Bahamas announced a travel ban on U.S. tourists. Imposing restrictions on the U.S. specifically was a major step, because 80% of tourists visiting the Bahamas were coming from the U.S. before the pandemic. The Bahamas then announced on July 26, 2021, that it would re-open, albeit with travel restrictions such as requiring proof of a negative PCR test and self-quarantine. The Bahamas went through several phases of increasing and reducing restrictions from that time, including changing the number of days a PCR test would be valid, and changing requirements for self-quarantining.
In contrast, despite the United States still being closed off to almost all international tourism, by April 2021, tourism data for the Florida Keys (an area with a tourism culture comparable to that of the Bahamas, with 44% of employment stemming from the tourism industry) indicated a major comeback. By April of 2021, business owners in the keys indicated that the beach towns had largely recovered from their Covid-19 slumps. With this, as of October 2021 the Keys continue to do well, receiving major tourism and bookings even as travel bans on international countries remain indeterminate. Continued restrictions together with this booking data shows that the Keys are doing just fine without international travelers. The keys have had no cruise ships dock since April 2020, and yet are recovering strongly, bolstered by domestic travel.
On the other hand, the Bahamas has had a laborious recovery. In a survey of the Bahamian people measuring Covid-19’s impact as of April 2021 over 40% of respondents reported that they had lost all of their savings to the pandemic. In a Nassau Tribune interview Robert Sands, president of the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association, predicted land-based overnight visitor arrivals in The Bahamas would total “close to 85 percent” compared to pre-COVID levels by this winter. Although tourism has increased in recent months, the recovery is expected to be slow. The report estimates a full recovery, with tourism rising to the levels seen in 2019, will take several years. With this, it notes that the cruise ship industry will be even slower to recover. This brings us full circle to the August mandate.
On August 19th, 2021, the Bahamas mandated that for cruise ships to make port on their shores, all passengers over the age of 12 are required to be vaccinated. By the time the Bahamas imposed this mandate, it had already been welcoming cruise ships (with passengers testing negative for Covid-19) for two months, since June 12, 2021, when just about 5% of the Bahamian population was fully vaccinated. Bahamians were willing to risk international travelers bringing in disease in order to support their livelihoods. Given that the country has implemented this new mandate, however, it is clear that it has not chosen one priority and forgotten the other. Still, it is interesting to note that this change came at a time where 50% of the U.S. population was already fully vaccinated, so the Bahamian government may have calculated that the vaccination standard would be sufficiently easy to meet by that time, to avoid reducing tourism again.
Had vaccinations not been so prevalent by that time, would the Bahamas have delayed imposing this restriction? Perhaps so. Perhaps the protective measure would not have been worth the risk of continuing to lose revenue when international tourism was the country’s lifeblood, with no major domestic travel system to fall back on. But the Bahamas did not have this luxury. When people in the future inevitably look back and criticize the varied and constantly changing restrictions that countries put in place during the Covid-19 Pandemic, grace should be given to countries that had no choice but to open, and to balance the impossible priorities of livelihood and health in a constantly changing environment.