We sat down for a deskside chat with Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board’s CEO Fred Lounsberry, who gave us the 4-1-1 on COVID protocols and testing for travelers heading back to the U.S. Plus, we talked new hotel openings, tips for travel advisors, and lots more.
As I was admiring the stunning virtual background depicting the island’s beautiful waters Lounsberry had on during our Zoom meeting, he mentioned that the yachting business is huge right now. “The Bahamas is a hot destination because yachters have all those islands they can go to, but the protocols have changed and The Bahamas is an easy place to go to,” he added.
And then, we dove right into COVID testing, protocols, and new hotels. Here’s what you need to know to make your clients’ trips worry-free when heading to The Bahamas.
Michelle Marie Arean (MMA): Can you tell us more about the onsite complimentary COVID-19 testing at major resorts including Atlantis, Baha Mar, Graycliff, Comfort Suites and Sandals (when they reopen on March 31)?
Fred Lounsberry (FL): The requirements are: five days in advance you do your COVID PCR test before you go to The Bahamas. Then you upload your results to The Bahamas Health Visa [website]. Once approved, you share that document with the airline to get on the plane. And that’s been under continual refinement, but seems to be working well. I did it in January, and I got mine instantly, but volume has increased now.
When you get to The Bahamas you wear your mask. Then before you return to the U.S. within 72 hours you have to get the rapid test. Let me give you the list: Atlantis, Baha Mar are both doing two complimentary tests per room and you can do them right at the hotel. Baha Mar, you also get a test when you arrive at the hotel.
Comfort Suites is doing complimentary, Graycliff, Margaritaville Resort, and Sandals will when they open.
And those who don’t have it, they either come to hotel or it’s very nearby. Prior to the U.S. regulation, The Bahamas required the same rapid test before if you were staying five days or longer. So the good news is we were pretty equipped to do these because a lot of this was already in place. I haven’t heard any real hiccups. And last case, if you’re staying somewhere that’s not a hotel like a condo or Airbnb, there’s also a testing facility at the airport in case you got to the airport and didn’t get your test or you didn’t know about it. They have it at the airport and it takes about 30 minutes.
MMA: For the ones at the resort, do you go to a specific area or do they come to your room, or is it a mix?
FL: I think it’s a mix. I believe they have a designated area you stop in and do the test, wait for your results to be e-mailed to you in your room. And on your departure you wait in a waiting area, but you don’t have to do it the day you leave, you can do it the day before. They’ve done this in a way so it doesn’t take a big chunk of time so it doesn’t impact your day and vacation; you’re there to have fun.
MMA: Where can guests get a COVID test, or how can they coordinate for one if one isn’t offered at their resort/hotel?
FL: Let me give you a case, at Ocean Club, they come to the guestroom, they make it very easy and Doctor’s Hospital does a lot of the testing right there. There are also facilities nearby…literally next door. Most hotels have a protocol so you know where to go and help you with that. As with most everything you do now, the arrangements through the hotel like the snorkeling excursions—all of those kinds of things—are open and operating. Culinary food tours, Candy Factory, all great activities at Graycliff, all of those are operating. It’s not that you’re coming to a place that there’s nothing to do.
MMA: Are you still limited to staying at your resort or can you go out to explore the island?
FL: You can go out to the island. Atlantis has created kind of a bubble; if you leave you have to get a test when you come back to the hotel. You’re not on lockdown but there is a protocol to continue to ensure safety. Atlantis, Comfort suites, Ocean Club, Baha Mar, all are being very rigorous and you get a test when you return to the property.
MMA: What happens if someone’s COVID test comes out positive the day they arrive or on the day they’re leaving? Are there any specific protocols they have to follow?
FL: For Baha Mar for example, if you test positive, they’ll do another test. They’ve put in a process that if you have to quarantine, they give you two options. You can stay as their guest for two weeks (or 10 days depending) or they’ll get you back home on a private jet.
One of the things that it says is that we haven’t had a case that I’m aware of yet.
One of the requirements of everyone traveling is to buy insurance; it’s $20 for 4-5 night stay per person. And, if you are quarantined, that covers your cost for two weeks, up to $500 a day, and if you’re seriously ill it does cover a Medivac back to your home. The insurance guarantees you won’t be financially challenged.
MMA: If you’re positive on arrival, are you confined to your guestroom?
MMA: Do travelers currently have to quarantine at all once arriving on the island?
FL: No. No more.
MMA: We know Margaritaville Beach Resort just opened…do you know about how bookings are going for that? How is the reopening different now than pre-COVID for a property?
FL: It was more of a soft opening; it is open. But, there was no big celebration or event that is to come. There are still protocols on large groups and events. Events are happening; weddings are taking place with social distancing. It’s a little different as it is everywhere, but as the vaccine and testing continues to grow, every month we start to feel a little better.
I think it’s very encouraging what’s going on in the U.S. If you’re in the travel industry, you’re an optimistic person because when business is so-so you’re always thinking about how it’s going to get better and that’s always the case. We’ve seen month-to month better than the last one.
Now the vaccines are rolling out, the cases and hospitalizations are in the decline, so I think there’s a better attitude. When you had to quarantine in the U.S. it sort of put the fear in everyone, but then that went away. Now, we are at the point where we need to get a test before we go, test before we go back, it’s not going to cost me anything at most hotels, it’s simple, it’s easy. We got the safety as good as you can get it anywhere.
MMA: Are weddings capped at a number of guests?
FL: I believe it’s 20 guests, but that is being looked at ongoing. There have been exceptions for larger groups. The best the advisor can do is consult with the hotel—they have the most up-to-date information.
MMA: With continued reopening of properties—The Cove (opened Feb. 11) and SLS Baha Mar and Rosewood Baha Mar reopening (March 4)…how are bookings going for these properties so far?
FL: I don’t have specific numbers, but all the pieces I’ve gotten from the tour operators they’re definitely trending positive. We are on the upside. March is looking way better than February. The deeper you go in to the year, it’s starting to build. We are finally seeing some booking paces that are encouraging. We are hearing the same things from the airlines. As a result, a couple of the airlines have increased the seats from some key markets.
MMA: Return of increased, nonstop service from major U.S. market—what does this mean for the island?
FL: A couple of airlines have increases seats from some of the markets. Some airlines have increased size of aircraft. Florida is a key market; New York and New Jersey are also seeing good growth.
The airlines have been cutting flights pretty regularly. For The Bahamas, they haven’t really touched schedules until maybe 60 days out because they didn’t know when things would rebound. But what we’ve seen for March and going forward is that they’ve cut all they’re going to cut and are starting to add back. We have nonstop service from 22 markets. Our proximity to the U.S. is a huge advantage. We’ve lost a lot of frequency, but markets are still represented. You might not get nonstop every day of the week, but you might 2-3 days of the week you can with maybe one connection back. They want to get as many people flying again as they can so they want to add back service as quickly as they can.
MMA: What can travel advisors tell their clients about the safety at these properties?
FL: Emphatically that it’s as safe as any destination in the world, if not safer, certainly in the U.S. Safety has been the number-one priority. The Ministry of Health has been focused on the protocols with the Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry of Health trumps everyone as far as what the restrictions are going to be. It’s a safe destination. It’s the kind of trip…all the research I’ve seen shows that beach vacations, being outdoors, is what folks are looking for. They’re not that excited about city trips. The Bahamas offers all that—the outdoors, the beaches. All the protocols that are in place, even a number of hotels, have taken it one stop forward—should be a message to agents that this is as safe as they can think about. Visitor safety is the number-one priority and not impacting…they’re there to have a good time and have fun.
The Ministry of Tourism also has a program called Clean and Pristine, where you’ll see a medallion on the hotels that have gone through that protocol and meet all the standards set out by the CDC and WHO, and they’re certified every year. They just went through another round of that certification for 2021. There are hand sanitizers everywhere.
MMA: Can you tell us a little bit about how you see the role of the travel advisor for The Bahamas in this COVID era?
FL: They need to understand the protocols, and what’s different in each destination is a huge service they can provide. If someone is pondering where to go, the biggest question is: ‘What do I have to do to get there? What are those safety things?’ My guess is that’s the top question their clients would have to them. Is it safe…tell me what it’s like…what is my experience going to be. We try to provide all of that on our website. My suggestion would be to educate themselves on the restrictions. You have to do the same thing from everywhere going back. But the difference is, hotels are doing it, it’s being included, you can do it everywhere, so we made it very convenient. Hopefully that’s something that sets us apart from other destinations.
MMA: What tips or advice would you give to a travel advisor who has a client interested in a trip to Nassau now?
FL: Carefully looking at the protocols, make sure you get your test exactly five days before you’re going so you have as much time on the travel visa. They do say allow up to 72 hrs. as we get busier it may approach that. If you’re going five days out and day of counts as 0…do it that day. Go to a lab or service that is same day or next day results. That’s the most important thing as they’re going that I would suggest. Get the test right on the button on that day so you’re not pressed on the backend.
For the activities, recommend to your clients to make those bookings through the hotel. Then the hotel knows they’re with an activity that’s been certified, as well as the transportation company.
One more thing is that hotel employees and a lot of these attractions are tested almost every week. Not only for guests, but they can be sure that people they’re going to come in contact with have been tested. They’re tested frequently to ensure on both ends that they’re getting a safe environment.
For a listing of attractions that are open, as well as protocols for all the hotels, the travel visa and everything you need when planning your clients’ trips., visit nassauparadiseisland.com.