By MEGAN REYNOLDS
Tribune Staff Reporter
LINKING the Bahamas to the world and the islands to one another is the key focus for the development of the country's largest industry, Minister of Tourism and Aviation Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said yesterday.
As promotions of the Bahamas in the $5.8 million 2009 Miss Universe pageant showing the islands as a chain of unique islands will be worthless if travel cannot be provided at competitive prices.
The current cost of air travel is so high customers can fly from Miami to Montego Bay, Puerto Rico or Las Vegas for the same price as a ticket to Grand Bahama, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said yesterday, But a new promotion is advertising tickets to Grand Bahama from $19 one-way, and rooms at Our Lucaya are available from just $35 per night.And new aviation routes can bring up to 293,320 more airline passengers to Nassau next year, and 39,520 to Grand Bahama, that is a total of 383,280 more visitors flying into the country.
Plans are in place to reduce the cost of airfares by dropping airport landing and handling fees, and the $400 million renovation of the Lynden Pindling International Airport will make it an efficient centre where people can move easily to the Out Islands, the Minister said.
He added: "It's very important for us to get aggressive in terms of competing with what's out there.
"Affordable accessible air service is absolutely critical.
"Infrastructure is critically important. We have to put the infrastructure in place to make sure that the promotion works. "Imagine Paradise Island without the bridges? If we had to go by boats and the boats only go every six hours?
"Each of the airline flights is like a bridge, and if it was $1 all of a sudden we would all go. On the day we do that I am confident we are going to see some extraordinary changes."
Mr Vanderpool-Wallace is also keen to lower rates of accommodation and travel in the Family Islands to encourage domestic tourism, and he said that will follow when the number of visitors increases.
Tourists visiting Grand Bahama fell by 27.5 per cent last year, and by 24.9 per cent in the Family Islands in 2008, while air arrivals to the Bahamas dropped by 13.8 per cent. Keeping the tourism industry afloat during the recession are the cruise lines which offer affordable package deals from a fast increasing number of ports opening in the United States.
Around 70 per cent of cruises from these ports on the east coast of the US sail exclusively to the Bahamas, and Nassau has around two million cruise passengers dock at its port each year, with 19.9 per cent of visitors to Nassau and Paradise Island arriving by cruise ship.
Mr Vanderpool-Wallace is keen to net the potential revenue presented by these stop-over visitors by developing downtown Nassau and increasing opening hours for shops and restaurants.
He said: "We're not in the business of counting heads, what's most important is stop over visitor numbers.
"The total visitor number is irrelevant because we want to take more about the economy of the Bahamas rather than head count."
However the number of stopover visitors also fell last year and by the end of January had dropped by 63,000, with 33,000 less in the Family Islands and 25,988 fewer in Grand Bahama.
There are no solid projections of visitor numbers for the upcoming winter months because it is still not clear what shape the recession will take, or how long it will last, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said.
In the meanwhile the ministry will continue to work behind the scenes, by opening a 1-800-Bahamas call centre, bringing in film crews to document the different islands, encouraging sports teams of all kinds to compete in the country, and working on reducing energy costs to be more competitive with other destinations in the region.