Airlift is an immediate concern, says new Bahamas tourism minister

Obie Wilchcombe, shortly after his swearing in, called airlift an “immediate concern”. While cruise arrivals remain strong, improving the number of tourists arriving by air is considered of paramount importance to both the public and private sector. Wilchcombe said the issue of air arrivals has never been properly corrected since the financial downturn.

“We have to ensure that the numbers are back to where they used to be,” he said.

“When Baha Mar opens in 2014, we want to have airlift at its capacity. Our mind-set is we want to get to the point where we don’t have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the visitors, and we are firmly committed to that.”

According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the Bahamas received approximately 1.34 million tourists last year – representing over a 2 percent decline compared to 2010. Don Robinson. the president of Baha Mar, recently told Guardian Business that airlift needs to increase by 30 percent – or 400,000 – by the time the $2.6 billion mega resort opens at the end of 2014.

But air arrivals are crucial to the economy in a broader sense, Wilchcombe added. Long-stay visitors have the luxury of staying in the country for a longer period compared to a cruise passenger. A longer stay translates into more business for hotels and other businesses that directly and indirectly benefit from tourist spend.

Wilchcombe said part of the strategy will be a continued focus on emerging markets.

“We will begin the process immediately, going after new routes and new destinations to fly into The Bahamas,” he said. “We have a good presence in North America, but we want to integrate the South American and Asian markets because we feel like those regions have potential to work here.”

A non-traditional route that has already proven lucrative is Copa Airlines. The direct flight to Panama, flying several times a week, has become a valuable asset to business travelers and visitors.

One of the direct benefits of improving airlift will be additional jobs.

“It’s extremely important considering the high level of unemployment right now [with] the record number of unemployment particularly in Grand Bahama, so immediately we have to cause for more opportunities to be had,” he said. “People want to work, but they’re not going to be able to work unless we create the job opportunities for them.”

He continued, “Tourism has a way of creating a lot of linkages and a lot of other jobs are created because of the tourism industry. So our job is to create that level of opportunity by getting the tourism numbers to a level that we know will cause a spillover and create the opportunities we desire.”

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