By: Betty Vedrine/Bahamas Information Services
After nearly two years of restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bahamians are breathing a sigh of relief, especially those on the Family Islands whose economies have been negatively impacted. During his contribution to the mid-year budget debate, Minister of Agriculture, Marine Resources and Family Island Affairs, Hon. Clay Sweeting, lamented the plight of Family islanders in recent times but said he is optimistic about the future.
“Residents of the Family Islands welcome wholeheartedly the relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions; while it is noted that there are a few restrictions left to be relaxed or discarded, Family islanders can breath a sigh of relief,” he said. “While the communities of Nassau and Grand Bahama were able to gather, open restaurants with outside dining, host events and small businesses were able to slightly rebound after being locked down for such a long period, the same cannot be said for the Family islands.”
He said the government’s recent easing of restrictions in protocols and travel visa requirement meant that Family Island businesses are now able to reopen and people can return to work.
“Small business owners and entrepreneurs at Princess Cays Limited are appreciative of the government’s intervention in ensuring that the Ministry of Tourism stalls that rest directly outside of the Cruise port gates have been reopened with the relaxation of the protocols,” he said. “This means that these people can go to work. Entrepreneurs who are straw vendors, artisans, food vendors and the like are able to make a way for their families again.”
He said that the Minister of Tourism has also agreed to waive the stall fees for vendors on Princess Cay for the next six months. In addition, the relaxation of the COVID protocols also means that cookouts are now permitted. As an important fundraising tool used over the years, especially for those requiring funds for medical procedures, he said this news is greatly appreciated.
“Family islanders struggle on a daily basis with health issues, especially cancers, that seem to be so rampant,” he surmised. “One of the biggest setbacks to a full recovery is access to treatment. Ironically, even the initial treatment is denied if you are unable to meet the down payment requirement even at Princess Margaret Hospital.”
He said that as the government continues to assess the pandemic and continue to roll out and increase vaccinations, he is optimistic that Family Islands will soon be able to return to hosting regattas and other cultural events as well.
“As Minister of Family Island Affairs, I am pleased to see the recent health updates and report on the Family Islands. We are headed in a positive direction as we continue to roll out vaccinations and more accessible testing. These numbers lead the way for us to re-open and re-engage in cultural activities as we also welcome tourists from all walks of life.”
He said that for many years, the islands have relied heavily on the influx of domestic tourists for events such as regattas, homecoming and other festivals, therefore, the impending resurgence of these events is welcome news. In addition, the Minister noted that recently, there has been an uptick in international tourists numbers on the islands.
“The Family Islands have been a sought after destination all through the pandemic,” he said. “Many tourists flew and sailed into our islands to vacation in ‘low risk’ areas and islands with low populations, with more outdoor activities to allow for exploring and vacationing safely. To date, visitor arrivals are steadily increasing. We have seen airlift increase in Family Islands, like Eleuthera, Exuma and even Abaco.
On Eleuthera, vendors with rental cars are sold out for the season. Hotels have been booked since the beginning of February and there is continued growth in the industry.”