By Alison Lowe
Nassau Guardian Business Editor
NASSAU, Bahamas -- The head of Atlantis has expressed anxiety over the level of airlift coming into the country from The Bahamas’ major source market ahead of the opening of Baha Mar, after official figures obtained show that such airlift into Nassau declined by 8.5 percent in the four years between 2010 and 2013.
George Markantonis, president and managing director of Atlantis, told Guardian Business that the number of seats coming into Nassau is presently “not adequate” to support both resorts, despite a slight uptick of 3.4 percent in the numbers in 2014.
However, other key stakeholders, including the head of the Nassau Airport Development Company and the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), were more circumspect about the decline in recent years and expressed optimism sufficient airlift will be in place when Baha Mar opens in December.
US Department of Transportation data obtained by Guardian Business shows that in 2010 a total of 1.56 million seats entered Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) on 14,692 flights departing the U.S. In 2011, this figure fell by 10.2 percent to 1.4 million seats arriving on 12,715 flights. In 2012, the situation improved: Nassau was able to eclipse the 2010 seat figure as the level rose by 11.8 percent over the previous year to 1.56 million. These seats came in on 14,499 flights.
In 2013, the picture again turned gloomier, with seats falling by 8.9 percent to 1.42 million, arriving on 13,754 flights departing the US.
For the year to date, up to July, seats coming into LPIA from North America rose by 3.4 percent to 930,933 as compared with 900,191 in the same period last year.
The fall revealed over the past four years has come despite ongoing efforts by the ministry of tourism, its hotel partners and the airport to increase the number of flights coming into the country from the main tourism source market of North America.
Asked to comment on the data, Markantonis said: “If indeed we have had seat slippage over the last four years from our main source market, then we are obviously concerned. Certainly we have been making a lot of efforts from the promotion board side and in conjunction with the ministry of tourism to increase our airlift and particularly now that we have a new state-of-the-art airport, but I don’t think we have adequate airlift to handle the new property coming on stream, at least not as yet. Hopefully measures are being implemented to remedy that.”
In addition to not representing all of the airlift coming into the country, given that the figures relate solely to the North American market, the US Department of Transportation data also does not indicate how many of the seats were sold/occupied.
However, it does come on top of declines recorded in airlift from at least one other source market – the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Stuart Bowe, president of the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), revealed that visitor arrivals from the UK had fallen by 40 percent in the six years leading up to 2013.
In 2007, stopover visitor arrival figures from the UK were 40,261, which have declined to 23,979 in 2013.
Contacted for comment on Friday, Baha Mar senior vice president of administration and external affairs Robert Sands did not return messages up to press time.
However, Vernice Walkine, chief executive officer of Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD), downplayed the figures, suggesting there is little cause for concern that adequate airlift will be in place when Baha Mar opens.
“The key stakeholders (Ministry of Tourism, Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board and Nassau Airport Development Company) have formed an airlift strategic group to determine best options to meet the needs of the destination. The strategy to secure seats for Baha Mar is well-developed and there will soon be announcements of additional capacity to meet the demands of the incremental rooms at Baha Mar. The seats will not precede the demand and the demand comes with the opening of the rooms.”
Walkine said it is not unusual to see a decline in the number of seats from time to time, as airlines regularly “rationalize” seats according to demand.
“This simply means that they up-gauge or down-gauge according to demand. They swap out aircraft during key peaks and valleys according to maximum utilization. The load factors on all major routes into Nassau are very high, meaning that the airlines get good yields on those routes,” she said.
Whether or not there will be enough airlift also depends on the level of demand for flights into The Bahamas. This in turn relates to how many rooms are available to be purchased and the level of interest in buying them.
Markantonis, on Atlantis’ part, said that he expects the hotel’s recent signing with Marriott International, which will see Atlantis join its “Autograph Collection” come September, to increase demand for the Paradise Island resort beyond what currently exists. As a result of the signing, Atlantis will be accessible via Marriott’s booking systems and visitors can earn and redeem loyalty program points by staying at the resort, which is expected to create an additional incentive for visitors to book stays.
“The combination of Baha Mar opening and the Marriott deal with Atlantis suddenly puts extra urgency on the situation. If our arrangement with Autograph and Marriott does attract a whole new segment of customers, then again it becomes critical that we have adequate airlift for them; they have to be able to get here,” said Markantonis.
At Baha Mar, the amount of demand and airlift needed will depend on how many rooms are operational. Some have questioned how many rooms will be marketed as available for reservations in December 2014, given the current status of construction and outfitting at the resort.
Sands, in an interview with Guardian Business last week, declined to comment when asked exactly to what extent the resort will be fully operational come December’s opening.
“I think we are very clear we are working towards a December opening,” said Sands, repeating this comment when pressed on what proportion of the resort’s 2,200 rooms will be opening at this time.
BHTA President Stuart Bowe, commenting on the US data on Friday, said his organization is “well aware” that there was a decline in the number of seats coming into The Bahamas in 2013.
Noting that the industry, in collaboration with the Nassau Airport Development Company, the ministry of tourism and the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board, commenced efforts in 2012 to attract new airlift to restore what had been lost and to build traffic to support the additional lift needed because of Baha Mar and other tourism developments, Sands said that this has resulted in a number of successes.
“To date this year we’ve successfully been able to attract new airlift from Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Jet Blue and Delta. Sunwing flights are coming into Grand Bahama. Bahamasair added direct lift from stateside destinations recently. As all of these announced flights come on stream throughout the year, we will see an uptick in airlift to the destination.
Bowe added that discussions are continuing with existing carriers, potential new carriers and with charter operators to “attract more needed airlift” in anticipation of Baha Mar’s opening.
Republished with permission of the Nassau Guardian