The hotels of Nassau and Paradise Island in the Bahamas are experiencing a post-COVID boom in business that Joy Jibrilu can only describe as “unusual.”
Tourism in the Bahamas is thriving – total arrivals for 2023 are pacing more than 78.6 per cent better than 2022, and 31.2 per cent better than 2019’s total of more than 7.2 million visitors, says the destination’s tourism authority.
But coming out of the pandemic – now a distant memory for many – the definition of pent-up demand for vacations and, in particular, when it will cool down, is not so clear cut.
“None of the hotels in Nassau [and] Paradise Island could have anticipated this level of demand,” said Jibrilu, CEO of the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board (NPIPB), speaking to PAX at the Board’s international partners conference – its first in three years – last week (June 26-30) at the Baha Mar, a three-hotels-in-one complex in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital, on the island of New Providence.
Since October of last year, it’s been a steady flow of bookings as hotels in the sun-kissed destination report recording-breaking numbers, month after month, Jibrilu said.
“Everybody is looking for that to fall off,” the CEO explained. “It’s either been the best April in 12 years, or the best May in history…it’s really unusual.”
“We were calling it pent-up demand, but it’s just continuing.”
Amid whispers of a possible recession, this can present a challenge as hotels – while basking in much-welcomed business – try and plan out future budgets and growth strategies.
“We have to be mindful of a possible recession, but we’ve been on this trajectory for eight, nine months now, and there’s no sign of it slowing down,” said Jibrilu, who was formally the director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.
“Our average daily rates are holding. Everyone thought, at some point, there would be a levelling of that. And it’s not happening.”
“We're surpassing our record year in 2019, so it makes it very, very challenging to plan for when the bubble will burst.”
Despite the unpredictability of the situation, one could argue it’s a good problem to have – and the Bahamas, which saw 3,480,677 foreign air and sea arrivals from January to April this year already – is putting pieces in place to prepare for a new generation of tourism, which is expected to include thicker crowds.
In the cruising sector – the Bahamas’ lead source market – there’s the reimagined Nassau Cruise Port, which reopened in May following a three-year $300-million (USD) dollar renovation.
Featuring a sixth berth and new terminal building, the revitalized port is now home to a Junkanoo museum (which tells the story of the lively Bahamian national festival), event and entertainment spaces, an amphitheatre, a taxi booking facility, local stores and new food and beverage venues.
It's like a mini city, inclusive of Bahamian arts, history and culture, built with accessibility and convenience in mind.
It’s also a night-and-day transformation (compared to what the port used to look like) with infrastructure upgrades, such as new concrete, making the port’s surface flat and even so cruisers, of all abilities, can easily navigate the space.
(PAX, last week, had an opportunity to tour the new port. Stay tuned for our in-depth report).
The site’s phase one opening comes as Nassau Cruise Port anticipates 4.5 million cruise annual passengers by 2024.
And the port, with fresh gathering spaces, couldn’t have debuted at a better time as the Bahamas, which is made up of nearly 700 coral islands (about 30 of which are inhabited), celebrates 50 years of independence.
Throughout the year, a series of events – in Nassau and beyond – will be held to commemorate the historic event.
Happening in the background of all of this are efforts to build up the Bahamas’ travel and tourism workforce.
The NPIPB, in partnership with the University for Bahamas, recently signed a memorandum of understanding to donate $750,000 in scholarships, over the next five years, for young Bahamians to enter the growing sector.
This adds to a separate donation of $250,000 – in collaboration with other partners – over next five years to the Lyford Cay Foundations, for the same cause.
After all, there will be ongoing opportunities as more hotels open in the Nassau-Paradise Island area.
This December will see the reopening of the historic British Colonial Hilton (once a filming location for James Bond films) in downtown Nassau.
The property has been gutted and refreshed, Jibrilu said, and will return simply as the “British Colonial,” dropping the Hilton name.
Pop star Pharrell Williams is also set to open a new lifestyle and design-forward resort with 400 rooms and suites in one of the towers at Atlantis Paradise Island – called “Somewhere Else” – in 2024.
Unlocking Nassau-Paradise Island
“During the pandemic, we did not lose service from one single market, which is a testament to the strength of Nassau Paradise Island,” Jibrilu told attendees at last week’s conference, which drew tour operators, travel advisors, hoteliers and trade media (PAX exclusively represented Canada).
Select hotels and resorts in Nassau – a hub for history, culture and resorts – are promoted in tandem with properties on Paradise Island, which is connected to Nassau by bridges, via the NPIPB, which supports a network of 18 members.
The idyllic region is not only known for its pristine beaches, snorkeling, diving, boating and fishing, but also for its luxury hotels and weddings and romance scene.
Notable properties in the NPIPB network, in Nassau, include the three high-end hotels within the Baha Mar (Grand Hyatt, SLS and Rosewood), The Ocean Club – A Four Seasons Resort, the historic Graycliff Hotel (also celebrating its 50th anniversary), Margaritaville Beach Resort, Sandals Royal Bahamian and the new Goldwynn Resort & Residences (see our take on this property here).
On Paradise Island, which is just under five kilometres long and roughly 1.5 kilometres wide, there’s the sprawling ocean-themed Atlantis resort, which is known for its coral-pink towers, lagoons, aquatic animals, casino and Aquaventure Waterpark.
PAX, last week, toured all of these properties (stay tuned our detailed round-up).
And to Jibrilu’s point, the bookings at hotels have been consistently strong.
By the end of this year’s first quarter, Nassau and Paradise Island reached a 97 per cent recovery pace compared to pre-COVID levels, the NPIPB says.
Canada’s recovery, in particular, came in at more than 80 per cent during that same period.
“Canada was slower to come back and we felt it keenly. We really did,” Jibrilu told PAX, referring to the market as a “tremendous partner” for the Bahamas.
Air Canada, for one, has been flying to Nassau for 75 years now, which is “huge,” Jibrilu said. The airline, currently, offers flights from Toronto and Montreal.
Similarly, WestJet operates service to Nassau from Toronto, as does Sunwing (from Toronto and Montreal).
“Canadians absolutely adore our family of islands. Many of them come to Nassau as a connector, or to get an authentic experience,” Jibrilu explained.
One way the Bahamas is maintaining its authenticity is though its "People-to-People" program, which pairs visitors with volunteer locals who open their hearts and homes to share their love of these islands.
Homeownership fuelled by Canada’s snowbird market also drives visitation numbers, Jibrilu said.
Meanwhile, Nassau and Paradise Island, over the past six months, has seen a 100 per cent recovery in tourism from the Central and South America markets.
Connecting the West
The destination’s reach is set to expand as Alaska Airlines will launch seasonal service to Lynden Pindling International (NAS) from two west coast destinations, starting in December, operating through April 2024.
The carrier will fly direct from Los Angeles (LAX), four times a week, and will also add flights from Seattle, Washington, three time a week, for the same period.
The new service is expected to attract more visitors from the West, including passengers on connections from Vancouver, B.C.
Jibrilu stressed the essential role travel advisors play in helping clients “understand the destination firsthand,” and for adding that extra layer assurance for when things go awry.
“We’re really seeing the importance of that,” she said.
Travel advisors can enhance their knowledge by completing the Bahamas Specialist Program, which unlocks access to destination maps, fact sheets, photos and video content, FAM trips, booking incentives and rewards.
The platform was recently translated into French (and other languages, such as German and Italian), all of which will launch soon.
Stay tuned as PAX brings you more coverage from Nassau Paradise Island's partners conference in the Bahamas.