Everyone wants a little sun, sand, and sea, and The Bahamas is one of the first destinations that come to mind when people think about tropical getaways. Just a 45-minute flight from Miami, it is a popular destination for Americans. With an economy that relies heavily on tourism, The Bahamas has been put in a difficult situation since the COVID-19 crisis started. The balance of public health and the economy has not been easy to manage and every decision has drawn criticism. It is now on the receiving end of outrage from people who are currently unable to enter the country.
No one expected The Bahamas to close its borders. When COVID-19 first made its appearance, the country quickly drafted and passed emergency orders to enable the competent authority to put restrictions in place in the interest of public health. Residents endured months of lockdown and curfew cycles. They were further restricted by the inability to travel in and out of the country which was announced on March 27. Dining out, worship services, exercise outside of neighborhoods, time on the beach, and visits to parks were all prohibited. While it was uncomfortable, the Bahamian people and residents complied, and this resulted in the flattening of the curve.
In June, the spread of the virus slowed considerably and the prime minister announced that the borders would reopen on July 1. For Bahamians, this was difficult to accept. They recognized that the economy and the people employed in the tourism industry suffered greatly, but also understood the risk of opening the borders. It was announced that visitors would have to be tested for COVID-19 up to ten days before entry and present their negative results, but this did not seem like enough. Bahamians traveling outside the country would be allowed to return within a 72 hour period without taking a COVID-19 test. This, too, seemed insufficient. Government actors, however, were confident that this was the best course of action.
By July 7, COVID-19 cases were on the rise again. As the number increased, people panicked, questioned the decision to open the borders, and anxiously awaited the announcement that came on July 20. The prime minister stated that the borders would be closed to commercial flights except those departing from Canada, UK, and EU countries. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a way to continue to get heads in beds. Residents have been critical of this move, but none more scathing or disrespectful in their responses than potential tourists who took to social media to address the situation. Their posts reminded Bahamians that they need American money. Some even suggested that aid should be withheld if and when the country experiences another devastating hurricane.
It is clear that many people do not think about the Black people living in tourist destinations as human beings, existing beyond the perceptions of them as servants. They drive taxis, clean rooms, serve drinks, deal cards, open doors, smile, and answer questions. Most of them do this on shifts making it almost impossible to get sufficient rest, consistently care for their families, or enjoy even a slice of the paradise they participate in creating and presenting every day. They go home to sleeping children, exhausted spouses, ailing parents, mounting housework, missed calls from family members and friends, and bills that need to be paid. Those with comorbidities are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but they are on the frontlines, in service to tourists. While their jobs are designed to make them invisible while highlighting the experience they offer, they are real people with full lives. They are allowed to be concerned about their own health and that of their loved ones, and the Government of The Bahamas is responsible for protecting the human rights of citizens and residents at all times, and preserving public health by taking necessary measures in the midst of this pandemic.
It is a privilege to travel to The Bahamas. It is a beautiful country. From Arawak Cay where even the preparation of fresh conch salad is a performance to Craft Cottage where every visitor becomes family by the time they find the perfect pair of sea glass earrings, the days go by quickly, full of moments that beg to be shared on social media. All the while, these experiences are created and curated by Bahamians–real people with real lives and the right to health and safety. Their lives are far more important than a vacation, and they should not have to choose between tips, however generous, and public health. The ocean will be as clear, the hosts as welcoming, the weather as warm, and the food as delicious when the restrictions are lifted.
No Bahamian wants the borders to be closed. No Bahamian wants the number one tourist market to be blocked from entering and spending in the country. At the same time, no Bahamian wants to contract COVID-19 or spread it to more vulnerable people. No Bahamian wants to go through another three months of lockdowns and curfews which involve hours and hours of queuing to get inside grocery stores, mass layoffs, and the collapse of social life. Everyone is desperate for something close to normal. Open borders, tourists flying in, hotel occupancies high, tips coming in, bills paid, and freedom to enjoy the simple pleasures of life would be wonderful, but short-lived and followed by another difficult period after affecting people’s health. For this reason, Bahamians largely support the border restriction and need travelers to keep The Bahamas on their list of places to visit, even if it has to be months from now. The closures are more disappointing and life-altering to Bahamians than it is to pleasure-seeking tourists. This is no one’s best case scenario.
Those who are able to travel to The Bahamas must be responsible and respectful to the people who live and work there. The requirements are simple. Practice good hygiene, wear a clean mask in public spaces, and maintain a distance of six feet between people from different households. Those who cannot enter the country at this time can dream a little more, plan a little more, and give it a bit more time. Travel is a tremendous privilege that exposes people to different cultures, and it is important to remember to be responsible, ethical, empathetic travelers. Care for the people you encounter as much as the environment you are in. Your paradise is their workplace, and The Bahamas is keeping it safe for them, and it will be safe for you too, whenever it is safe for you to travel.