By Gemma Handy
One of the country’s longest running resorts is to close its doors this month after plummeting bookings due to travel restrictions in its biggest source markets left it struggling to stay afloat.
Blue Waters’ 134 staff were told of the initial month-long closure starting January 28 at a meeting yesterday.
The award-winning, 116-room luxury complex has been in operation since 1960.
“Plan A was to stay open and try to ride this out as best we could, but it’s out of our control now,” general manager Kevin Phillips told Observer.
“We are heavily dependent on the UK market. For some reason we have not seen as many arrivals from the US this season. We have only seen UK guests, and once the UK lockdown was announced we have not seen one guest from the UK walk through our doors.”
Britain announced its third national lockdown on January 4, with citizens only allowed to leave the country under certain limited circumstances.
Phillips said the hotel’s occupancy rates were just 18 percent for the rest of January, with bookings for next month as low as 11 percent. It’s all the more galling coming in the midst of the traditional tourism peak season.
“We hope the closure will only be for one month but it will depend on restrictions in the UK,” Phillips continued. “We told the union of our decision to close and management called a meeting to notify the employees; they were very understanding of the situation.”
Blue Waters reopened to business on October 1, after a temporary hiatus in line with national lockdowns in Antigua and Barbuda.
Phillips paid tribute to the resort’s “dedicated and hard-working” staff who he said had pulled out all the stops in the last three months to enhance guests’ vacations.
A handful of employees will be retained for maintenance and upkeep of the property, he added.
Chester Hughes, of the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union which represents the country’s hospitality sector, told Observer the union had been invited to meet with the resort’s management. The thorny task of negotiating pay for workers during the closure is set to take place next week, he explained.
Hughes said repercussions from the Covid-19 pandemic were continuing to afflict the nation’s economic mainstay of tourism.
This week, the US became the latest to announce that travellers entering its borders would first need to show evidence of a negative coronavirus test. The move followed similar announcements from Canada and the UK. Together, the three countries comprise Antigua and Barbuda’s main tourism source markets, heightening concerns of the effect on already stretched local testing resources.
Rising infection rates across the world – exacerbated by new, more easily transmissible variants of the virus – have also left many would-be vacationers reluctant to travel.
“Occupancy rates, flight restrictions – it’s all taking a toll on the properties in the country right now. Cancellations are happening left, right and centre – it’s getting bad,” Hughes said.
He continued that it was incumbent on the government to assist affected employees.
“Hopefully the government will step in to help the hospitality workers. I think the state has a responsibility to do that.
“It might mean vouchers, it might mean packages, utilities for a time, some persons might need financial help,” he said.
“The employee has a responsibility, yes, but government must ensure that livelihoods and the social welfare of its citizens are not hampered or destroyed. This is the social fabric of our society.”
Antigua and Barbuda’s once thriving hospitality industry employed more than 4,000 people prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. But closures of a number of hotels, resorts and restaurants have left many out of work, Hughes said.
The full scale of the numbers affected is not yet known with several resorts currently closed but yet to announce concrete plans, leaving their employees’ fates hanging in the balance.