By Gemma Handy
Guest numbers may be down but spirits are high as tour operators slowly get back to work after several months off the water.
Wadadli Cats and Creole Antigua Tours were among those to return to the open seas this week – albeit with limited passengers and strict coronavirus safety measures in place.
And while they admit that sparse tourists – and many locals’ reduced spending power – are not yet translating to profits, most say they are happy to be back in action.
“It’s a bit daunting because it’s so quiet but we’re trying to be optimistic and keep everyone motivated,” said Wadadli Cats owner Xabier Ross, who has been forced to sever several of his erstwhile 29 staff.
Social distancing requirements mean he is allowed a maximum of 40 guests aboard his catamaran which has a capacity of 80.
“But honestly if we get 40, I will be more than happy,” he told Observer. “Our first trip back out on Wednesday had 18 people on board which is a good start.”
The company has retained 14 employees and Ross says he is hopeful that business will see a surge next month.
“We are giving it our best push forward and offering private trips too. We have all our protocols in place and, while it’s unsettling, we are trying to keep the faith,” Ross added.
Glen Hector, of Creole Antigua Tours, said it was a “great feeling” to see his speed boat out on the water for its popular snorkel tour on Tuesday for the first time since March 19.
Maximum passenger numbers for both the fast boat and his larger catamaran have been slashed by a third and parties must sit separately to reduce the risk of contagion.
“Guests have to wear facemasks in the harbour but it’s not mandatory on the open water, although I am ensuring all my staff wear masks,” Hector explained.
“And instead of guests lining up for food when we get to Bird Island the crew are serving them at the table.”
Hector said the inspection process by the Central Board of Health’s team was efficient and straightforward.
“The most important thing is making sure people wash and sanitise their hands. Throughout the day, we also have to thoroughly clean all surfaces such as railings that people come into contact with,” he explained.
The company had already ordered hand-held thermometer guns and the temperature of each passenger is taken when embarking.
“We are not yet making any money because guest numbers are so low but after four months without any action it felt good to get back out. My crew were very, very happy to return to work,” Hector continued.
Three of his five workers remain furloughed and while bookings are nominal, the overall picture is “encouraging”.
“I am hoping that we will see more activity when the British Airways flight returns next month but I don’t expect to make a profit until next year,” he added.
Eli Fuller, of Adventure Antigua which resumed tours a month ago, estimates a significant proportion of the sector’s former 500 workers have been laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He has been forced to terminate four of his 12 staff. Some have chosen not to return due to unease about possible contraction of the virus.
While the company has seen a jump in the number of private charters booked, financial problems are exacerbated by payments still outstanding from tours carried out earlier in the year when the virus first took hold.
Adventure Antigua keeps a log of passengers’ names in the event that contact tracing is needed. Fuller has also cut the volume of passengers on his boats by 25 percent and all guests are required to wear facemasks while on board.
“From the start it has been our policy to assume everybody coming on our tours could have the coronavirus. With that mentality we are able to protect ourselves and our guests accordingly,” he explained.
“Wearing masks all day isn’t pleasurable to say the least but it is a requirement and they have agreed to it,” Fuller said, adding, “We are doing the best we can to minimise risk while acknowledging that the alternative is bankruptcy and a whole lot worse.”
By Gemma Handy