I stayed at Baha Mar’s ‘resort bubble’ in the Bahamas — this is what it was like
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Since the initial, near-total shutdown of travel when the coronavirus pandemic first broke out in early 2020, hotels and resorts everywhere have attempted to achieve a “new normal.” Every brand has looked for ways to convince would-be guests that their properties are safe, despite the ongoing health crisis.
As parts of the world began reopening to travelers, hotels have had to put systems in place to help keep guests safe, healthy and, perhaps more importantly, make them feel safe.
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Hotels around the globe quickly adopted heightened cleanliness and sanitization protocols, enacted mask mandates and retrofitted their properties with social-distancing reminders and hand sanitizer galore.
The pandemic has dragged on longer than most people thought it would, and resorts in typically packed tourist hubs are hurting for business. And as a result, some have gone all-in on creating safe environments for vacationers, namely through strict COVID-19 testing regimens.
This, of course, dovetails with government-mandated testing to enter most countries, as well as a new policy from the U.S. government requiring all international travelers — citizens included — to present a negative COVID-19 test before entering.
The announcement of the new U.S. rules set off a firestorm of resorts — many in the Caribbean and Mexico — implementing plans to provide on-site COVID-19 tests so guests can comply with the new regulations.
Some resorts, like Baha Mar in the Bahamas, which I just returned from, have especially robust systems in place to create as safe an environment as possible for guests.
Baha Mar, home to some 2,000+ hotel rooms across four resorts, dozens of restaurants, casinos and more, relies heavily on U.S.-based travelers to sustain its business. As such, the resort designed a system of COVID-19 testing to create something of a “resort bubble” aimed to keep infections on the islands of the Bahamas at a minimum, keep guests healthy and entice pandemic-weary travelers to its massive complex of fun in the sun.
When we decided to experience the U.S.’ new testing requirement for ourselves, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to experience Baha Mar’s “bubble” simultaneously. Read on for what this system was like.
Pre-departure steps to complete
The Bahamas requires all incoming travelers over the age of 10 (flight crews are exempt) to present proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken within five days of departure, which should allow you enough time to find a facility offering PCR tests in your hometown.
Once you receive your negative result, you can apply for the Bahamas Travel Health Visa. You will provide details about your stay in the country, including duration and accommodations. You’ll also need to upload your negative PCR test results to the application portal to begin processing. It could take up to 72 hours to get approved, so submit your application as soon as you receive your negative test result.
Once your application is processed, you’ll be required to pay for the required COVID-19 insurance that will cover medical expenses incurred while in the Bahamas. This costs between $40 and $60 depending on the duration of your stay.
My trip came together at the very last minute and I submitted my application a little less than 48 hours prior to departure. I was worried when it still wasn’t approved with less than 24 hours to go until I was due to get on my flight. I decided to call the number listed on the application page. I explained my situation to the agent and, to my delight, my application was approved while we were on the phone.
I was prompted to pay for my insurance ($40 in my case since I was only staying two nights) and I received a confirmation page with a QR code that would — along with my test results — be my ticket into the Bahamas.
I recommend printing out at least a few copies of both your approved Bahamas Travel Health Visa with the QR code as well as your negative PCR test results, as I was asked to present them at multiple points throughout my journey.
Test when you arrive
As soon as you arrive at Baha Mar (only the Grand Hyatt is open at this point, though the other properties, the SLS and Rosewood, are due to reopen soon), you’ll undergo a quick screening that includes sanitizing your hands and having your temperature checked.
Next, you’ll be directed immediately to the property’s on-site COVID-19 testing facility, housed in the hotel’s Grand Club executive lounge.
All guests arriving at Baha Mar are required to take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test before they’re free to move around the resort. This test is free of charge, and if you’re staying more than four nights, you’ll be required to take another rapid test on the fifth day.
I was the only guest getting tested when I arrived and was seen right away after filling out a bit of paperwork.
The technician asked me if I had a history of nosebleeds or if I was taking any medications like aspirin or blood thinners, and then asked me to blow my nose into a tissue.
Then, I received the test. It took about 10 seconds in total and was mildly uncomfortable, but no big deal.
I was told I would receive my test results via email in 30 to 60 minutes and was escorted by a staff member back to the lobby to complete my check-in process.
After I received my rapid test, I was taken to the front desk where I completed check-in formalities.
The check-in agent then explained the next steps in the process. I would be escorted to my room where I’d wait for my test results “in quarantine.” She explained that my results would show up in my Bahamas Travel Health Visa as well as in my email inbox. The hotel would also receive the results of my test, and if it came back negative they’d bring the room key to me and I would be free to go about my day.
By the time I got situated in my room, put my various devices on their respective chargers and did a ceremonial “faceplant” on the king-size bed, there was a knock on the door and a staff member was outside presenting me with my room key (which is a waterproof wrist band at this hotel).
I never received an email with my test results — nor were they present in my health visa profile — but apparently, the hotel received a negative result. I didn’t think much of it at the time and chalked it up to technology misbehaving.
The wrist band was my ticket out of my room — and also acted as a room key. Additionally, any purchases you make on the property are charged to your room simply by tapping the wrist band against the tablets carried by waitstaff and bartenders. I found the whole process to be seamless and loved not having the traditional plastic key, which can easily deactivate when they’re near a smartphone in your pocket or bag.
Test before you leave
With the introduction of a new testing requirement to enter the U.S. from abroad, which went into effect yesterday, Jan. 26, hotels across the Caribbean and Mexico have acted quickly to provide on-site tests for guests so they can comply with the new rules and still visit these vacation destinations. Baha Mar has offered on-site testing to all guests (for a fee) for anyone requiring a test to reenter their home country.
The U.S. requires a negative result from either a rapid antigen or PCR test taken no more than three days before arrival into the country, and since I took a test in Miami the previous Thursday, I needed to get tested again.
Before I checked in, I received an email prompting me to sign up for an appointment through an online portal. But, when I went to schedule my test for Monday — the day before my departure from the Bahamas — no appointments were available.
Fortunately, my anxiety went away when I inquired about receiving another test while I was at the medical center to receive my required arrival rapid test. The staff member told me I could come back at any time as they weren’t busy and operate 24 hours a day. I told her I’d be back the next day.
As promised, I returned to the testing facility around 12:30 p.m. on Monday, about 24 hours before I was scheduled to depart. Baha Mar offers rapid antigen tests for about $17 with results expected to be turned around in an hour or less, or PCR tests for $134 with results quoted to come in around six hours.
I opted for the PCR test in the name of being extra cautious (they’re known to be more accurate than rapid tests) and found myself in the same chair I’d been in just a day before after I completed another questionnaire.
Like with my earlier rapid test, the technician asked me a few quick questions and swabbed my right nostril for no more than 10 seconds. My eyes teared up, to be sure, but it was a painless procedure.
However, there was a snafu. When I took the PCR test at around noon on Monday, I was told I would receive results by email in about six hours, which matches the information found in Baha Mar’s handbook explaining its COVID-19 policies.
After dinner that evening — around 9 p.m. — I still hadn’t received my results. I figured it was a weird quirk of technology since I had an issue the day before with results not being emailed to me or showing up in my health visa profile. So, I decided to visit the testing center to see whether they had my results.
The technician I spoke to after dinner told me the results from the PCR test wouldn’t come for about 24 hours, which was affirmed by her colleague who was also working at the time. I explained how all the literature gives an estimate of about six hours and that I had been quoted that timeframe earlier in the day, but they both told me that was incorrect and it would be around 24 hours for those results to come back.
A 24-hour turnaround time for the test I took around noon wouldn’t cut it with the timing of my flight home, so I decided to take a rapid test to be safe. I paid the $17 fee and was told I’d receive results by email in about 30 minutes to an hour, though at this point I was skeptical.
I did end up receiving my negative result via email about 45 minutes after taking the rapid test, and fortunately, the U.S. rule accepts rapid tests for entry, so in the end, I was fine to return home. And then, as luck would have it, I received the results of my PCR test about a half-hour after that, so I now had two negative results.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, but I do think the hotel and the local healthcare provider need to get on the same page and amend the six-hour turnaround quote for PCR tests if results won’t come in that timeframe.
Since the U.S. permits you to present results from a test taken within three days of departing, what happened in my situation would likely not be an issue for most people, but with my very quick trip, it could have sunk my plans to go home.
Baha Mar’s “bubble” system is a great idea, and the testing itself is easy and mostly painless. It did actually help me feel safer, given how frequently I — and other guests — were getting tested. And for most people, 24-hour turnaround times on PCR tests are totally acceptable, though the hotel needs to reconsider the turnaround timeframes it’s quoting, or at least get all the employees on the same page so guests don’t get the wrong information, given how important it is for getting back home.
A test came back positive. What happens next?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to experience this scenario first-hand. But, if you were to test positive while on property, Baha Mar has a plan in place.
Guests who receive a positive rapid test will be visited in their room by medical personnel for a follow-up PCR test. While waiting for this result, which could take about six hours, guests need to isolate in their rooms.
If you receive a second positive result from the PCR test, you’ll need to quarantine — and foot the bill for that isolation period.
The mandatory health insurance you purchase before visiting the Bahamas covers up to $50,000 in COVID-19-related medical expenses incurred on the islands, as well as up to $7,000 in quarantine-related expenses, if necessary (up to $500 per day). This seems like a bargain for the $40 to $60 fee, which I paid when my travel health visa was approved.
If you do decide to travel abroad, you should consider setting aside money should you need to quarantine at your own expense or purchase insurance coverage that will cover you in the event you test positive for COVID-19 outside the U.S.
Despite the minor testing mixup at the resort, I’m encouraged by how things went on my brief trip to the Bahamas.
Baha Mar has a robust system in place that — if nothing else — made me feel safer. That, combined with reduced capacity at the hotel and a number of other safety measures shows that it is still possible to travel if you feel comfortable doing so and are prepared to comply with the rules and regulations of specific countries and individual properties.
I was unsure how I would feel about traveling somewhere out of the country that has such a strict COVID-19 protocol in place. But practically as soon as I arrived, I felt excited to be out of the United States again after such a long time. And, by the time I left, I was ready to book another stay for the not-too-distant future.
Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy
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