Grand Bahama, one of an estimated 700 islands that constitute The Commonwealth of the Bahamas, straddles four universes. But can they ever come together in a harmonious whole?
One represents a futuristic powerhouse of technological knowhow – a techno-hub for the Caribbean economic region; a crypto island for disruptive international business innovation; a leader in stem cell-based medical tourism; luxury condo communities for rich holidaymakers; a free-tax zone covering a large part of the island; and a major container and maintenance port for the whole U.S. seaboard up to Baltimore. This is the universe being promoted by the current (2017) Bahamian government, brought in when the nation’s voters threw out what had come to seem like an old, addled regime.
The second universe is one of Third World decay: massive hotels that are falling to pieces; empty strip malls; a beautiful international bazaar that seems to be coming apart before your eyes and is risky to walk through; a massive cruise-ship styled package-tour hotel the government has been desperately trying to get rid of; a casino that shut after Hurricane Matthew and hasn’t reopened; businesses closing from one day to the next; a conservatively calculated unemployment rate of 11 percent, and a murder rate to beat that of most cities in the United States.
Whenever I’m there, I live in Universe 3: the world of good-food restaurants serving $30 meals (tips included); superb beer; the sandiest long beaches with only a couple of people beside you. My days are spent with environmentally-conscious business folk who enable you to swim with turtles and rays, go birding for gorgeous noisy nosy species (from ruddy turnstones to mockingbirds); explore strange habitats such as the mangroves of Lucayan National Park and blue sinkholes.
Or I can dine on grouper (the best fish in the world according to a much-travelled environmentalist, G. Carleton Ray, or catch bonefish, reputed to be the smartest species to outwit fishing fanatics, and thrown back rather than eaten. If I’m lucky, I can feast on lionfish, a recent scourge of reef life including Florida’s, but now hunted and enjoyed as tasty meat.
And I’m not forgetting the translucent blue sea, huge sky with massive clouds, and dramatic sunsets. “The land of perpetual June”, an early British explorer described it.
The fourth universe is inhabited by cruise ship day-trippers. Sun, sand, and shopping, with culture represented by hair braiders, T-shirts and souvenirs (from China, where else?).
From hurricanes to Chinese investors
Is there any way to bring all these worlds together for their mutual benefit? Not for a decade, so far as I can see. The island has suffered a series of Big Bangs that have exploded the booming world of the 1980s and early 1990s: hurricanes, then 9/11 that made Americans scared to travel, then more hurricanes, then the 2008 financial catastrophe. The only current evidence of the government’s new universe is the container port born out of a deal 70 years ago that now belongs to Chinese investors rather than the Bahamas.
In the meantime, Grand Bahama’s 45,000 population is hurting. Welcoming the Prime Minister’s promise of “a significant catalyst for economic growth” on the island, the Nassau Guardian newspaper on 2 March 2019 had to admit: “There has been capital flight and high unemployment. Many residents left in search of work wherever they could find it.”
This article is part of Global Geneva’s Focus series on Oceans. Updated 12 July 2019.
Pushing for cruise ship tourism, but with a serious downside
The trouble is, the government’s short-term answer is to increase cruise ship traffic: a new port for the Carnival cruise line some eight kilometres from Freeport, the island’s main city. This is expected to help produce jobs for the depressed East End of this 153 km-long limestone protrusion into the Atlantic, shaped somewhat like a geological hammer. At the other extremity, in the formal capital known as West End, the John Travolta region, a luxury building project has now shut off one of the few restaurants for visitors.
Perhaps you can’t blame the government. It needs to do something urgently. But the solution – in common with the same strategy embraced by other Caribbean nations – has a big downside. Carnival will be building the port, presumably for a sweetener from the authorities (the government or the freezone controllers). Shops, tour drivers, taxis, musicians, businesses and restaurants, hair braiders, arts & crafts artisans, souvenir producers and stores – these are businesses that will provide jobs, if Bahamians do their part, suggests the Nassau Guardian.
Which is exactly what the visitors can already get at Port Lucaya in the middle of the island, the long-time heart of the cruise-ship tourist industry.
What is the real meaning of heritage and cultural experience?
It’s hardly what I would consider what Prime Minister Hubert Minnis could have or should have meant when he said: “The development of heritage and culture experiences, programmes and products is essential” to draw more revenue from the 2.97 million people (tourists and crew) who come to the Bahamas islands on cruise ships each year.
In fact, the current arrival rate for day trippers in Grand Bahama itself is 4000-6000 a week. When the Carnival port is ready, i.e. 2020, this should go up to 12,000 daily. The government, on the other hand, estimates: 84,000 a week. But when?
It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of such plans. The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association reports that in 2017-18 the Bahamas was second only to Cozumel, Mexico, in earnings from cruise ships: an average expenditure of $131.95 for each passenger, creating 9,004 jobs. The wage bill was $155.7 million, producing the highest wages in the Caribbean. But total direct expenditures were put at $406m, suggesting wages accounted for just over one-third of the take.
Looking more closely at the overall figures – it’s difficult to separate out each country or destination – we see a decline in onshore visits (to 85 per cent) and a drop in spending from 2014/15 by 2.2 per cent, largely the result of a decrease in tourists’ buying ,watches and jewellery. Spending on taxis and local transportation also went down. However, local craft and souvenir spending went up by 8.3 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.
The real impact of daytrippers: not the most lucrative market as portrayed
The Bahamas had the highest expenditure in the 36-port Caribbean group, mainly because of current port fees and services, which may have something to do with Carnival building its own facilities to escape such charges.
Now, $131 might sound like a respectable earning from a day tripper (though the government’s own figure is $70), but that’s by no means all profit. My favourite swimming spot in Grand Bahama, Paradise Cove, with reasonably priced facilities, refuses to pay the hefty sums demanded by cruise lines for featuring them. So don’t look for it in the cruise ship booths. You have to book online or at the port. If that missing $60 went in fees to the offshore Chinese owners of the main port, it wouldn’t surprise me.
But that’s not my main complaint.
The cruise-ship tourism industry in The Bahamas – with 70 per cent of its passengers from the U.S. – has been losing out to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica. Stopover figures in 2013 were lower than at any time since 1984. Trumpery in Washington since 2016 may have put a brake on Cuban trips by U.S. citizens, but that can’t last forever.
And daytrippers are not the most lucrative end of the market. Cruise ship tourists account, roughly, for only one-fifth of the stopover revenues of $1,878m for the Bahamas. If guests stay overnight, spending per person goes up to $1,381 (16 times as much).
These statistics can’t include people like myself who have bought condos in the Bahamas largely because of its environment and spend up to six months of the year on the islands. Even at the bottom end, we must be putting at least $20,000 a year each into the local economy.
Climate change: not exactly a priority in the government’s Vision 2040 development plan
In April 2016, six months before devastating hurricane Matthew, the Bahamas published its first state of the nation report Vision 2040, the initial stage of a national development plan. The all-party report was notable for devoting just two of its 17-page environmental section to climate change, though it conceded: “A sea level rise of 1 metre would eliminate 80 per cent of the landmass of the country.” Apart from its estimated 700 islands, the commonwealth also consists of 2,400 cays. Overall, water accounts for 95% of its territory, and only 26-30 of its islands are settled by humans.
Nevertheless, The Bahamas has a proud tradition in environmental legislation. It established the world’s first land-sea nature reserve in 1958 and recently gazetted 10 percent of its near-shore environment as a protected area with the addition of 19 new marine protected areas (on 31 August 2015). This is not without its blind spots. The Aga Khan’s dredging of Bell Island, his private fiefdom within the Exumas Park, to create a marina for his yacht led to strong criticism from some environmentalists, but not from the Bahamas National Trust, which received a $1 million donation from him. More recently, Bell Island’s opaque ownership structure by companies with offshore ties has been questioned after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a holiday there (LINK).
An urgent need for other, more sustainable options
Tourism currently accounts for 60 per cent of the GDP and employs half the labour force. But as the plans for Grand Bahama indicate, tourism management seems badly skewed. The main tourism facilities are in the hands of foreign companies. The profits that emerge flow out of the country because the Bahamas has little to offer immediately to foreign direct investment in local businesses. As Vision 2040 put it, the drawbacks include “the absence of quality value-added services and well-formed clusters around the tourist product.”
But there are alternatives.
For example, the islands are a magnet for scientific researchers attracted by the first-class opportunities for study. These are people who return year after year and bring students with them. And they are eager to give back to The Bahamas by educating local young people and tourists.
A man named one of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Young Champions is now promoting the world’s first commercial land-based coral farming company in Freeport. In addition to the restoration facility, Coral Vita offers an eco-tourism attraction and education centre that along with a “swim with dolphins” attraction offers something more than sunbathing for daytrippers (LINK).
After Hurricane Matthew, the ‘green’ nature resorts such as Paradise Cove and Garden of the Groves were up and running a month after the devastation that had wiped out much of the island’s day-tourist appeal (only a third of Port Lucaya’s traditional ‘straw’ market is now operating). But the ‘green’ tourists came anyway. The daytripper cruise ships, on the other hand, reduced their stop-offs, one line even switching a regular vessel to Baltimore to act as a home for workers doing post-hurricane reconstruction up north. A package tour airline abandoned flights for the season, due to the lack of hotel rooms.
Quick revenue: Not the best strategy
The hotels are there in Freeport – even a square tower on the beachfront that was the playground of the Hollywood Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr) and the last home of Howard Hughes – but no-one wants to take them on. Port Lucaya still has one of the top five restaurants in the Caribbean (Flying Fish, usual price around $70 a head) but after Hurricane Matthew in September 2016 the associated hotel was closed to all but rehabilitation workers for several months.
Going for the quickest revenue earner, however, is not the best strategy, as other Caribbean nations have learned. As early as 2006 Grenada called in the U.N.’s International Trade Centre in Geneva for help with a business strategy and learned that instead of daytrippers it should focus on “Heritage Attractions, Cruise, and Marine and Yachting” because the marinas and stayover visitors brought in more money per day.
Jamaica, stuck in “a chronic state of near stagnation since the 1970s”, according to a 2011 report from its planning institute, found the country had export potential in a number of unexpected sectors: education, entertainment, fashion and computer technology (particularly call centres) as well as aquaculture, coffee, mining and agro-processing. Marjorie Kennedy, President of the Jamaica Exporters Association during much of the process, observed: “We realized that there are so many different industries that we hadn’t traditionally thought of as having export potential. This was really a shift in how we had looked at exports.”
Warped cultural perceptions: Bahamians deserve better
The appeal of cruise ships is that the upfront costs can be shifted to someone else, and the appeal of stay-over hotels is that the returns per visitor are much higher: overcrowded Paradise Island, previously known as Hog Island, where the capital Nassau sprawls down to the sea, offers hermetically sealed holidays for middle-class and rich tourists at the Atlantis ocean-themed resort and since 2018 at Baha Mar, a mammoth construction designed to appeal specifically to Asian holidaymakers (and claiming a 98 per cent occupancy rate).
Nevertheless, big hotels with beach access are hardly the panacea they might seem. Bahamians are remarkably tolerant of their heritage being obliterated, while at the same time being proud of their history as Columbus’s first landing in his ‘discovery’ of America and as a settlement for freed African slaves. It is only recently that I have seen a radical questioning of the British colonial myths and stereotyping of Bahamian life in the 20th century. The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) in Nassau presented its 9th National Exhibition under the title “NE9: the Fruit and the Seed”, which challenges these preconceptions with a video tour of “ole Nassau” and its Over-the-Hill (OTH) working-class community.
One of these misconceptions is about beachfront hotels in the Bay Street tourist paradise of Nassau, as analysed by Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett, Associate Professor of Liberal and Fine Arts at the University of The Bahamas. He wrote in the Nassau Guardian on 2 March 2019: “The ocean view locals are accustomed to [are] constantly being swallowed up by new hotels or private homes or office blocks. Our once-easy access to the water is no longer, and in its wake we often see the historic edifices and buildings at its margins being wiped away to make room for yet another luxury space for the privileged.”
He says similar gentrification, rather than community development, has taken place in the British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda as well as Puerto Rico.
But in The Bahamas, with some places less than 100 km from the U.S., the relationship with North America has been quite different, and U.S. expansionism really took off in the early 2000s. “Much of what we see as Bahamian land has never really been owned by The Bahamas. It has always been given or bequeathed to someone else. It is still very much a pirate’s republic or a privateer’s paradise.”
Bahamian education and its national history does not teach its people this aspect of its history, he says, even though the Commonwealth obtained its independence from the United Kingdom more than 40 years ago, on 22 June 1973.
And many would nevertheless dispute his interpretation of Bahamian history. They point out that the only real hotel near the beach on Bay Street is the old British Colonial. The offending buildings were built by local Bahamians, and it is debatable whether outsiders were majority owners of Bahamian land. The argument, however, seemed good enough for the Nassau Guardian.
Bahamians tend to look forward, to the future for a small economy, rather than dwell on the problems of the past. But many Bahamians I have spoken with, aware that their country has a population smaller than Greater Geneva scattered or crammed across 470,000 km2 of ocean, feel frustrated by the lack of contact between its four worlds – leaving the privileged few rich beyond imagining and many other citizens on the margins of the industrial economy.
In the meantime, on Grand Bahama, the economic crisis has led to a plague of casual employment for the local population. Trade Unions sent an eight-page position paper to the Minister for the Grand Bahama in advance of a labour rally on 7 June to argue that widespread short hires without full benefits vouchsafed to full-time workers are the reason for the downturn in the economy and depopulation.
Kirkland Russell, vice-president of the Bahamas Trade Union Congress, is quoted as saying: “The casual workforce phenomenon […] is rampant in Grand Bahama. We believe casual labour is wreaking havoc on the workforce in GB, adversely affecting a person’s ability to get loans, to be protected, and we believe it is a form of union busting.” (LINK)
What’s the answer?
The Government’s long-term solution is not to depend on the volatile tourist market. That’s good. But, as I’ve indicated, there are short-term incentives that could bring the visitors to Grand Bahama and benefit the island better than cruise-ship day trippers.
Self-defensive chauvinism against foreigners in official circles (except towards dubious investors) harms the economy and reduces local employment opportunities more than it helps Bahamians.
All the expatriates I’ve discussed it with speak only of the friendly and egalitarian welcome the local people give to visitors. Yet it’s fantastically difficult bureaucratically to organize environmental research trips for students on a long-term basis, to settle on the islands as a full-time resident (unless you want to put half-a-million dollars into a home), or to set up a business even when you have proven your entrepreneurship talents elsewhere.
Changing the rules and official attitudes to this kind of stimulation to economic activity could make a difference immediately. It could break the island’s dependency on low-skilled jobs.
The government wants to make Grand Bahama a techno-hub. But that’s not likely for a decade unless it imports and welcomes existing businesses with a workforce that is already highly skilled, not still training to become top-ranked performers.
The authorities need to encourage local initiatives that build up its scientific knowledge. It didn’t have a baseline to judge the impact of hurricanes on the island’s crucial fresh water supplies, until a local scientist and students set about it on their own.
As the regular art shows at the Rand Nature Centre indicate, Grand Bahama has a surprising number of creative artists (look on the Web for Sheldon Saint). Promoting the Commonwealth’s painters, sculptors and musicians could be an immense attraction for holidaymakers. It doesn’t have to count on just the carnival show known as junkanoo.
Grand Bahama has its own history, from freed-slave settlements and a hermit hideaway, mine-timber exploitation, Al Capone’s supply chain during U.S. Prohibition, one of the first and earliest successful free-zones of the modern era, a tracking station for the Mercury space flights, and a key location for Pirates of the Caribbean (all documented by development planner/writer Peter Barrett).
Erika Gates at Garden of the Groves is trying to tell these stories in a museum she is creating in a former golf course clubhouse. But the government should have recognized its potential from the beginning — and have stepped in to push it forward with as much speed as it has signed the agreements for a new cruise-ship port and oil terminal.
As the U.S. administration under President Obama learned, nudges (simple indirect incentives) can be even more effective than top-down, all-out regulation in enabling economies to recover and flourish. And they don’t require you to put yourself into hock for years to foreign investors.
Missing history: Old Nassau and Over-the-Hill
The National Art Gallery’s 9th National Exhibition gave space to Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett and artist Jodi Minnis to question our stereotypes about the Bahamian capital in sound and images. (Listen to Blind Blake’s ‘Love Alone’ LINK)
Jodi Minnis speaks of a “romanticized mysticism” about Nassau. With gentrification, she says, “those living in an area are subject to the whims and plans of more powerful outside entities, encroaching on the space until it is no longer viable for the (often marginalized) inhabitants.”
Bethell-Bennett challenges the current view of Over-the-Hill as historically impoverished. “Old Nassau was dependent on Over-the-Hill because that was where tourists went for entertainment. It was also where Bahamian music was alive, prior to desegregation and the hotels taking over the local bands and paying them more than clubs could. The representation of the area as nothing but a ghetto was historically misplaced and inaccurate.”
Minnis adds: “Once a place thriving with Black businesses, nightclubs and hotels, the OTH community now seems to be at a standstill.”
The exhibition includes works by Los Angeles-based April Bey from The Bahamas, among them a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II as “Power Girl” using Chinese knock-off wax fabric and knock-off pearls. “The Queen is depicted with bars of hand-sewn fabric that were purchased in West Africa, and that is marketed as ‘authentic’ African fabric but in reality is just Chinese knock-off fabric sold due to the ‘authentic’ fabrics costing too much for the actual people to afford.”
She also notes: “Hung around her neck is knock-off made-in-China pearls referencing the obscene levels of wealth the crown carries while at the same time alluding to the Chinese hidden wealth through their knock-off industries built on slave wages.”
Natalie Willis of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas points out that Bahamian schools still require students not to wear their natural hair untreated. “Employers still request that their sales clerks not wear natural hair exposed as it will turn off the shoppers. To honestly see Black beauty, one must see it without the occlusions of colonialism. Colonialism is still deeply embedded in most of the formerly colonized world.”
Contributing editor Peter Hulm has been a consultant for the UN’s Geneva-based International Trade Centre since 1999. The NAGB exhibition, which ran until 2 June, was entitled “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” – “a look at the way language–both verbal and visual–has shaped The Bahamas and how we view ourselves. From the way we speak, to the way that we voice our discontent, to the way we envision ourselves as women and as part of the Black Diaspora, ‘Hard Mouth’ is a call to the ‘biggity’ and bold nature of Bahamians and a foray into how this archipelago, around the Tongue of the Ocean itself, finds its voice.”
Living Oceans Foundation report on student views of mangrove awareness program (July 2019)
12 August 2019: Old Bahama Bay project loses another developer. Nassau Guardian. (LINK)
July 2019: The World Economic Forum has published a series of articles online about the crisis in tourism and ways to solve it.
10 July 2019: Our tourism system is broken – time to customize. Robert Govers. (LINK)
17 May 2019: These islands are using tourists to help offset the effects of tourism. Charlotte Edmond. e.g. Faroe Islands. It also includes a graph of the most over-touristed cities in Europe (Nantes? is tops, followed by Athens). (LINK)
20 June 2019: World Ocean Observatory backs six new programmes for climate action, fisheries management, ocean literacy and education, the Arctic, and expanded communications, including a World Ocean Forum (Forum LINK). (announcement LINK)
12 June 2019: Oregon county calls in sustainable tourism advisers. Now task forces will encourage its U.S. coastal visitors to use public transport, steer tourists from overused areas and improve environmental protection. The consultations found “people want investment in infrastructure and protection for sensitive environments” —