No-one still knows whether the industrial heart of the Bahamas can bounce back from what was probably the worst hurricane in its recorded history, despite local, national and international determination not to allow Dorian to have wiped out a once-prosperous haunt of stars and financiers over three days in September 2019.
But the hurricane clipped some 18% off the Bahamas GDP (wealth per head) and unemployment was estimated at 50% a year after. The future of the international airport seems to be in suspense, with the Chinese owners apparently not willing to put in more of their own money for its rehabilitation. The island of close to 50,000 people has lost its hospital due to flooding. A Samaritan’s Purse field hospital has agreed to continue working there but the defunct hospital is in a flood zone.
You can get some idea of the damage done to the island of 45,000 people from the World Kitchens charity, which had been making some 25,000 meals a day.
First a recap: Dorian sat over Grand Bahama, 90 kms from Florida, for over 40 hours from 8 pm on Sunday 1 September before heading off towards the United States. Winds of up to 350km an hour, rain and storm surges of up to 7m on this low-lying island (highest point 8m above sea-level) made parts of the island “virtually uninhabitable” for the 45,000 population, as a United Nations official put it.
Yet the island, a 90km long strip of narrow land with magnificent beaches and a beautiful sea as well as most of the Bahamas export-earning industry, had been nursing hopes it had turned the corner after nearly 20 years of economic depression resulting from 9/11 and hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, as well as Hurricane Matthew in October 2016
Only on 25 August, the Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis had declared: “Real hope and real help are finally on the way for Grand Bahama. We promised to rescue and to restore Grand Bahama after decades of downturn. Next week, there will be an agreement signed in Grand Bahama, that in a few weeks that will help to begin the island’s turnaround. Real hope and real help are finally on the way for Grand Bahama.”
Today it is confronted with the reality for small island and coastal states identified by UNCTAD’s Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director of the Division on International Trade and Commodities, in a news conference on 3 September: they are on the front line of the climate crisis. “Not only will climate change continue to wipe out trade prospects for many of these countries. It has a significant impact on the very existence of these countries,” she declared.
Ms. Coke-Hamilton said in a statement for the UN Trade Forum opening in Geneva on 9 September: “It is important to provide SIDS [small island developing states] with flexibilities in line with their vulnerability to risks induced by climate change, including strong safeguards which can be triggered after a natural disaster to provide enough policy space for recovery.”
UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which is organizing the one-week forum, points out that SIDS tend to be net food importers or have high trade costs and specialize in goods with little trade.
Grand Bahama had hoped to get back on the circuit for middle-class tourism from the United States, with a deal to reopen its major hotel that closed after Hurricane Matthew and revive the main tourist area known as Lucaya. Earlier in August the government announced a deal with Carnival Cruise Line for a new cruise port in Grand Bahama. All these prospects must now be thrown into question.
Nevertheless, the government’s dreams cannot disguise the economic nightmare facing it, along with other Caribbean countries. Unemployment on Grand Bahama is officially 10 per cent (3,500 job seekers), but the trade unions have been complaining that the economic crisis has led to a plague of casual employment for the local population.
Welcoming the Prime Minister’s promise of “a significant catalyst for economic growth” on the island, the Nassau Guardian newspaper had to admit: “There has been capital flight and high unemployment. Many residents left in search of work wherever they could find it.”
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 the full benefits that are 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, was 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.”
Tourism currently accounts for 60 per cent of the Bahamian 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 the official development strategy. Vision 2040, put it in 2016, the drawbacks include “the absence of quality value-added services and well-formed clusters around the tourist product.”
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.
The cruise-ships might seem the best short-term option for an island feeling desperately stricken. But going for the quickest revenue earner 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.”
There are are alternatives to relying on cruise-ship daytrippers. 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.
The Bahamian government also has more exciting long-term plans for Grand Bahama. It could be 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 — with 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.
But the locals complain the Chinese companies that control the free-tax zone, airport and container port don’t seem interested in expanding its reach. It will also require a change in the mind-set of authorities and the political environment. The Bahamas cannot wait for its students to gear up for the new digital world. It needs businesses with a workforce that is already highly skilled, not people who are still training, and a willingness to provide working permits that until now have been difficult for foreign professionals or entrepreneurs to obtain.
One of the factors that brought the Minnis government into power in an almost clean sweep of Grand Bahama was the short-sightedness of many previous politicians. Vision 2040, an all-party report admitted: “A sea level rise of 1 metre would eliminate 80 per cent of the landmass of the country.” But it was notable for devoting just two of its 17-page environmental section to climate change. This from a country with a proud tradition on 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).
This article is part of Global Geneva’s Focus series on Oceans. Updated 5 September 2019.
Colonial era graveyard. Bahamian are increasingly questioning the myths of their cultural heritage, but are also becoming aware of the need to preserve it, even if only as a part of sustainable tourism in the face of often rampant hotel development projects. (Photo: Jeff Carmel)
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 various worlds – where the privileged few are rich beyond imagining and many other citizens remain on the margins of the industrial economy.
Missing history: Old Nassau and Over-the-Hill
The National Art Gallery’s 9th National Exhibition this year 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.”
The NAGB exhibition, which ran until 2 June, was entitled “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean”. It was described as “a look at the way language–both verbal and visual–has shaped The Bahamas and how we view ourselves. Its website proclaims: “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.”
Contributing editor Peter Hulm has been a consultant for the UN’s Geneva-based International Trade Centre since 1999. He regularly spends part of the year in Grand Bahama.
Updates: see our section at NuseReal (LINK)