Cruise ships in Nassau Harbour. (Photo: Jeff Carmel)

No-one yet knows whether the industrial heart of the Bahamas can bounce back from what was probably the worst hurricane in its recorded history.

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.

Bahamian sky at sunset. (Photo: Jeff Carmel)
Bahamian sky at sunset. “The Land of Perpetual June” according to an early explorer (Photo: Jeff Carmel)

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.

junkanoo
Economic quick fixes don’t work in the long run. Relying on cultural attractions alone, such as the annual Junkanoo Festival, is not enough. Tourism – economic development – needs to be far more diverse, long-term and sustainable. (Photo: Bahamas Tourism)

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.”

Freeport Harbour Company. How many tourists actually spend the night on Bahamian soil? What’s in it for the locals? (Photo: Freeport Harbour Company)

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.

Exploring underwater Exuma (Photo: Jeff Carmel)

Heritage attractions

In any case, 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.”

 

Bird counting in Grand Bahama
Bird counting in Grand Bahama (Photo Peter Hulm)

 

Alternatives

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.

Tourism currently accounts for 60 per cent of the GDP and employs half the labour force. Conch sellers, such as this one in Nassau harbour, supply both residents and restaurants. However, the impact of climate crisis, notably a rise in the number (and harshness) of hurricanes, is proving a severe threat to livelihoods and sustainability. (Photo: Jeff Carmel)

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).

Blind spots

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.

Blake Alphonso Higgs (1915 in Matthew Town, Inagua, Bahamas – 1986), better known as “Blind Blake”, was the best-known performer of goombay/calypso in the Bahamas from the 1930s to the 1960s. (Photo courtesy: Folk Cloud)

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. 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.

Links

Grand Bahama’s future Cruise tourism contribution to economies

Vision 2040

Grenada National Export Strategy 2006

Living Oceans Foundation report on student views of mangrove awareness program (July 2019)

Updates

16 September 2019. Haitians fear deportation from Bahamas after storm disaster. ‘Haitians are pretty much in hiding in the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian.’ The New Humanitarian. (LINK)

 14 September 2019

Hurricane Dorian was ‘category hell’

Secretary-General’s remarks at press encounter after his visit to Abaco Island.  “I must say was horrified. I’ve never seen such a level of systematic devastation. Hurric’ane Dorian has been classified as category five. I think it’s category hell.”

“One of the possible forms of support the UN has been working on and studying and proposing is exactly the possibility to swap part of debt into investments in resilience and reconstruction.” Ignore the typo in the UN summary that speaks of depth rather than debt. It shows how little many officials understand of the financial jargon used (LINK). For some concrete proposals and an explanation of how debt restructuring could work, see this report from the UN Trade Forum by St Lucia (LINK to PDF)

How Bahamians have covered Dorian. Columbia Journalism Review (LINK)

Dorian has demanded media attention, but it has been a devilishly tricky story to cover. Columbia Journalism Review (LINK)

13 September 2019: UN Secretary-General’s remarks during joint press encounter with the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. (LINK)

UN Secretary-General’s remarks at press encounter outside shelter for Hurricane Dorian evacuees. (LINK)

Secretary-General’s remarks to the press outside the NEMA Emergency Operations Centre. (LINK)

5 September 2019: Blockchain company promises to match aid donations. PO8, a blockchain company headquartered in Marsh Harbor, Abaco – perhaps the worst hit island by Hurricane Dorian – announced it has set up a relief fund pledging that for every dollar worth of crypto donation, PO8 will match it 100%. All donations will be made to the BBHDRF a multi-signature digital wallet managed partly by the Administrator of Freeport Grand Bahama and the Bahamas Rotary Clubs. PO8’s blockchain platform aims to democratize access to marine archeological artifacts by establishing their provenance and preventing their sale.(LINK)

5 September 2019: Royal Caribbean CEO: Cruise ships to bring tens of thousands of meals to Grand Bahama. Fox News. (LINK)

4 September 2019: Analysis Finds US Corporate Media ‘Failing to Connect Climate Crisis to Strongest Atlantic Storm Ever to Hit Land’. Common Dreams. (LINK)

4 September 2019: Bahamas: As first pictures of devastation emerge, Red Cross issues urgent appeal for funds. Initial aerial assessments released overnight confirm widespread devastation to the islands. According to national and regional authorities, it is estimated that approximately 76,000 people – the vast majority of residents on the two islands – have been affected. The most vulnerable group may include some of an estimated 4,400 children under 15, as well as approximately 1,600 older people. The IFRC appeal is seeking about 3.2 million Swiss francs (US$ 3.2 million). It focuses primarily on providing short- and mid-term shelter assistance to families, as well as replacing lost and necessary household goods such as lamps, cell phone chargers and tarpaulins. Red Cross volunteers and staff will also distribute hot meals and food rations to people who may have gone without food in days, before shifting their focus to distributing cash grants. This approach gives people the agency to make their own decisions about what they need, and helps inject cash into local economies. 

Other interventions include health, psychological support, water, sanitation and hygiene, and activities designed to prevent and respond to violence against vulnerable groups, including sexual and gender-based violence.

IFRC has already released 500,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to ensure an immediate supply of cash for the response teams on the ground.

3 September 2019: Dorian’s horrific eyewall slammed Grand Bahama Island for 40 hours straight. For 15 of those 40 hours, Dorian was a Category 5 hurricane — the slowest-moving Category 5 storm on record in the North Atlantic Basin.  According to Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane specialist and researcher at Colorado State University, Dorian was the strongest Atlantic storm on record to venture so far north. It also tied for the dubious title of strongest hurricane wind speed at landfall in the North Atlantic Ocean Basin since records began in the late 1800s. Upon reviewing radar data, it appears that Pelican Point, a small community on the eastern side of the island, experienced a continuous 25 hours and 22 minutes (give or take a few minutes) in the eyewall. Early Monday monring, Pelican Point then saw a lull of about eight hours, during which point it was nestled in Dorian’s eye. Freeport, a community of about 27,000, narrowly missed the worst of the winds in the inner eyewall. However, continuous onshore 100 mph winds stubbornly pushed an extreme surge ashore, probably causing significant damage in the popular vacation destination. Washington Post.  (LINK)

24 August 2019: Son of senior Cabinet Minister fired from shipping company… $1.3 million vanishes from the shipping company on Grand Bahama. Bahamas Press. (LINK)

22 August 2019: Minnis government in Crisis! Powercuts, Money Shortage, Union Unrest! Over a nine month period during the last fiscal year, the FNM government borrowed money four times and extended the overdraft facility at Royal Bank three times just to meet the public payroll. The government’s overdraft is now up to $102 million and Royal Bank has cut the FNM government off- refusing to give them one penny more.  Bahamas Press. (LINK)

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)

28 March 2019: In the age of the tourism backlash, we need ‘destination stewards’.  April Rinne. (LINK)

Others

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” — 

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