Post-Dorian Bahamas reexamines climate-resilient tourism

Nation reports record tourism numbers at Caribbean Travel Marketplace

The multi-billion-dollar Baha Mar project is forecast to represent 12% of The Bahamas GDP in 2020. In January, the property hosted tourism stakeholders from across the region for Caribbean Travel Marketplace. – Photo: Elijah Anatole

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis describes Hurricane Dorian as a watershed moment for the Commonwealth nation.

There is The Bahamas that existed before September 2019, and the nation now, fully aware of its vulnerability to climate change as a developing island state.

The Category 5 storm brought more than 30 hours of devastation to the Abaco Islands and eastern Grand Bahama with winds surpassing 180 miles per hour.

With more than US$4 billion in estimated damages suffered, the costs of reconstruction far surpass the government’s standard annual budget.

But Minnis recognises the impact could have been far worse.

After all, The Bahamas still achieved a record 7.2 million visitors in 2019 – the same year it endured its most powerful storm on record.

“The lessons of Hurricane Dorian have forced us to reconsider a number of matters that we have often ignored or not fully addressed. Dorian has forced us to rethink our global responsibilities as a voice in combating climate change,” Minnis said during remarks at the Caribbean Travel Marketplace, hosted in January at Nassau’s multi-billion dollar resort complex, the Baha Mar.

“Contemplate for a moment what would have happened to our country if Dorian had hit and lingered over New Providence and Paradise Island. … [These islands] account for more than 70% of our population and more than 70% of our GDP but just over 2% of our land mass.

“This concentration of population and GDP is causing us to reconsider ways to diversify our tourism and economic centres.”

With the Baha Mar alone forecast to represent 12% of The Bahamas GDP in 2020, it’s easy to see why the possibility of a Dorian-type event in Nassau provokes anxieties.

The 1,000-acre property, now owned by Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, was more than a decade in the making, bouncing back from bankruptcy, shifts in management and several missed openings.

The oceanfront complex, slated in 2004 for a Westin and a W, among other hotels, is now occupied by an 1,800-room Grand Hyatt, an SLS and Rosewood hotel, around 40 restaurants and bars, and a 100,000-square-foot casino.

The property was hard fought and its ups and downs have been well documented.

“Many of you in the press probably heard and have been talking about it for a number of years,” said Baha Mar president Graeme Davis during a press lunch at the resort’s US$18-million restaurant, Carna.

Baha Mar President Graeme Davis speaks to the press at Carna. – Photo: Kayla Young

After securing US$2.5 billion in financing from the Export Import (Exim) Bank of China , the Baha Mar was slated to open in 2014 – a decade after planning first began.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t open,” Davis said.

“A lot of guests were left stranded. A lot of travel agents, groups, meeting planners were left stranded. It happened again on March 28, the second time they tried to open. [It created] a lot of distrust, a lot of concerns by the travel agent community and guests alike. And so, after the March 28 miss of opening, eventually in June 2015, the property went into bankruptcy.”

More than 3,000 employees were laid off at the time and the project stalled once again.

Further funding from China and Exim Bank eventually saved the project and as of 2020, the storied Baha Mar appears to have entered a period of calm.

“I keep saying, it was the longest pregnancy,” said Bahamas Director of Tourism Joy Jibrilu, referring to the resort. “But giving birth to it was just the best experience.”

The resort complex now employs thousands of Bahamians and is a major economic driver for the nation.

But the elephant in the room remains when contemplating a place like Baha Mar.

What happens if an event like Dorian hits the economic-centre of an island economy?

The Abaco Islands suffered a brunt of the damage from Hurricane Dorian and still face a long road to recovery.

Redistributing tourism

The concentration of tourists over a small area is not just a problem in The Bahamas. It mirrors the situation in many other Caribbean jurisdictions, like the Cayman Islands.

But unlike Cayman, The Bahamas has an extensive territory to call upon.

This has proven to be an advantage and a disadvantage for the nation.

The archipelago includes 700 islands and more than 2,000 keys. Sixteen of those islands or island groups are promoted by the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism.

The diversity of islands means that in the event of a ‘Dorian’, the tourist sector doesn’t stay down for long.

“The cruise industry is always relatively unimpacted by the hurricanes,” explained Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar in an interview with the Cayman Compass in Nassau.

“They can move their ships to areas in the country that have been unimpacted. … You have Nassau, you have Freeport, and then almost all of the major cruise lines have a private island. So they were able to divert ships.”

Bahamas Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar announced record visitor arrivals for 2019, despite the impact of Hurricane Dorian. – Photo: Kayla Young

Record arrival numbers in 2019 weren’t just buoyed by cruise passengers. Stopover tourism achieved its highest level as well.

On the final day of Caribbean Travel Marketplace, 23 Jan., Minister D’Aguilar said The Bahamas had achieved a record 7.216 million total visitors for 2019. That number included 1.78 million stopover visitors, mostly from the United States.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment, particularly in light of the challenging year we as a country just endured. I stand before you with tremendous gratitude and admiration for every single one of my fellow Bahamians who have shown the world the true meaning of resilience,” the minister told the press.

“We have faced tremendous tragedy bore to us by Hurricane Dorian, the effects of which we will feel in our hearts forever. However, the Bahamian people stood together, remaining strong and resilient, and the world took notice.”

Read related story: Kirkconnell: Caribbean tourism stronger together

After the storm

Part of the islands’ sustained tourism success in 2019 resulted from managing public messaging, once the Dorian dust had cleared, Minister D’Aguilar explained to the Compass.

“When the foreign press descended on the country after Hurricane Dorian, they inadvertently made a bad situation worse in their exuberance to report about the destruction and the devastation. They ended up giving the world the impression that the entire country had been wiped out,” he said.

“So, we had to immediately swoop into action, try to offer relief and recovery to the affected islands and then move into protecting the unimpacted components of our economy to get the message out that the country had not been impacted to the extent that the world had been led to believe. Eighty to 90% of our tourism infrastructure was ready and open for business.”

For the Abaco Islands, however, the situation remains much more complicated.

Before the hurricane, Abaco was considered one of the busiest tourist destinations in the Bahamas.

“Abaco, of course, was our leading family island destination and they were humming up until Aug. 31, absolutely humming,” the minister said.

The storm resulted in an exodus from the disaster zone, as survivors searched for shelter and opportunity elsewhere.

That has meant fewer workers available for rebuilding and recovery in the worst affected areas.

“There’s no one there to reconstruct. There’s no one there to build. And so the government has to create the conditions conducive for people to return,” D’Aguilar said.

People can’t return home, he added, if basic resources such as schools and hospitals aren’t readily available.

When areas are rebuilt, Prime Minister Minnis has emphasised that building codes must be stronger than ever.

“We must find ways to rebuild, [and] when possible retrofit our homes, our buildings and our power and water infrastructure, [so they] are far more hurricane resilient for both wind and surging waters,” Minnis said.

“We must rethink how we ensure the enforcement of building codes and we must rethink regulations regarding how close we will allow any construction to our shorelines.”

Minister D’Aguilar acknowledged, however, that despite climate change projections, most coastal communities will not change until they are forced to.

“Nobody will change until they’re impacted by it. I mean, if you’re in a country and you’ve got buildings and venues that are not built to code and are low-lying and subject to floods, you’re probably not going to do anything about it.

“But when it comes – and it’s coming,” the minister said, “consult with the countries that have been through this. This is not something that you have to recreate [alone].”

Editor’s note: The Cayman Compass was sponsored to attend the 2020 Caribbean Travel Marketplace, 21-23 Jan., in Nassau by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board and Grand Hyatt Baha Mar.

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