Island insights: Acklins
There has been much talk in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s destruction of the current state of the southern Family Islands and their future development prospects. Salina Point in southern Acklins was particularly devastated by the storm, with evacuated residents finally allowed to return home last week. The reality, however, is that Acklins’ economy was in a precarious state well before Hurricane Irma made landfall. As the impacted communities rebuild, now is a prudent time to examine what can be done to correct course and revive economic activity on Acklins.
Flats fishing is the lifeblood of Acklins’ economy. The island, renowned for its high number of unspoiled flats, plentiful bonefish and local expertise, routinely draws visitors from around the world. The island’s existing lodges and hotels are generally well-reviewed on travel websites and tend to attract repeat business from visiting anglers. Yet many local accommodations are operating well below maximum occupancy levels – a poor sign for those interested in bringing more competition to the sector. Why is this the case?
Sadly, efforts by the previous administration to further regulate flats fishing (ostensibly to ‘protect’ local guides) appear to have backfired and driven anglers directly into the arms of some of Acklins’ largest competitors, namely Cuba, Belize and South Florida, where anglers face fewer bureaucratic hurdles. The regulations, signed into law in January, in part require all visiting anglers to pay for fishing licenses and for the services of a Bahamian guide for all parties of two or more.
Both freelance flats guides and lodge owners have complained of decreased bookings for the upcoming busy season ranging from November to May, with some struggling to allay visitor fears in the new regulations. Acklins is not alone in this respect, with nearby islands, including Crooked Island and Long Island, similarly experiencing downturns in visitor arrivals, although exact figures for Acklins are currently unavailable.
Nature and wildlife tours
Acklins is home to more than just bonefish. The island is home to a number of natural attractions, including blue holes, extensive caves and rare fauna. Birdwatching is also viable in Acklins. The Plana Cays, located off the east coast of Acklins, are a protected nature reserve featuring endangered iguanas and hutias rarely seen outside of Acklins. Younger entrepreneurs could carve out their own niche in nature tours as part of the locals’ efforts to diversify their economy and appeal to wider demographics beyond anglers. Acklins also features several documented Lucayan settlements, offering a unique cultural tourism experience for guests looking for activities beyond fishing.
Airlift and marketing
Lack of airlift is the largest impediment to growth on Acklins, once we look beyond the immediate concerns of rebuilding infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Irma. Bahamasair is currently the only carrier providing routine flights to the island, and even that service is limited to two flights per week – Wednesday and Saturday mornings. To make matters more complicated for potential visitors, the current flight times depart long before most international flights arrive in Nassau, making same-day flight connections near impossible. While the existing flights cater to locals coming into Nassau for business, they force visitors to spend at least one night in Nassau.
Thankfully, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board (BOIPB) is currently in talks with Bahamasair to revisit its flight schedules and the aircraft used to the benefit of both Acklins locals and international guests. The BOIPB further plans to assist domestic carriers in meeting safety audit standards to serve as co-chair partners with Bahamasair, which would bring more frequent and convenient flights to many Family Islands. Doing so would likely address the longstanding issues of accessibility and affordability facing persons interested in exploring Acklins.
Tourism stakeholders hope to revamp airlift into Acklins in time to accommodate guests for peak fly fishing season starting in November, though it remains to be seen whether Irma’s devastation has pushed back those projections.
However, boosted airlift is only part of the solution. Tourism stakeholders will likely expand efforts to modernize standard and package booking processes once airlift has been addressed. The BOIPB additionally hopes to get Acklins-based accommodations listed on global distribution systems and make local hotel websites mobile-friendly with built-in booking widgets.
As is often the case across the entirety of The Bahamas, Acklins currently has room for improvement in customer service, and it is difficult to convince some employers on the island to invest in service training when revenue across the board remains relatively low. To address this issue, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) and the University of The Bahamas (UB) are expected to launch training assistance programs in the near future. The BOIPB has additionally launched a small-scale consultancy service for Family Island small business owners to identify short-term goals and areas for improvement.
Acklins’ shrinking population is another area of concern, with a stagnant economy and successive hurricanes, most notably Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, sending many residents to New Providence. Today, fewer than 400 people reside on Acklins, compared to 565 as of a 2010 census.
Acklins’ remoteness is perhaps its greatest asset, but despite its vast stretches of unspoiled natural beauty, the message is clear: maintain the status quo, and the local tourism economy will flounder. While Hurricane Irma has damaged southern Acklins considerably, it is critical that the government and other stakeholders use this as an opportunity to revisit the current legislation and policies hindering growth on Acklins and in the process halt this negative trend in lodge and tour bookings upon which local businesses depend.
• Roderick A. Simms II is a director of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation and chairperson of the Family Islands division. He can be emailed at RASII@ME.com.