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Island insights: Eleuthera

There is no second guessing the treasures of Eleuthera and Harbour Island that is found in their miles of coastlines, pink sand beaches, sweet pineapples and unique architecture. While rich in history, the island also offers an even greater learning experience on the impact of foreign direct investments (FDIs) throughout the years in The Bahamas. Eleuthera and Harbour Island have also caught the eye of many high-net-worth individuals and stopover visitors, all making room for more vacation rentals and luxury real estate. Despite The Bahamas’ challenges as it relates to the ease of doing business, it is still not enough to keep visitors and investors away from this tropical paradise. Now, if not more than ever, is the time to take a deeper look into the economic activity and challenges facing the birthplace of our nation.

Luxury real estate and vacation rentals

Climbing the ladder of economic activity in Eleuthera and Harbour Island is the rise of boutique hotel offerings, rentals, and high-end homes. In Governor’s Harbour, the island’s capital, properties range anywhere between $150,000 to well over $1 million.

Spanish Wells, which sits off the tip of North Eleuthera, also fits well for interested buyers in waterfront properties or picturesque island style homes. However, this diverse price range cannot be guaranteed in Harbor Island, where offerings tend to be pricey. After all, Harbour Island is known for lifestyle activities geared towards shopping, nightlife, fashion, hotels and restaurants.

In addition, the power of the Internet and platforms such as AirBnB has allowed for residents and owners of properties to turn their residential dwellings into vacation rentals. This makes up for the lack of room inventory located on the island typically supplied by hotels and resorts. That is not to say that Eleuthera does not have prosperous resorts open. However, there has been a cycle of depression throughout the island that has left hotels and villas abandoned.

Though the economy shows some signs of improvement, there is still significant work to be done. In fact, the thought of more hotel and resort developments would be ideal because it would mean more jobs. Also, The Bahamas’ tax structure caters to investors who can potentially further revive the island’s tourism product. In the interim, however, there is a story not being told about the everyday struggle of locals in this diverse island economy skewed towards meeting the demands of the rich and famous. Can residents really afford to live in Eleuthera?

The island is split into three parts: North, Central, and South. And in each settlement there is much more to survival than just hospitality. But is there enough access to education surrounding opportunities such as ecotourism, small scale tourism ventures and conservation research?

Hotels and resorts

Eleuthera and Harbour Island have experienced their highs and lows with local and foreign direct investments. But there are no amount of words that can truly bring justice to the beauty of upscale waterfront offerings such as the French Leave Resort, Autograph Collection, Cape Eleuthera Resort and Hotel, The Cove Eleuthera or Valentines Resort Harbor Island, to name a few. The island is no stranger to wealthy international and local investors who look to utilize its natural beauties. And while tourism appears to be thriving after the 2008 financial crisis, history has a different story to tell. The 1980s was a time of transition for The Bahamas in terms of economic and political policies, and once popular and exclusive resorts such as Club Med, Cape Eleuthera and Cotton Bay eventually failed to continue their operations and left the ruins of their former glory days to decay on prime Eleuthera properties.

Fortunately, projects have been underway for the island in recent years. One of them is to develop a resort community at Cotton Bay, not too far from its former site. The island’s weary history of foreign direct investments have led some residents to prefer more boutique hotels rather than large scale projects. This is a valid and favored sentiment since the island’s economy is small and open, which makes it more investor friendly. Also, Eleuthera’s previous experiences with large-scale foreign direct investments raises the question of whether or not these type of projects are sustainable for the island and other Family Islands. But to some extent, this query has to be met with how effective has the role of management and political interference been in these type of investments, be it large or small. With a neo- classical approach, minimal interference from government should be taken, given that Bahamians are protected by legislation against the possible failures of medium to large scaled investments. Therefore, it is not so much about whether foreign direct investments are good or bad for the island, but the focus has to shift to how these investments are managed and to ensure more consultation with local stakeholders.

Air arrivals and marina life

In 2005, marina boaters on Eleuthera went from a mere 128 to more than 2,000 as of last year. The island is definitely gearing up to create a competitive edge to other popular islands known for marinas such as Bimini, Abaco, Grand Bahama and Exuma. Harbour Island also experienced an increase in boaters through the years, recording 310 in 2005 and growing to 859 by 2016. Eleuthera is also on the radar for offshore boaters and mixed-use accommodation boaters. Marinas are spread across the island from Rock Sound, Spanish Wells, and Harbour Island. There is definitely a market here to further tap into. One of Eleuthera’s primary points of entry for visitors is through airports. The island has three airports which help to facilitate airlift. Most visitors arrive at North Eleuthera’s Airport. This year’s first quarter was definitely a good period for the island, as it saw the arrival of more than 6,000 air arrivals in just the month of March. These numbers highlight the need for more integration into Eleuthera’s air transport system. The government is set to receive a $35 million dollar loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to improve four Family Islands airports inclusive of North Eleuthera. The loan is expected to tackle key areas of airport development such as lighting, runway beacons, mobile airport equipment, parking platforms and passenger terminals. The move marks one step ahead in the right direction.

Eco-tourism

The famous Glass Window Bridge, Preacher’s Cave, Hatchet Bay Cave and Boiling Hole Cave are just some sites that can be added to a long list of adventures that Eleuthera has to offer. The island is also well known for its migratory birds, which can be a huge deal for bird lovers. If that isn’t enough, then perhaps going down to the southern end of Rock Sound to Ocean blue hole will ignite a love for aquatic wonders. However, apart from the growing demands of eco-tourism, there is also much controversy around the environmental risks and impact. For instance, some heritage sites are not kept well and are not protected. Support to mitigate these risks are offered by the One Eleuthera Foundation and Cape Eleuthera Institute.

Challenges

Because much of the activity goes on in the northern settlements of Eleuthera, some argue that the south is being neglected, as air arrival numbers seem to show. In 2013, Eleuthera residents came together to oppose the $20 million sale of the 700 acre Lighthouse Point peninsula. The piece of land is known to be a jewel of the south and the idea of a proposed large-scale foreign direct investment project was rejected. Many residents saw another, more sustainable way to revive the South’s economic activity.

The One Eleuthera Foundation, for example, seeks to find ways to enhance Bahamian ownership by engaging skillsets and education. The foundation’s CEO Shaun Ingraham has often touted that there are opportunities for unique small businesses on Eleuthera centered on ecotourism and cultural heritage

Moving forward

There is no escaping the economic and social challenges facing the island. These are the same difficulties familiar to most island states. However, there is a spirit of resilience among residents combined with a vision to make Eleuthera the booming economic engine it once was. It will take time, private-public collaboration, capital, and access to resources in order to achieve this task. However, it can be done. The tax incentives are there, the human capital is available, the infrastructure is in place and all procedures are geared up for local and foreign investors to get started.

Whether the island is a second home, a potential location for a boutique hotel or a local grocery store, or just a getaway for adventure, Eleuthera has proven that it can offer all of these things and more.

• 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 [email protected]

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