WING & A PRAYER
On a humid June morning at Grand Bahama’s Port Lucaya Marketplace, Helena Been, a 74-year-old straw vendor we first met in January, sits quietly in front of her stall reading her Bible.
All around her are the goods she hopes to sell at some point: sarongs, straw work, T-shirts, Bahamian-themed trinkets and other products intended to give guests a flavor of the islands while helping her eke out a decent living.
But on this day, as on that day nearly six months ago, there is no bustle, no energy and very little business.
For some vendors and taxi drivers, there hasn’t been any business at all for the day.
We are approaching noon. The area once teeming with tourists and residents is quiet.
Been finds comfort in scripture and sees it as a productive use of her time as she waits and hopes for a sale or two.
Sales have barely moved since that January afternoon, when Been spoke with us in another area of the marketplace where she was stationed with several other vendors.
The temperature is higher and so is the anxiety among some waiting for the Grand Lucayan strip to reopen.
Cruise ship visitors do not provide for lucrative earnings the way stopover visitors do.
Been is as welcoming now as she was during our first meeting.
“Yes. I remember you,” she says, as a small smile creeps on her face.
But she soon tells us, “It’s really rough because you can’t get to sell your products after you make them. You sometimes spend all day not making nothing. That’s how bad it is.”
A few taxi vans pull in with more visitors, who jump out and stroll around curiously.
There is no entertainment for the guests, who are strolling through in the hot weather.
The vendors tell us the tourists have come from the ship in port and tend not to hang around the marketplace for too long.
Soon enough, they’ll be back in the taxis or buses that brought them.
Many of them were just out for a bit of sightseeing, not much shopping, according to the vendors.
Daphne Nixon, who is originally from New Providence, says she has been in Grand Bahama for 42 years.
“We are all hustling for the same dollar, which is not good because we should have sufficient persons who are coming in that would want to purchase and take back some of the products that we have to offer for sale. And as a result of that, you would find that the day wanes long; and as a result of that, you’re going to find that there are a lot of conflicts, because what’s going to happen is I’m calling, you’re calling, the next person is calling, so it sort of causes the guests to become frustrated and then they walk away,” says Nixon, who is also sitting in front of her stall and has no customer at the moment.
“But for me, I don’t complain. I thank the Lord for every day he blesses me because it means then that he has opened up a way for me to at least make a sale.”
Beulah Hinsey, a vendor who moved to Freeport from Nassau 46 years ago, says business is really bad.
“It’s horrible. It’s terrible,” says Hinsey, as she sews designs onto a half-finished change purse.
It is made of intricately woven straw with colorful raffia designed as leaves with a cluster of shells at the center.
Such a purse takes her two hours to make, Hinsey tells us.
She says she has been involved in straw work since she was nine years old in the Nassau Straw Market.
Making her products keeps her busy, but she wishes she could sell them faster.
“Ships would be in sometimes two, three days, and you won’t make a dollar,” Hinsey says without looking up, her sewing fast and steady.
“Most of the time, we don’t get direct ships. We get ships that came from somewhere, Nassau or wherever, and by the time as the people reach here, they don’t have [any] money. And then some of the tourists are saying that they buy the same thing on the ship that we are selling.
“And so, because of that, all the different big stores, we are here in the heat. And we have four or five big stores in Port Lucaya with air conditioning, so the people are not coming out into the heat when they can go in the air conditioning, and that is what is happening.
“We have great competition, and for that reason we are last on the plate.”
Some vendors, taxi drivers and others who work at and around the marketplace have long been feeling like they are last on the plate.
Some have grown exhausted hearing government officials promise that things will pick up soon, but we do not get an impression that there is an all-out loss of hope.
They believe that the Grand Lucayan will reopen one day.
To believe anything else would be to accept a fate many are unprepared to process.
They have seen the devastating impact of the closure of the 840-room Royal Oasis Resort after it was ravaged by the hurricane in 2005.
The government says it remains focused on ensuring the Grand Lucayan opens.
The three-piece strip hotel with nearly 1,000 rooms has been closed since Hurricane Matthew struck in October 2016.
The impact has been significant.
Grand Bahama suffered a near-62 percent decline in room revenue in the first eight months of 2017.
The island’s room availability was down 57.7 percent.
The amount of room nights sold declined by 59.73 percent, according to the Bahamas Hotel & Tourism Association.
Nearly 1,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the closure.
The trickle-down impact remains tremendous as those who make their living directly off tourism have to depend on cruise passengers for business.
In its Quarterly Economic Review published in March, the Central Bank said total visitors to Grand Bahama rose 5.1 percent to 0.2 million, compared to a 16.6 percent reduction in the previous period.
This was supported by an increase in sea traffic of 6.3 percent, which outstripped a 4.9 percent fall in the air component.
In March, Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar also reported that, in the first month of 2018, “air arrivals were down 18 percent, but the destination (Grand Bahama) experienced a 44 percent increase in overall arrivals with the return of the Royal Caribbean Cruise service to the island”.
Since stopover visitors are most in demand, that requires adequate tourism promotion, air traffic to the island and a boost in room inventory.
On December 22 last year, the government and Hutchison Whampoa, the owner of the Grand Lucayan, signed a letter of intent (LOI) with prospective buyer Paul Wynn.
The government said at the time it expected the final process for Wynn to purchase the hotel would be completed by February 2018, and said the signing of the LOI marked a “very important formal step” toward the completion of the sale process.
That was over six months ago.
In January, it was revealed that a proposed heads of agreement for the resort complex was under review by the Cabinet.
The government has allocated $25 million in its new budget for an equity position in Our Lucaya. It is also providing air transport and tourism promotional support.
Early last month, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said the much-anticipated deal to get the Grand Lucayan back up and running should be “wrapped up soon”.
But soon can’t come soon enough for those most dependent on the business.
The government claims the revitalization of Grand Bahama is at the center of achieving its national development objectives.
It says it’s trying to put more than one egg in Grand Bahama’s economic basket.
A $10 million oil waste treatment project was recently announced for the island.
Additionally, Skyline Investments is finalizing heads of agreement with the government for a $2 billion development at the long-dormant site of the Ginn Sur Mer development. Furthermore, GIBC Digital’s $50 million investment in Grand Bahama was recently announced.
Combined with the reopening of the Grand Lucayan resort and other projects reportedly on the way, the government says better days are ahead for Grand Bahama.
But how patient are those who have been waiting for so long?
As we move through Port Lucaya, there are a few other familiar faces.
Delores Dawkins, who also spoke with National Review in January, immediately recognizes us.
“There’s not been much improvement,” Dawkins says.
“Right now, because of them having the two [cruise ships] if I don’t make it, somebody else will pick up a dollar, but it’s not all of that. We’re waiting on the hotel.
“That’s our best shot. We’ve been suffering for years, just hearing ‘soon, soon, soon’; but ‘soon’ isn’t soon enough.”
Dawkins looks away briefly to greet two young women, tourists strolling by.
They stop briefly, walk into her stall, examine the colorful offerings, then walk away with polite ‘thank yous’.
Dawkins is kind as she acknowledges their empty-handed departure.
Nearby, Simeon Taylor, a taxi driver originally from Deadman’s Cay, Long Island, calls Freeport the “forgotten city”.
“If it got any worse than this, I don’t know what else we would be able to do,” Taylor says.
He’s been out from about 8:30 a.m. and tells us he’s not yet gotten any business.
“It’s actually for the past two years right now it’s been going down steadily,” he adds.
“At this moment now it’s almost to a complete stop. If you are working as a taxi driver, if you are working the harbor, you can make a few jobs maybe once or twice per week.
“If you are working out of Port Lucaya or other areas in Freeport, if you can take home on a daily basis maybe $50 you’re lucky.”
We wonder how anyone survives like that.
How do they pay their bills?
“I believe there is someone watching over all of us,” Taylor adds.
“There are a lot of times that you just pray… a lot of times when you go home in the afternoons you don’t know what to do.
“If you’re not paying rent, for instance, you are lucky, but if you’re a rent payer, you’re in problems.
“A lot of people are losing homes and cars, but if you have your own home at least you have a place to stay. But that doesn’t mean that your power is on, your water is on.”
Taylor says he moved to Grand Bahama in 1976.
He has seen the highs and the lows.
He has grown weary by the protracted low.
Grand Bahama is in urgent need of a boost, he says.
“Some kind of jump start by someone, something, somehow. Since the hurricane it even made it worse. A lot of families left Grand Bahama,” Taylor says.
“I also went back home to Long Island last year to help my nephew out, because that’s how bad it was for me. I was gone for a couple months.”
Like the others we spoke with, Taylor expressed optimism, despite obvious exacerbation over the situation.
“I am optimistic. We hope it gets better. That’s the only thing we can say. Right now it’s bad,” he says.
Joyce Ferguson, who has been a vendor since 1998, has also seen the ups and downs of Grand Bahama tourism.
She says the days are long due to the slow business.
“I’ve seen better days. We have to begin again, try again,” says Ferguson, who also sits in front of her stall.
“I know it’s going to come, and when it comes I think it’s going to be good because the prime minister said you have to wait and he’s going to do what he’s going to do for Grand Bahama. I know he’s going to deliver for Grand Bahama.”
Outside Grand Bahama International Airport, we run into Lloyd Miller, a 74-year-old taxi driver, who came to the island 50 years ago from Mangrove Cay, Andros.
When we first met Miller at a deli at Port Lucaya in January, he lamented the state of the economy.
He, too, tells us not much has changed since then.
“It’s difficult, very difficult. Not easy,” Lloyd says.
“You have to pinch here and pinch there. Put some here. Put some there. Most of the time you can never get your bills up to date.”
Like residents across the country, Grand Bahamians will soon have to contend with the increase in the cost of living when value-added tax is raised from 7.5 percent to 12 percent.
Lloyd says he’s not enthused about the increased tax, but he’s willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt that it has made the right decision for the country.
“The government has to find money somewhere to pay the bills,” he points out.
“The debt has to be paid. The previous administration left this country in a mess so the present government has to clean it up.
“You have to find money somewhere to pay the debt… I’m not against the VAT, but I’d like to see some business come to Grand Bahama so everyone can make money. A lot of people are hurting. They need assistance.”