Keeping Bimini blue: On the crossroads of tourism boom
In my past issues in this column, I have highlighted the challenge of finding the right balance between the three pillars of sustainability – the economy (profit), the socio-cultural (people) and the environment (planet).
I had an amazing experience when I visited Bimini with my family in early March of this year. This amazing island is certainly a classic example of the three pillars of sustainability trying to find the correct balance. Can Bimini continue to stay as a model sustainable and responsible island in The Bahamas? Is the once quaint island losing its charm due to the boom in tourism development over the past few years? Is the island at the crossroad of these developments?
Bimini has all of the ingredients to be a world-class “green” destination in the region. The pristine white-sandy beaches and stunning blue water of Bimini are jaw-dropping. Nonetheless, keeping little Bimini blue is the responsibility of all the stakeholders – government, local operators, local community and the visitors or tourists. The tourism industry is the backbone of the island, just like all the other Family Islands in The Bahamas. The surrounding water is the key element for the tourism industry in The Bahamas. Big game fishing, scuba diving, boating, sailing, bone fishing, snorkeling, kayaking and a variety of wildlife encounters all contribute to the island’s flourishing eco-tourism industry.
There are limited cars in Bimini, which makes it perfect to be a “green” island. Limited taxi services are available with seamless ferry services between North and South Bimini. The golf cart is certainly the main form of transportation rental in North Bimini. In many destinations, golf carts are certainly the way forward if you can maximize them to become truly environmentally friendly. A petrol or diesel run golf cart is certainly not environmentally friendly as seen in many Family Islands. To maximize these electric golf carts to be more environmentally friendly, the way forward will be to install solar panels at designated locations in resorts, homes or other commercial outlets to recharge the cart with renewable and clean energy that is generated right on the property. Even though the recharging station is not powered by renewable energy, it still protects the environment if the golf cart reduces the use of fossil fuel. Installing a solar panel on the golf cart itself can take advantage of self-generated solar electricity.
Bimini has reached an intersection as far as development is concerned. Does Bimini have a successful “responsible tourism” or “sustainable tourism” model that other Family Islands can emulate? From a nostalgically attractive island, Bimini is developing fast. Is Bimini losing its charm due to this “over-development”? What are the major challenges in Bimini that will impact the sustainability of the tourism industry? What should the government be doing to enhance the sustainability of Bimini as a leading tourism destination for The Bahamas? Besides the picturesque beaches at Bimini, what should be the major products that should be marketed to the tourists who visit Bimini? These are some of the fundamental questions that need to be pondered.
Bimini is indeed an island that has the potential to evolve as a responsible and sustainable tourism destination. Nonetheless, the significant development that is happening currently in Bimini, if not managed well, may hamper its aim to remain sustainable. With more and more “luxury” developers mushrooming in Bimini, more needs to be done to protect the pristine environment. For now, much of “natural” Bimini remains untouched. The uniqueness of Bimini as far as its strategic location makes it difficult for other Family Islands to replicate. Bimini’s proximity to the United States has made the destination attractive to a type of tourist over the past 60 years or more due to the generational relationships or rapport with the majority of the visitors that travel there.
Each family island has its uniqueness. It is critical to understand what works well on each of these islands and build on that, rather than trying to replicate another island’s product mix. Replicating a model “blindly” from one island to another will result in failure because the investment authority failed to comprehend the uniqueness of each island.
From a charming island, Bimini is developing fast. Over-development past its capacity or limit may result in Bimini losing its natural charm. Biminite Travis Sweeting, the creative director of TRAV Creative, disagrees that the island is losing its charm due to these developments. He said, “Bimini’s charm is really in its people. Its beaches, fishing, and all the rest come secondary to that. The friendly people of Bimini that all visitors encounter, has carved a generational repeat visitor model for Bimini. Most tourist [sic] visiting Bimini are from the VFR (visiting, friends or relatives) market with mostly South Floridians, whom have visited and kept returning over the past decades”. He further added, “I’ve had pen pals since age nine through the local Shark Lab from all over the world working with my mom at her restaurant since then”. This was further supported by Roosevelt Rolle, another Biminite. He said, “I don’t think Bimini is losing its charm, as most of the new development caters to accommodations which was [sic] certainly lacking.”
Indeed, besides the breathtaking beaches, Bimini has many other unique products that can attract tourists to this island. The simplicity of the life in Bimini itself is a selling point for this appealing island. The local small businesses such as having a conch salad at Joe’s Conch Stand, watching the sunset with your choice of cocktails at Ebbie’s Bonefish Club, or homemade bread at Charlie’s Bakery, catching the ferry boat to South Bimini, hiking to the nature trails and learning about sharks at the Shark Lab are all itineraries that any visitor to Bimini should explore. Bimini is also referred to as the Big Game Fishing Capital of the World. There are also legends believed by many to be found in Bimini – The Lost City of Atlantis and the Fountain of Youth. Further, the local straw market, the Bimini museum, Dolphin House and a visit to the Sapona Ship wreck will further add to the rich experience for any visitor.
Nonetheless, the recent tourism development in Bimini is indeed expanding the local economy by bringing a fresh wave of tourists who are more in tune with luxury amenities. Large-scale hotels such as the Resorts World Bimini certainly provide an economic boost for the island in terms of employment, consumer activity and visitor arrivals. Thus, the island’s tourism product is growing and segmenting. Now you have tourism products that cater to a different group of people with different needs. However, the question always remains: Is this the only way to achieve such growth in the Family Islands? With a small population and workforce of about 2,000 people, this evolution may change the authenticity of Bimini’s tourism products and may not be what some of the senior Biminites want for the island. Nonetheless, nothing can remain the same forever. Can it?
The environmental protection of the marine life in Bimini is crucial as it is the foundation for the entire tourism industry on the island. Similar to all the other Family Islands, some of the challenges that need to be addressed include the protection of the coral reefs, fishing holes and mangroves. These are important to game fishers and local fishermen who feed their families off seafood, thus protecting its vibrant marine life, and shielding the island from natural disasters like hurricanes and tidal waves is essential. Major beach erosion in many parts of the island is another concern that needs to be addressed. The full protection of the North Bimini Marine Reserve is thus as important.
Bimini’s new cruise terminal at the western shore is almost complete. Will this terminal irreversibly change the pristine environment of Bimini? Is this the best way forward for this island? Are there more pros than cons on the impact this development will create on Bimini’s economy, social and environment? Hence, for Bimini to remain a sustainable and responsible tourism destination, it is critical for all stakeholders to play their role in ensuring the three-pillars of sustainability (including the fourth pillar, “politics”) achieve the correct equilibrium.
The government can certainly do more to enhance the sustainability of Bimini as a leading tourism destination for The Bahamas. The island should be further promoted and the protection of the many natural habits in the eastern part of the island and the surrounding mangroves should be increased. As indicated by Sweeting, “The government must also be instrumental in levelling the playing field for Bahamians and local Biminites to compete with the developments… such as limit the amenities which the mega resort can have on property so that their guests can explore and spend outside of their gates with local businesses.” He further added that the cruise port dock should have been located in the Alice Town area of the island to allow all guests to see and enjoy the island before making their way to the resort. Rolle opined that another major challenge in Bimini is having sufficient food in the supermarkets due to the small size of the stores.
Moving forward for Bimini
Is decentralizing the governance of the island (and many of the other Family Islands) from central government the way forward for Bimini to prosper? Are Biminites well positioned in all of the deal negotiations to ensure their voices are heard? Or, are all the deals being made by persons in Nassau who have very little knowledge of the genetic makeup of Bimini or every other Family Island which has its own identity and which makes it special? In terms of infrastructure, is the airport in South Bimini in dire need of an upgrade? Without proper infrastructure in place, Bimini will continue to only rely on stopover visitors from the cruises. An increase in the airline inventory can only happen if the airport is able to handle the visitor influx. Hence, it is a challenge to further unlock the tourism potential of Bimini.
Compared to many of the other Family Islands, Bimini is well positioned in terms of its location, utilities and infrastructure. The island is certainly getting its fair share of visitors within its current capacity. Hence, the potential to grow the island as a responsible and sustainable tourism destination is certainly great. Intensifying tourism development to expand the island’s room inventory cannot compensate for the destruction of the environment. Bimini’s marine life is as critical as the socio-cultural heritage of the island’s attraction.
Tourism development at Bimini must be carefully managed to make this jewel of The Bahamas a truly unimaginable getaway for the nation. Visitors coming to Bimini are clear as to what they are looking for in this island – the amazing blue water, stunning beaches with vibrant coral reefs, unseen wildlife, flourishing fishing, and the always welcoming Biminites. Bimini is certainly an escape island for those running away from the hustle and bustle of over-developed landscapes found elsewhere in the archipelago. Protecting God’s gift to the natural Bimini’s ecological health and beauty is the responsibility of every stakeholder that has the best interest of the island’s economy, socio-cultural heritage and the environment.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.