Grand Bahama News

A story of perseverance

GB eco-tour business continues late co-founder’s legacy

A pillar of Grand Bahama’s eco-tourism sector, Grand Bahama Nature Tours is continuing to persevere, despite major setbacks that culminated with the passing of the company’s co-founder, Erika Gates, in December 2021.

Her husband and company co-founder, John Edwin “Ed” Gates, described her as the “mover and shaker” of their venture, declaring that its 30 years in operation were due to her efforts and that her charisma, tenacity and love of nature were a major part of the business’ success.

“She was part of the fabric of Freeport,” he said. “She listened to everything and everybody.”

But Gates added that even before his wife’s passing, the company was having to find ways to move forward after enduring the setbacks of hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, Hurricane Dorian devastated many of Grand Bahama’s hotels and the natural attractions the company relied on, including the botanical garden — The Garden of The Groves — and Lucayan National Park.

The following year, the pandemic severely reduced the number of customers, forcing the company to temporarily close and reopen with reduced staff.

“A major source of our clientele (cruise ships) was going somewhere else for a while,” Gates said.

He noted his wife was doing her best to innovate and reinvigorate the tours.

Grand Bahama Nature Tours General Manager Denise Neely said, as an example, the company redesigned existing tours while the island’s natural attractions recovered. 

“Now, we’re doing a city sightseeing tour,” Neely said.

“We basically ride through the Freeport, Lucaya area. People seem to really love it because they get to see a good bit of the island.”

Neely said this is what made Mrs. Gates inspiring to work with.

“She was always careful about not doing anything that everybody else was doing,” she said.

“She would try to include everybody and a bit of everything. The creative juices were always flowing.”

Both Neely and Gates admitted that they and the staff are still shaken by Mrs. Gates’ passing, but remain steadfast in continuing her legacy.

Neely said that in recent months, the number of tour attendees has increased. 

“A lot of times we run our tours at full capacity,” she said.

“It’s been great to see and say ‘OK, we are coming back a bit.’ It’s great to know there’s room to grow again.”

She noted that the long-standing relationship between the company and the cruise lines was hugely beneficial throughout the recent years.

“Royal Caribbean was actually one of the first cruise lines to welcome us back,” Neely said.

“Royal Caribbean along with Norwegian are two of our biggest providers even to this day.”

She added that prospects are even better now as some of the natural attractions have recovered.

“The beach (Gold Rock Beach) came back although we don’t have the dunes anymore,” Neely said.

“We’re just finding our new normal at this point – working with what we’re given.”

Another natural attraction that has recovered is The Garden of The Groves, which Mrs. Gates became involved with following Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances in 2004 when she was asked by the Grand Bahama Port Authority to oversee its rebuilding.

Manager Marilynn Laing said the number of foreign visitors has increased in the past months.

Laing said the garden has been an amazing place for family outings, people wanting an excursion with a slow pace, weddings, and those simply seeking a quiet place to enjoy.

She added that locals are also enjoying the attraction again.

“They love the natural yet intimate experience,” Laing said.

“The birds are migrating again. The restaurant’s back and the shops are open. People have been loving it here.”

She also said school field trips to the garden have been increasing in number.

“We had Walter Parker (Primary School) which was a huge number last week (in January),” she said.

“Since this is a new year, we know that the Groves in April and June will be very busy with schools.” 

Laing is excited that the garden recovered in time for its 50th anniversary on March 3 and said there will be various events to celebrate, including a run/walk, a fundraiser, and a cocktail reception.

Gates and Neely said customer numbers have not returned to their previous levels before Dorian and the pandemic, but remain positive.

“Carnival is building a new port out on Barbary Beach area,” Gates said.

“We hope that will help to turn things around then.”

Neely added, “This is our new beginning. We’re restarting on a good note. We’re learning to celebrate and run with those small mercies.”

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