Caribbean Nobel Laureate the late Derek Walcott had very strong, emotive opinions against modern day tourism. While his personal conventions on tourism bemoaned the institution in some respects, there is one kind of tourism here in The Bahamas not heralded, marketed or encouraged to its maximum – one Walcott may have graciously tipped his hat to. Domestic tourism has been a keyword for some years, but how many Bahamians have really taken advantage of the unspoiled beauty of these islands, the hospitality of their own people and the myriad of accommodations the Family Islands have to offer? Bahamians not only need to experience the entirety of their country, they have to, throughout their lifetime, become domestic tourists, island explorers and active participants in the economics of the tourism sector, and not just the thousands of its laborers.
The first barrier to domestic tourism often met by Bahamians is the cost of travel from island to island. While the duration of flights is in many cases similar to, or far less than, a trip to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, the round trip ticket price per passenger can sometimes be about two thirds the cost. And the airlines that service many of these islands, given the size of their aircraft and their operation in general, are restrictive in their scheduling and passenger capacity. If more Bahamians are to get down – or up – to the Family Islands, airfare must become more competitive. But airlines are beholden to the airport fees, taxes and high fuel costs that come along with their operations.
For the adventurous domestic tourist without time-sensitive plans, a mail boat trip to a Family Island is indeed a viable option. The allure of the mail boat is the opportunity to experience the vastness of The Bahamas’ blue real estate, or – in some cases – how very small the aquatic borders between major islands can be. Many mail boat services offer sleeping accommodations on those long-haul island trips, while services like Bahamas Ferries’ early morning Harbour Island run gets you there before lunchtime. The mail boat is a slow chug from one island to the next, but at a fraction of the price of a plane ticket. Another plus for mail boat services is the ability to carry a vehicle along. Any trip to one of our longer Family Islands – for the consummate explorer – requires a vehicle. And if vehicle rental is not in your budget, the mail boat gives you the option of carrying your own.
Another barrier to the lifestyle of a domestic tourist in The Bahamas is seemingly the cost of accommodations. But along with the many hotel options on the Family Islands has now come the added option of vacation home rentals. One of the biggest purveyors of these rentals is Airbnb.
Domestic tourism budgets have become even more manageable with the option of these privately-owned homes and apartments available for rent, while the luxury and celebrity of hotels and resorts are there for those who can afford it. For the more intrepid domestic tourist who favors the mail boat and vehicle option, there are many unspoiled beaches and areas to maybe catch a one-nighter, especially if your plan is to explore the many towns and settlements of an island. Camping, for one reason or another, has not taken off as a thing in this country, but for a nature enthusiast it can be an option.
While there is an unfounded feeling that Family Island hotels and resorts favor foreign tourists over domestic tourists, nothing can be further from the truth. These properties generously open their doors, kitchens and arms and, in many cases with help from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, offer discounts and travel packages not available to foreigners. Many Bahamians, if they are lucky, have family and friends to put them up, lend them a vehicle and cook them some of the food the Family Islands are known for; domestic tourism has never been so easy for such an individual.
The domestic tourist
A number of Bahamians have taken to Family Island travel during regattas, homecomings and festivals.
In any given year, Exuma‘s regatta attracts Bahamians en masse, and leads to sold-out hotels, fully booked flights and a boon for businesses on that island. The same goes for Harbour Island during its regatta, Long Island during its regatta, Cat Island for its rake and scrape festival and many more similar events. The economic impact for those islands during those weekends is indisputable. The importance of the domestic tourist in The Bahamas, therefore, should not be overlooked and has to be increased.
While the Ministry of Tourism has created a model for domestic tourism marketing, many properties on the island must be proactive and do more on their own to lure Bahamians to their properties. What better way to fill rooms not occupied by Americans, Canadians or Europeans than to fill them with people only 20 to 30 minutes away, whose plane or boat fare is not as restrictive? They just need to be encouraged. For example, there is a promotion where Bahamian residents fly or cruise free from Nassau or Freeport for pre-booked two-night hotel stays or pre-booked four-night or longer hotel stays – an encouragement for both hotel owners and potential local visitors. (For more information on this promotion, visit the website www.myoutislands.com/bahamas-vacation-packages.
Many Bahamians, however, choose to spend their vacation time and vacation money shopping in Florida for a week. But domestic tourism does not require that level of planning. Domestic tourism often does not require that level of financial commitment. And domestic tourism does not require that amount of time. The weekend getaway seems to be the right scale for the domestic tourist. And that scale allows for multiple trips during a calendar year. That is part of what makes domestic tourism in The Bahamas so attainable and so necessary. The geographic nature of The Bahamas is such that every island has myriad natural attractions to offer. No island is the same.
That same geographic nature has also led to nuances in the culture of each island. Bahamians across the length and breadth of The Bahamas have unique dishes, a unique vernacular, unique accents and unique stories. All those are worth exploring and worth the experience.
• Roderick A. Simms II is an advocate for sustainable Family Islands growth and development. Email at RASII@ME.com.