Let’s rebalance the environmental review process

Dear Editor,

Royal Caribbean announced earlier this month that a public consultation will take place on June 8 regarding the environmental impacts of its proposed beach club on Paradise Island.

The fact that the company released this information, rather than the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection, has raised some legitimate questions about the government’s review process and inspired a broader discussion of our nation’s relationship with the cruise line industry.

In several weeks, Bahamians will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our independence. This is an excellent time for us to honestly assess the tradeoffs — environmental, socioeconomic and cultural — we’ve made over the last five decades to become one of our world’s most popular tourist destinations.

The controversial Royal Beach Club project has inspired what I believe is a healthy public debate about the balance of power and rewards between The Bahamas, our nation of 400,000 people, and the companies whose massive ships deliver millions of visitors to our shores each year.

We live with the cruise ships’ enormous carbon footprint (one cruise ship releases as much carbon dioxide as 12,000 cars) and under-reported air and water pollution (ship scrubbers are diverting toxic air pollution into our ocean and contaminating our marine life) because we get something out of the deal – including jobs and revenue.

But what happens when in this high-stakes game of give and take, one side is perceived to be taking more and giving less?

That seems to be the case, as Royal Caribbean is proposing to transform a fragile strip of Paradise Island into a private beach across the harbor from our nation’s capital.

The company projects that up to 3,000 of its passengers each day will opt out of the opportunity while in port to experience Nassau’s restaurants, shops and cultural attractions to spend a day at Royal Caribbean’s proprietary destination.

Years ago, cruise ship operators were prohibited from providing entertainment and restaurant services to passengers while in port. That regulation ensured that local Bahamian businesses could benefit from passenger traffic. Downtown Nassau had energy and promise, with visitors waiting to get a reservation in the city’s popular restaurants and experiencing a night life competitive with the world’s best seaside destinations.

You don’t have to be an environmentalist, economist or taxi driver to appreciate why Royal Caribbean’s proposed redirection of passenger traffic, which they themselves have characterized as “unprecedented,” is causing confusion and concern.

The message Royal Caribbean has continued to communicate is that the project has already received governmental approval, and only an environmental review with one public consultation stands in the way of a groundbreaking.

But, there seems to be a growing consensus that far more due diligence and public debate is called for to make sure The Bahamas will get enough out of this deal to justify the economic and environmental risks it will be taking.

I don’t mean to be singling out Royal Caribbean. Other cruise line companies have brought private beach developments to The Bahamas with devastating, irreversible environmental effects on some of our most sensitive, pristine beaches, shorelines and sea beds.

The promised economic returns for the nation and local citizens have for the most part not materialized. As a child growing up on Eleuthera, I remember the promises of economic development for South Eleuthera that the Princess Cays cruise destination was supposed to bring in the ‘90s, but never did.

As heightened public interest in the Royal Beach Club has revealed, there are serious flaws in the approval process Royal Caribbean and other developers wanting to build in The Bahamas must navigate.

Especially unfortunate is the currently mandated sequence of concluding, rather than starting with environmental and socioeconomic analysis.

Because these two critical areas of review seem to be afterthoughts, it’s hard for the public to have trust in the process. The skewed order of analysis puts the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP) in the awkward position of appearing to question or contest prior government approvals if there are legitimate environmental concerns.

The good news is that built into the process, despite its flaws, are opportunities to still get this right.

Royal Caribbean must complete what is called an Environmental Impact Assessment, which DEPP requires to be made public at least 15 working days prior to any public consultation.

As established in the EIA regulations, passed in 2020, developers seeking approvals must identify and evaluate socioeconomic issues, addressing the following “land use impacts”: Visual and aesthetic impacts; impacts on neighbourhoods and communities; relocation impacts; traffic impacts; economic impacts; and cultural resource impacts.

The robust public dialogue we are experiencing regarding the “give and take” of the Royal Beach Club project should underscore for DEPP and the media how important it is for us to pay special attention to the socioeconomic, as well as the environmental, elements in the EIA.

Regrettably, the date for Royal Caribbean to meet the required 15-day review period before the June 8 Royal Beach Club public consultation has come and gone with no posting other than a three-year-old EIA, which does not adequately address numerous critical questions.

It should be noted that before COVID upended the world, a public consultation on the beach project took place — that’s why Royal Caribbean in its media release refers to the upcoming event as “another” consultation — and Royal Caribbean completed an EIA.

That document, still available on the Royal Beach Club project’s website, is out of date. It does not address changes in their plans or what the company has described in recent media interviews as the “six pillars” of its environmental and sustainability programs.

Even if Royal Caribbean takes the dubious position that the old EIA is good enough, DEPP should require the submission of supplemental information that addresses in detail the company’s new claims, such as use of 100 percent renewable energy and the goal of carbon-neutral operation by 2030, and the socioeconomic issues still unaddressed.

Bahamians should show up at the June 8 public consultation to insist that these critical issues not be ignored.

Also of great interest and importance will be Royal Caribbean’s “Environmental Management Plan,” which will address, “management of the environmental program of an organization in a comprehensive, systematic, planned and documented manner; and includes the organizational structure, planning and resources for developing, implementing and maintaining policy for environmental protection”.

Unfortunately, DEPP only requires submission and public review of the EMP after the public consultation. That’s another critical sequencing flaw that doesn’t earn public trust and should be corrected.

Beyond this project, we as a nation must take a hard look at the status of our relationships with cruise line companies.

As we celebrate our first half century as an independent nation and open the new Nassau Cruise Port, we should as a pragmatic and patriotic matter ask ourselves if foreign companies, who are doing business as guests in our nation, are holding up their end of the bargain.

We’re not the only country that is weighing up the benefits of cruise tourism against the social, economic and environmental impacts.

Some other jurisdictions are starting to approach these issues with the mindset that it’s a privilege to do business in their nations, and that there needs to be far stronger provisions in place to protect the environment and ensure equitable social and economic benefits.

Looking back over the past 50 years, there is a place for cruise lines in our economy. We just have to get the relationship back in balance.

That effort could start with our best effort to vet the Royal Beach Club project with a confident sense of who we are and a commitment to transparency.

That would be a wonderful achievement to celebrate as we turn 50.

Casuarina McKinney-Lambert

Executive director, Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation

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