The true nature of The Bahamas

Dear Editor,

In the almost 70 years since Sir Stafford Sands revitalized the Development Board (now the Ministry of Tourism), this country has spent well over $2 billion educating the world about our touristic charms.

Hurricane Dorian has proven that not all of that was money well spent.

It is mind boggling just how incredibly uninformed much of the world is about something as simple as the geography of our archipelago.

Dorian took aim at Grand Bahama and Abaco. But to hear the global news media tell it, Dorian ravaged the entire country, leaving some of us so destitute that our only option was to seek Temporary Protective Status in the United States.

If this wasn’t so egregious it would be funny. Saying that Dorian pulverized our entire country is as erroneous as saying Hurricane Andrew destroyed the United States, or even the state of Florida in 1992. It laid waste to parts of Miami-Dade County.

It is easy to see how some in the news media make this mistake. By total area, The Bahamas is the largest country in CARICOM. From Walkers Cay in the north to Inagua in the south, the country spans over 600 miles.

That is longer than the entire state of Florida. The Bahamas is longer than the distance from Canada to Washington, D.C.

As Dorian pummeled the north, the people in Long Island barely got rain. Yet the media gave the impression that the entire country was torn asunder.

This stunning ignorance means we have work to do to sell our true potential. It also creates tourism opportunities for us that people like Gordon “Butch” Stewart, owner of Sandals Resorts, has been touting for years.

Though tens of millions of visitors have been to our country in the last 70 years, only a tiny percentage of them have heard of Abaco and could pinpoint it on a map.

Dorian revealed the word salad that is the U.S. visa policy for Bahamians. Usually we need only a police record and a passport to enter the U.S. via the two airport pre-clearance facilities here. But leave by boat or on a plane that didn’t get pre-clearance in Nassau or Freeport and you need a visa.

We don’t need to involve ourselves in the current dysfunctional immigration policies of the United States and certainly the cruise lines that offered free rides to Florida to Bahamians in Grand Bahama may have had the best of intentions when they did so in the days after Dorian struck.

It boggles the mind why any Bahamian (save and except those with family in Florida willing to let them camp out for a while) would want to turn tail and seek refuge in a foreign country as opposed to coming to Nassau where they could petition their own government for assistance.

We can only hope that when the political dust finally settles in the U.S. our diplomats will engage with the U.S. Congress for full unconditional visa waiver for Bahamians. Citizens of Canada and Bermuda currently enjoy this access.

We delude ourselves if we think our own immigration dysfunction with regard to the illegal Haitians among us, doesn’t give the U.S. pause to grant us full visa-free access, even for flights from third countries that transit through the U.S.

Start talking about Temporary Protective Status or get a pool of Dorian refugees overstaying in South Florida and we can forget about visa abolition.

We also need to let the world (and some of our people) know that The Bahamas is not a so-called “black country”.

We are a rainbow nation and nowhere is this more on display than on Abaco. White Bahamians were just as affected by the hurricane as everyone else. Their patriotism and loyalty to their country was a source of deep pride for their fellow Bahamians everywhere.

We don’t have a horse in the politics of the U.S., but it was especially galling to hear the Republican governor of Florida say he wants to help us here, to avoid us going there. How deeply insulting can this man be?

Florida will reap the lion’s share of the billions of dollars that we will spend to rebuild our damaged islands and to upgrade our existing building codes. No doubt he will want us to bring our fistfuls of dollars to his state.

Florida has long served as our personal strip mall, stocked full of hardware depots, appliance outlets and purveyors of everything from nails, to tar paper to trees. Remember when the PLP went shopping in Florida for trees to landscape Nassau?

Our government has wisely pivoted to a new tourism message, letting the world know that most of the country is open for business. Rest assured the dedicated souls who regularly visited Abaco will return sooner rather than later. The Bahamians on Abaco will rebuild with or without government help.

Grand Bahama will come roaring back stronger than it was in August. The airport may have to be relocated to higher ground, but Dorian has put the island on the map. Now let’s work that infamy to our advantage and kick-start a new wave of tourism to Freeport.

– The Graduate

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