Whether it be the Royal Oasis resort, the Xanadu Beach hotel, the International Bazaar, other large scale commercial properties, or the Grand Lucayan resort languishing in large part since 2016, relics of a bygone era of fortunes in Freeport’s tourism sector stand as monuments to economic boom and bust.
When tourism officials boast that “The Bahamas is back” and that hotels are reporting near 100 percent occupancy, Grand Bahamians who have been doled out more promises of economic revitalization than they care to count, have asked in response, “Where? Certainly not here.”
When a large portion of the previously world-renowned International Bazaar was destroyed by fire last week – the second such fire within weeks – residents gathered safe distances away to watch the flames consume buildings where fond memories of brighter economic days were made.
The fire drew on the hope of some residents that out of the ashes could spawn a new day for Freeport – no pun intended.
But whether the coming months and years will prove to be Grand Bahama’s turn remains to be seen.
Following the closure of the Royal Oasis property in the aftermath of Hurricane Frances in 2004, the island’s economy took a downward dive from which recovery on the ground was fleeting.
The last period of significant economic growth realized in Grand Bahama occurred in the 1990s – approximately two decades ago.
The destruction of Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic would have proven formidable setbacks for any government, but natural or pathogenic disasters aside, a collaborative master plan for Grand Bahama’s revitalization and sustainability is what was lacking last term.
What the Davis administration’s position is on the same has not been articulated.
The administration’s Speech from the Throne highlights plans to boost Grand Bahama’s maritime sector; expedite the development of the airport; build a new hospital; and create a “one stop shop” to attract new local and direct foreign investment by way of duty-free concessions across the entire island.
These by and large are not new pledges for Grand Bahama, but the question is, are these pledges enough to maximize Freeport and Grand Bahama’s potential?
And how and when will these pledges begin to take shape?
Given the unique and over a half-century long formal arrangement with the Grand Bahama Port Authority in Freeport, it appears the Davis administration’s plans for Grand Bahama might need to be more considered than what has been presented on paper thus far.
The stakes for the island could not be higher.
Prior to Hurricane Dorian, unemployment on Grand Bahama stood at 10.9 percent according to the Department of Statistics’ most recent Labor Force Survey report issued in May, 2019.
Thousands lost their job in the storm’s aftermath.
According to the department’s latest figures, the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) moved from a high of $2.026 billion in 2015, to a low of $1.437 billion in 2020.
Prior to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which caused widespread devastation in Freeport and catastrophic damage to the island’s electricity infrastructure, Grand Bahama’s GDP grew between 2015 and 2016, from $2.026 billion to $2.034 billion.
The statistics indicate that due to factors including Matthew, Dorian in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Bahama lost $589 million in GDP over a five-year period.
SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN “SOON”
Matthew’s damage resulted in the closure of two-thirds of the Grand Lucayan property, stripping the island’s tourism plant of hundreds of hotel rooms.
Without adequate room inventory, Grand Bahama cannot attract or support substantial growth in its tourism product.
Dorian wrought catastrophic damage on the island’s airport, resulting in the loss of United States preclearance facilities and leaving the home to the country’s second largest economy without the quality of international airport necessary to facilitate significant commercial and touristic growth.
When the Minnis administration announced, with much fanfare, the signing of a yet-to-be tabled heads of agreement with Royal Caribbean International and the ITM group’s joint venture Holistica Destinations, for the sale of the Grand Lucayan resort and the redevelopment of the Freeport Harbor, Grand Bahamians were told the signing marked a red-letter day for the island’s economy beyond its tourism sector.
That was close to two years ago.
Bahamians first learned through media reports that the deal for the purchase of the resort currently operated by the government of The Bahamas, was being renegotiated due to the impact of the COVID pandemic on the global tourism industry.
The previous administration never brought forward a communication to Parliament explaining this development and the reasons for it, and kept Grand Bahama virtually in the dark about the progress of talks, save for the refrain of “we hope to conclude negotiations soon” that inevitably grew into a punchline for promise-weary Grand Bahamians.
With the change of government came the minister of tourism’s comments that the hotel deal was worse than he previously thought, and that the prospective purchasers were seeking a loan from the government to acquire the property, which was ironically acquired by government via a loan from Hutchinson Whampoa – the hotel’s previous owner.
Grand Bahamians need to know when negotiations with Holistica can be expected to come to a close, and they need not have to continue to hear the perpetual refrain of “we will tell you soon”, to the question of whether promised economic revitalization from the originally announced deal will materialize.
And if the magnitude of revitalization will not materialize as promised, Grand Bahama needs to know as soon as is practicable, what will happen next.
Tribune Business reported last week on a proposed “new wonder-of-the-world” redevelopment of the former Ginn project in West End, which its report said is being pursued by Kingwood International Resorts and its principals.
Tourism Minister Chester Cooper has not advised the Parliament or the press on whether the proposed development is before government for what would be the necessary approvals, and did not respond to our message last week requesting an interview on matters pertaining to Grand Bahama’s tourism product.
Meantime, at last report, Carnival Cruise Lines’ proposed cruise port for Freeport is slated for completion in 2025, some three years from now.