What tourists want

Dear Editor,

In recent travels to other places the rapid development of those other places seems so much more resilient and transformative than we seem able to muster here in The Bahamas. In Puerto Rico, under the weight of Irma’s and Maria’s devastation and in the wake of awful economic crisis, there are gems sprouting and programs growing that give locals and tourists options.

The experimental restaurant scene is hopping; music is happening and small boutiques, shops and bars are popping up next to devastated buildings, skeletons of hurricane fury and economic decline. These are the kinds of attractions tourists want. Tourism thrives when diverse offerings grow organically and the market is not controlled by one development or resort model. Simultaneously, local communities do better through creating opportunity for themselves.

In San Juan, the energy flows. It is not the pristine, plastic and shimmer of Gucci, Coach, Ferragamo on Ashford Avenue in Condado, but the small funky, eateries along Ponce de Leon Avenue in Miramar and Santurce, heading towards Hato Rey, the banking sector that attract my attention. Slowly business people, entrepreneurs and chefs, seamstresses, designers and others are bringing their creative practice to the table.

Abracadabra offers delicious lunches and live music. Lote 23, a gathering of food trucks, gives foodies and drinkers an inexpensive and delicious selection of delicacies. Some offer more traditional fare with new twists while others bring in international influences and add their own flare. The food is fabulous, and the atmosphere terrific. Open-air dining with Big Ass fans to keep diners cool, the shadow of sail shades and awnings and the gentle music wafting from speakers is like stepping into an oasis in the middle of the city heat and chaos. A few blocks down the road, back towards Old San Juan and the tourist glitz of Condado, buildings stand waiting for their end, among other face-lifted, renovated spaces. A fabulous and disarming mix of Puerto Rican and international flavor is on offer. Artisans and artists sell local favorites as well as personal inspirations. It’s vibing.

Gallo Negro and Soda, restaurants along Ponce de Leon Ave, compete with older favorites like la Placita in Santurce, a traditional Caribbean market by day and a hip and hipster hangout on Thursday evenings and weekends. The Botanica meets the bar. A young, upcoming industry with small local designers builds energy. Though la Placita has been around for years, it seems to be constantly changing and growing.

The neighborhood is edgy and grimy in places and upmarket and chic in other spots, but it is uniquely Puerto Rican or somehow a fusion of New York, Austin, Chicago in Puerto Rico. Understand, though, that the savages of nature, natural disasters, corruption and economic mismanagement have seriously damaged the area, but that has not killed the spirit. So, why does this not happen in Nassau?

Why are we seemingly stuck offering only high-end, incredibly expensive boutique, poor-copies of Miami that do not reflect local flare or design choice in The Bahamas? Spatterings of localness, local creativity and local international fusion that show identity and creativity are what tourists want. They seek out local experiences, not fabricated export-only designed in the metropolis moments they can have in their original version for less money.

We seem to have lost the flare for what is truly Bahamian. The example of Puerto Rican entrepreneurism is at odds with the economic reality and the natural chaos of Puerto Rican infrastructural collapse, but it works. Many different experiences fill two square miles in San Juan and offer tourists and locals alike the time and space to relax, enjoy and be.

We can cook Bahamian food with a flare for the non-fattening; not all Bahamian food has to be salt pork or beef and lard-loaded, or limited to macaroni and potato salad. We do grow vegetables, as the vibrant and usually bustling weekend farmers markets demonstrate. Why is this not translating into real entrepreneurial flare and vigor around the island? If we strike Bay Street from the list, given its focus on FDI control and development, we should be able to build a Bahamian space filled with creativity, designed by small, local designers and creatives that truly highlights the bliss of island living. Instead, we seem bound by government “stuckness” and lack of imagination or local-focus.

In Nassau, and in most of The Bahamas, we often talk about tourism being the determiner of everything we do. We build a straw market and fill it with made-in-China, mass-produced Bahamas T-shirts that can be found in every port the cruise ships dock at. Government is seen as holding the key, or the lock and the key to everything that happens in the economy. Let’s build Bahamian-flavored businesses that attract different kinds of tourists and bring people out of all-inclusive spaces.

Many of the young Puerto Ricans who have fought to create and design new food, drinks and fashion have no family wealth to call on; they don’t have government backing; they get on with it with grit, determination and inspiration; they grow businesses that are small nuggets of fused cultural expression.

Meanwhile, on New Providence in particular, Bahamian businesses meet their death as the price of doing business in paradise increases, and local establishments shutter up. Can we move out of government control over everything? That Puerto-Rican-style diversity is what locals and tourists want. How do we make this a Bahamian reality too? Government will not do it nor will they let people do it. It just has to happen.

– Ian A. Bethell-Bennett

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