By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A world-renowned dive guru yesterday said the Bahamas was sacrificing “quality for quantity” with its tourism development policies for Bimini, adding that he was “heartbroken” the Court of Appeal had failed to halt Resorts World’s dredging.
Neal Watson, president of Neal Watson Undersea Adventures, told Tribune Business that the developer’s controversial cruise ship terminal and dock were “jeopardising” this nation’s allure for the very high-end tourists it was seeking to attract.
Pointing to the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) research, which estimated that 38 per cent of dive visitors to destinations such as Bimini came from households with over $100,000 in annual income, Mr Watson said his nation was effectively “trading” this demographic for “Kalik and conch chowder” tourists.
Speaking after the Court of Appeal rejected the Bimini Blue Coalition’s second bid for an injunction that would have stopped Resorts World’s dredging, Mr Watson said of the ruling: “I’m speechless. I’m shocked. I just can’t understand it. It make no sense to me.
“I was so confident that I was not even worried that they’d rule in favour of stopping the dredging. It’s beyond logic and reason. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Court of Appeal rejected the Coalition’s injunction bid by a 2:1 majority, and Mr Watson lamented that no further recourse appeared to be open to those opposing the Resorts World development.
But Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner, told Tribune Business that as the Coalition’s legal adviser he will “certainly be considering an appeal to the Privy Council on an urgent basis” depending on the justices’ written reasons for their verdict, which will be handed down today.
In the meantime, Mr Watson told Tribune Business that the silt thrown up by Resorts World’s initial dredging, and which appeared to have breached protective barriers and curtains, had based on initial photos “covered one-third of the dive sites and the fishing areas off north Bimini”.
“There’s no way that you can take divers on that site with that silt,” he said. “It would be like diving in a glass of milk.
“That initial picture told the story. The visibility that the Bahamas benefited from, the clearest in the word, will be destroyed to the point where you can’t have dives in the water.”
Mr Watson said the silt would be akin “to a blanket over your garden” in terms of its impact on surrounding marine and coral life.
He explained that this would be a recurring problem if the Resorts World project proceeded to finish, as the Bimini Superfast’s propellers would regularly ‘stir up’ these silt deposits and disperse them more widely.
“The sad thing from an economic viewpoint is to look at the client demographic being jeopardised,” Mr Watson told Tribune Business.
“This Memorial Day, every slip in every marina in the Bahamas will be filled. Those slips will have boats ranging in value from $100,000 to $8-$10 million.
‘They are here for the fishing and diving. All the dive boats will be full. They are jeopardising that clientele for a $69 per cruise trip person who is maybe going to buy a kalik beer and conch chowder, and throw trash in the street.
“It makes no sense. They’re trading quality for quantity. For Bimini, it’s going to be catastrophic.”
DEMA’s research has pegged the dive industry’s total economic impact for Bimini at $19 million per annum, with $11 million generated by Florida-based day boaters and the remaining $8 million produced through local Bahamas Dive Association members.
Total annual dive visitors were estimated to be 6,700, with average spend per person a high $2,800.
DEMA also estimated that 50 per cent of dive visitors to places such as Bimini have a net worth of between $1-$2 million, and 84 per cent owned their own home.
Mr Watson said he had little confidence that the ‘mega resort’ model being employed by Resorts World would work, and questioned what would happen if the developer - like so many others - ultimately abandoned the Bahamas.
“We’re going to have destroyed the natural, God-given resources,” the immediate past president of the Bahamas Diving Association told Tribune Business.
“Man can build hotels, he can build resorts, he can build amusement parks. Man cannot create crystal clear waters and some of the world’s most beautiful dive sites. Those are a gift; we can’t build them.
“We’re destroying this for man-made structures that are not going to survive, taking back God’s given gift. It’s the people of Bimini that are the collateral damage,” Mr Watson added.
“I’m struck speechless and just bewildered that this can happen. I went to Bimini 40 years ago next year, and looking at what it will be a year from now, it just breaks my heart. I don’t know what to say.”
Mr Watson warned that word would quickly spread among the international diving fraternity that Bimini would “no longer have the quality of diving it was known for 50 years”, and persons would go elsewhere.
“The Biminites should be crying right now. I don’t know what other recourse there is. Everyone fought the good fight,” he told Tribune Business.
Resorts World Bimini, in a short statement e-mailed to Tribune Business pledged to move ahead with dredging as rapidly as possible.
It said of yesterday’s court ruling: “Resorts World Bimini is respectful of the appeals process and supports the court’s denial of the requested injunction.
“We will continue to work as expeditiously on our development as the approvals allow.”
This is the second injunction application that Resorts World has defeated, and it is likely the Coalition’s inability to pay security for costs - to cover the developers’ losses if work was stopped - weighed heavily on the decision.
A work stoppage would likely have cost Resorts World millions of dollars, as its dredging shop would have been forced to sit idle or go elsewhere, with construction crews also having to demobilise.
Mr Smith, though, warned that the seeming breach of the protective silt barrier was “destroying Bimini’s potential for eco-tourism, big game fishing, diving and to provide food for the Biminites when the foreign developer closes down operations and leaves when the going gets tough”.
Resorts World has repeatedly stated it is in the Bahamas as a long-term investment, although Mr Smith reeled off a long list of foreign developers who have exited this nation.
He added that, based on the injunction granted without a damages undertaking in the Great Guana Cay case, there was precedent for the Privy Council to overrule the Court of Appeal.
“People will be able to visit Miami in Bimini, and Biminites will be foreigners in their own land. That is not responsible development,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business.