By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
THE Bahamas is ranked number one in general aviation arrivals in the Caribbean in terms of dollar value, earning a whopping $387 million annually, according to a senior tourism executive.
Bahamian pilot Captain Greg Rolle, senior director sales marketing and sports at the Ministry of Tourism, said this was accomplished within five years following the launch of its Flying Ambassador Programme in Florida.
St Maarten comes closest to the Bahamas in the region, earning $100 million annually from general aviation traffic, Capt Rolle said.
The flying ambassadors are private pilots who live in the state of Florida and love to come to the Bahamas and organise group flying-ins to the islands.
Capt Rolle said: “It (the flying ambassador programme) made so much sense and we saw the Bahamas was such a good fit for private pilots, and so we made it increasingly easy for them to fly in the Bahamas.”
In 2010, the government also made certain policy changes in aviation that allowed experimental light sport and special aircrafts to fly to the Bahamas without prior permission.
“When we took over aviation we had a lot of policies in place and we put some things in place and within five years the Bahamas became number one in general aviation arrival in terms of dollar value. We earn $387 million from general aviation traffic,” Mr Rolle said.
Mr Rolle said the flying ambassadors have a vast network within the Florida area, and they bring people from Naples, Orlando, Tampa and other parts of the state to the Bahamas which has paid off in a major way.
With Grand Bahama’s proximity to Florida (50 miles), Mr Rolle said the island should be brimming over with private planes who can fly to Freeport in 25 to 35 minutes.
“The Grand Bahama Air Show (May 19 and 20) is the second step in terms of bringing the novelty of what private pilots and visitors can experience in this destination,” he said. “I am excited about GB being the mecca for airshows in the future, he said. With the partnerships, we have made (in aviation) and the team, we can make it happen. I want to make the Bahamas the best aviation-friendly destination in this hemisphere, and with the work we have done with Mike Zidzunias we now have a relationship with Sun ‘n Fun, the largest aviation show in the United States.”
Mr Zidzunias, one of first flying ambassadors for the Bahamas, said they were thrilled when the Bahamas government revolutionised its aviation and allowed experimental light sport and special aircrafts to flying without permission in 2010. “I could hardly believe it and when it was announced in Oshkosh (Wisconsin) I jumped in my plane and flew over here right away in a light sport airplane,” he said.
Mr Zidzunias said Mr Rolle contacted him about organising the first light sport fly-in to the Bahamas.“I agreed to help him and I was happy to do it. We brought 18 light sport airplanes in the December, 2010, for a fly-in to the Bahamas to show the world how easy it is to fly to the Bahamas and what a wonderful experience we had.
Mr Zidzunias has also implemented the Young Eagles for Bahamian students and has flown approximately 50 Bahamian students. The initiative is to inspire young Bahamians interested in aviation.