By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Grand Bahama will face "a tough climb yet again" should Hurricane Irma make a direct strike on its already-struggling economy, Tribune Business was told yesterday.
Mick Holding, the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce's president, said that with the island's tourism product "still down in the doldrums" through the Grand Lucayan closure, even a near-miss by Irma could further prolong recovery efforts.
"It's clearly not going to help," he added of Irma's potential threat, "and potentially it pushes our recovery back, but I think people on Grand Bahama have shown their resilience before, and I'm sure we will come through it again."
The Category Five storm's impact on Grand Bahama is currently hard to predict, but its present forecast track places West End - and possibly Freeport - within range of its hurricane-force winds, and life-threatening storm surges and floods.
Further damage to the Grand Lucayan, Freeport's 'anchor' hotel property, would threaten to prolong the property's 11-month closure post-Hurricane Matthew, and potentially increase the cost and complexity associated with the Government's efforts to re-open it.
With doubts increasing over whether the Grand Lucayan can be repaired, and re-opened, in time for the upcoming winter tourism season, Mr Holding acknowledged that Irma might only exacerbate these concerns.
"Obviously the the tourism sector is still down in the doldrums, so hopefully there will be no further damage to the hotels, as this will put us further backward," he told Tribune Business.
"If we do suffer damage, it will obviously push us back."
Tourism data released this week confirmed the continuing economic damage caused by the Grand Lucayan's closure, and subsequent Memories pull-out earlier this year, which has cost Grand Bahama over 1,000 jobs and 59 per cent of its hotel room inventory.
The Central Bank attributed the 6 per cent decline in total stopover visitors to the Bahamas during the 2017 first half primarily to the Grand Lucayan's closure, and resulting sharp air arrivals reduction.
Total visitors to Grand Bahama fell by 25 per cent during the 2017 first half, following a 5.5 per cent fall the previous year. "Constrained by reduced room-capacity, air arrivals fell by 44.3 per cent after a 15 per cent fall in the prior year, when the appreciation of the US Dollar negatively impacted several markets," the Central Bank said.
Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner, told Tribune Business that Freeport and Grand Bahama "will survive" whatever Irma throws at them.
He conceded, though, that each hurricane strike on the island left its economy with a longer road to travel towards recovery.
"I am very anxious, having lived through decades of hurricanes that have traumatically impacted Grand Bahama, and from which we have yet to recover to pre-hurricane times," Mr Smith said.
"It appears that we have a bad luck streak up here politically, economically and from a climate perspective. The PLP hits us, the world economy hits us, and the hurricane hits us.
"Freeport and Grand Bahama will survive," Mr Smith emphasised, "but it's going to be a tough climb yet again if we receive a direct or indirect hit [from Irma].
"Many of the businesses are still trying to recover from Frances, Jeanne, Wilma and, of course, Matthew."
With Freeport's economy "at a low ebb" due to the low number of stopover tourists, Mr Smith said many businesses were unable to afford to close their doors for one week, let alone two or three.
He added that "the cost of repairing and ramping back up for business" was now prohibitive for many small and medium-sized enterprises, and said the pre-hurricane "mini-boom" enjoyed by the likes of food stores and gas stations provided "a false indicator" on the health of Freeport's economy.