By ALICIA WALLACE
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis confirmed on Monday the government intends to buy the Grand Lucayan hotel properties — Memories, Breaker’s Cay, and Lighthouse Pointe — which closed for repairs following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Close to 1,000 people lost their jobs and Lighthouse Pointe was the only property to reopen, now employing approximately 320 people. The decision to purchase, of course, has drawn mixed reviews from the Bahamian people. The announcement comes at an odd time, following the 60 percent increase in Value Added Tax and the $90,000 cut in school uniform assistance.
Those opposed to the purchase, including Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis, believe buying the resort, making the necessary repairs and upgrades is too costly. They are of the opinion it would be better to find a private buyer.
In the estimation of Paul Wynn, previously interested in purchasing the resort, it would cost $120m to reopen (including a minimum of $45m for renovations). When his offer of $45m — reduced from $65m — was refused, he considered it economically unviable, especially given the cost involved in increasing airlift into Freeport. He said he would require major subsidies to assist with this and other costs.
There is a 2018-2019 budget allocation for $25m which was originally intended for an equity stake in the Grand Lucayan. It remains unclear where the government intends to obtain additional funds for the purchase. Minnis has promised a report on the financial details will come this week. The government will certainly have to address the same issues private buyers would consider, from rebuilding airlift to getting rid of the mould.
Davis raised a number of issues with the government purchasing the resort. He said the government needs to know what is going to attract people to the resort, what it will offer, how it will be branded, as well as who will manage it and what the cost would be. Even so, no viable alternative has been suggested by the Opposition.
Pelican Bay managing director Magnus Alnebeck said in December 2017 that the buyer of Grand Bahama’s anchor hotel must have experience in destination development as they would be starting with nothing. He noted Pelican Bay has been getting by on corporate business. He said: “Whoever comes in has to have the contacts to come in with the flights, charter flights and distribution channels, because by then we will have been off the map for two years.”
This is clearly not just about reopening a hotel or keeping a property open. More is required to improve Grand Bahama’s economic situation.
Minnis appears to be trying to make good on a promise, albeit a bit late. The Grand Bahama economy has been suffering for years and the recovery many hoped for has not yet come. The Grand Lucayan was to be open for the 2017-2018 winter season, but complications with the sale prevented it. The Grand Bahama economy remains desperate for a boost and, for whatever reason, people seem to think a hotel cures all ills.
As the clock ticks and the people of Grand Bahama demand attention and assistance, perhaps Minnis does not have the ability to devise a more sustainable, timely solution. Thus far, the only thing administration after administration has sustained in Grand Bahamas is neglect. Minnis made the connection between the Grand Lucayan and the Lucayan strip, the marketplace, tour buses and taxis. As the latter depend on the former for work, the closure of the hotel would affect more than its direct employees.
Minnis admitted the government should not be in the hotel business, but believes it is critical the government take action to avoid an increase in unemployment. The people of Grand Bahama need relief now and all Bahamians need to know where the money is coming from to buy the hotel and how the tourism industry will be rebuilt there. Buying the hotel is only the beginning when we are taking about mushrooms growing on walls. What has been proposed in simple language is actually a massive undertaking.
Of course hotels provide employment and occupancy brings business to the surrounding area, but this still depends on guests. What, aside from rooms, will bring tourists to Grand Bahama? Outside of tourism and hotels, what does Grand Bahama have? What does it need? What can it create? It seems easy to fall back on the old methods, even when they have failed us, but we need to look at the potential that exists and tap into it. The fate of Grand Bahama cannot rest with one resort.
Is there a choice?
On the other side of the argument is former GBPA in-house counsel Leonard Carey who, in his comments about the idea in July, said he considers purchase by the government the only remaining option. He sees it as a better than having no movement at all and an opportunity to negotiate with other potential buyers. He also mentioned the rumour that Cheung Kong Property Holdings would close Lighthouse Pointe by the end of September if there is no buyer.
It is possible that, once the government does the spending and the work to make Grand Lucayan all it can be, the resort will be more attractive to investors. Maybe that is the plan. Would the government recoup its expenditure? Does it intend to, or is it committed to saving the resort at all costs? The questions are many and the answers, right now, are few. The conversation about the resort, Grand Bahama and their seemingly intertwined fate show the level of participation we want to have in these decisions and accountability we demand of the government. We do not expect one person or administration to make a decision without involving us or, at the very least, providing full details. If there is a choice, we are bringing our voices to it.
We maintain a narrow view of tourism. Sun, sand and sea have worked for us for so long we unwilling to imagine our potential to attract people for other reasons. We have seen sports tourism and religious tourism bring thousands and thousands of people to The Bahamas over the past few years. The government’s decision to pull out of hosting the IAAF World Relays was a blow to many Bahamians who benefitted from the event in a range of ways. People look forward to these events, both for recreation and business opportunities. There are other industries that could contribute to and benefit from tourism, if only we commit to exploring and executing new ideas.
The Bahamas is home to scholars and experts in a wide range of fields and could easily become a destination for educational and training experiences. There are endless opportunities to promote our marine life and offer experiences that are unmatched. We have farmers developing innovative approaches to sustaining livestock and growing the food we need and love. We have celebrated playwrights, world-renowned musicians, and award-winning chefs. People know their names, are familiar with their work and would jump at the opportunity to meet with and learn from them. They are flown out to conferences and workshops all the time. When will we host them and invite the world to come to their home?
In an article in Monday’s Tribune, Dr Desiree Cox made reference to the well-known fact that our tourism model is outdated and there is more than enough room to grow. She noted The Bahamas “enacted into law its regulatory and ethics process for stem cell therapy”, and pointed to the subsequent potential to attract business development, entrepreneurship and investment. With research already taking place in Nassau and Freeport and the new Enterprise Bill, Cox suggests the opportunity for job creation in health and biotech has increased.
Advancements in this field could lead to a new tourist market. Dr Cox has also demonstrated, by organising the inaugural Future Health Innovation Summit to be held in October, how opportunities for educational advancement and networking can be combined with the work of other industries to diversify tourism in The Bahamas.
Something must be done about Grand Lucayan resort. The unemployment rate in Grand Bahama needs to be decreased. The people of Grand Bahama need opportunities and we need to remember they do not only exist in resorts.