By Roderick A. Simms II, BCCEC director
Family Island division chairperson
EXUMA is slowly climbing its way up the ladder to becoming a leading centre of economic activity. Like most Family Islands it is faced with problems surrounding infrastructure development. However, this should not put a halt to its potential growth. Exuma offers a tranquil and luxurious getaway, with a number of eco-tourism ventures waiting to be explored. The island is also no stranger to the hotel and tourism industry. It has some of the best ultra-inclusive hotels and resorts for the perfect honeymoon or luxury business trip to entertain investors. Exuma's needed enhancements should not detract from the truth that it is a lucrative investment hub waiting to be tapped into.
Hotels and Resorts
Most hotels and resorts are attractive in Exuma's idyllic settings. There is never an excuse to be bored in Exuma, because an opportunity for fun or investment is always right around the corner. For instance, Sandals Emerald Bay is one of the Caribbean's leading all-inclusive resorts that is sure to never disappoint with service, outdoor activities, dining and nightlife. The resort has also put the Bahamas on the map for sports tourism in the Family Islands by hosting the first-ever Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tournament. With an excellent rating for a two-person getaway, this resort is also one of the largest employers on the island, making it a crucial component in the livelihood of residents.
Another historic property is Exuma's Peace and Plenty hotel, which was acquired last October by US-based real estate development company, SMS Lodging, under a new partnership with Exuma real estate investors, Steve and Patrick Harrington, and Bahamian entrepreneur, Burton Rodgers. Its central location in downtown Georgetown is ideal for visitors to access Exuma's famous swimming pigs, beaches and diving adventures. Another notable property is the February Point development, which is seen as key to Georgetown's revival. High hopes have been set for the development, but its economic contribution has yet to be fully felt.
The ambiguity surrounding investments of these size often leaves Bahamians in the dark about how well they are performing, and this is where things start to get tricky. The argument about the need for more boutique hotels tends to surface when talking about Family Island over-reliance on mega-resorts. The truth, which is often overlooked, is that most Family Islands such already have more small boutique hotels as opposed to large hotels. This raises the question of whether reaching for economic prosperity should rely only on hotel and resort developments on the island. As times continue to change, more studies have to be done on why persons choose to travel to island states. Is it still mainly because of sun, sand and sea?
Exuma provides some proof that travellers are looking for more than just a weekend trip or annual family vacation. This is not to say that tourism should not be the mainstay of Exuma's economy, but there are other areas outside this sector that are worth exploiting. While the Exuma Cays are already known for their offerings in celebrity real estate, it is important to point out that the cays surrounding Little Exuma and Great Exuma are also becoming abuzz with activity. The amount of visitor traffic coming into Exuma provides residents with an opportunity to get into the vacation rental business. There have already been some concerns raised about the availability of room inventory on the island. As of June 2015, the total room inventory on Exuma totaled 839, but has since increased marginally.
Exuma is one of those islands that will only truly hit rock bottom if a series of catastrophic events occur. While economic growth remains stagnant throughout the Bahamas, residents have used the business of vacation rentals to stimulate economic growth. In fact, a local news article stated that 50 per cent of the 200 homes in Exuma's 'second' home market are advertised for short-term rentals through popular websites such as AirBnB and TripAdvisor. The expansion of this market leads to more services being needed in various small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs), banking and construction. The industry has expanded so rapidly throughout the Bahamas that the Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with AirBnB last October to help regulate the sector.
With growing demand and interest, the Government must help to facilitate the ease of doing business for persons interested in making a living from vacation rentals and seeking to benefit from increased economic activity. There are only a few local businesses attempting to cater to the needs of tourists and locals at the same time. Why not expand SME offerings in Exuma? It would be great to see more industries popping up in the face of this growing sector to help compete for certain goods and services. There is a need to revive the spirit of business ownership and entrepreneurship on the island. This has to be done by both the Government and the private sector. A move like this would also help to keep more tourism dollars from leaking, and perhaps Exuma could become an example of how to reduce the 85 per cent earnings loss that the Bahamian tourism industry faces.
Eco-tourism is another win for Exuma, and one of the island's biggest sellers. It is almost unheard of to visit Exuma and not experience the famous swimming pigs. Accordingly, tour operators such as the Great Exuma Eco-Adventure Tour and taxi drivers enjoy lucrative business from this attraction. Diving and snorkeling in the Thunderball Grotto or Dean's Blue Hole are also great choices for someone looking to explore the island's aquatic wonders. Of course, exploring the beaches of Stocking Island on the other side of Elizabeth Harbour should also be a part of one's schedule. For nature lovers, the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is definitely the place to visit. Persons can explore 11 cays along with a variety of unique species.
As mentioned earlier, Exuma has the potential to become a leader for economic activity in the Bahamas. Grand Bahama has often been the 'poster child' for travel outside Nassau/Paradise Island. The two islands- Exuma and Grand Bahama - do share some extreme differences. For the most part, Exuma's economy is more tourism-driven and Grand Bahama is a well-known industrial/technology hub. But Grand Bahama's anemic tourism product can be a lesson for Exuma's growing model.
Grand Bahama has had little success since 2004 with foreign direct investments (FDIs) in the hotel industry. The first major hit for the island was the Royal Oasis, which abruptly closed in 2004 following Hurricane Frances and was sold to the Harcourt Development Group for $33 million in 2007. This resulted in the loss of almost 1,000 jobs. Then, the Ginn project was also shutdown amid the 2008 financial crisis due to problems with project financing. The most recent blow to the island's economy is the closure of the Grand Lucyan hotel complex since October 2016 following the passage of Hurricane Matthew. These events have led many to question whether tourism is a sustainable source of revenue for Grand Bahama.
Therefore, why not shift the focus to another Family Island such as Exuma? After all, Exuma is an attractive island. It has luxury real estate offerings, it has established hotel brands, it has the human capital, it has the land and it has the utilities already in place. Although Grand Bahama has a better airport than Exuma at the moment, there are plans for a new $20 million Exuma International Airport, which is expected to be completed in 2019. It will include upgrades such as a WIFI-enabled terminal building and air and landside improvements. This could also help to improve visitor arrivals to Exuma, which are significantly less than Grand Bahama. However, with a few reasonable incentives, there is no reason why investors should not jump on tourism projects outside the regular hotel offerings.
Exuma has had its fair share of problems with foreign direct investments (FDI), but the island has still enjoyed success in sustaining tourism. Exuma has the potential to become a tourism hotspot for the Bahamas, following in the footsteps of Nassau/Paradise Island. If more attention is paid to developing the island's tourism model, perhaps Exuma could attract more visitors to the Bahamas. This does not mean that Grand Bahama's tourism product should be ignored, but perhaps the focus should be placed more on its industrial potential. Exuma could definitely be on the brink of a tourism breakthrough with just a little more hard work put into developing the island.
While all Family Islands have their unique offerings, Exuma's potential for economic activity and investment stands out. The island is well branded with the necessary flair already in place to attract investors for medium to large-scale tourism projects. In addition, residents have the ability to take advantage of tourism-related ventures by opening small to medium-sized businesses that would increase economic activity. For residents outside Exuma, an opportunity also presents itself to purchase 'fixer uppers' or properties on the market to renovate them into picturesque vacation rentals. Exuma simply speaks volumes of investment opportunities. Persons from around the world are travelling to Exuma just to see its famous swimming pigs or to experience the island's iconic hotels. This island is indeed a great indication that it is 'Better in the Bahamas'. It just requires a stronger push from all of us to accomplish greater things.