* ‘Can’t bury heads in sand’ on Freeport recovery path
* Gov’t must ‘sooner rather than later’ realise key truth
* Rebound chief urges mindset shift on ‘cultural issues’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas will never generate the 4,000-5,000 new jobs that it needs per year over the next two decades by remaining reliant on its ‘twin pillar’ economic model, a top attorney warned yesterday.
Robert Adams, who heads the Revitalisation and Economic Expansion of Freeport (REEF) committee, told Tribune Business this was why the Government and wider Bahamas needed to realise “sooner rather than later” that “the path to recovery lies through” the nation’s second city - and the diversification potential it offers - in COVID-19’s aftermath.
Calling for “a paradigm shift” in The Bahamas’s economic thinking, he described the country’s two long-standing ‘pillars’ - tourism and financial services - as “low hanging fruit” that it had to do relatively little work in developing due to its geographical location and advent of bank secrecy. Now, with neither industry able to fully meet the population’s growing demand for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, Mr Adams said The Bahamas will have “to apply itself a little more to take advantage” of possibilities to generate faster gross domestic product (GDP) growth and diversify.
Voicing optimism that this can be done, the Delaney Partners consultant attorney identified developing Freeport as “the maritime centre of the Americas” and the sustainable exploitation of marine resource by developing the so-called “blue economy” as opportunities that can be seized.
He quickly pointed out, though, that this will require a “cultural shift” in many Bahamians thinking such that industries such as mariculture and aquaculture are not seen as sectors solely for persons lacking academic qualifications.
Mr Adams spoke out as the REEF Committee, which was appointed by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), prepares to release the results of the public consultation on its proposals for Freeport’s post-COVID-19 and Dorian economic revival.
Arguing that the Bahamian economy now stands at a pivotal point in its history, he told Tribune Business: “We need to have a paradigm shift. We need 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs every year for the next 20 years, and that’s not going to come out of financial services and tourism alone. It’s unrealistic. “That’s why I say The Bahamas’ path to recovery lies through Freeport, and that’s where the additional pillars of our economy can be born and grow. The sooner the Government and others realise that, the better it will be for the national economy.”
While the Government and GBPA have often had a rocky relationship since the Hawksbill Creek Agreement was signed in 1955, Mr Adams said the latter “stands ready, willing and able to do what is required” to haul Freeport and the wider Bahamian economy back from the brink.
The GBPA’s critics will likely challenge this assertion, but Mr Adams meanwhile argued The Bahamas had not had to work hard to develop the tourism and financial services industries that represent the ‘twin pillars’ of its economic foundation.
“The thing about tourism and financial services as industries is that I describe them as low hanging fruit,” he explained. “I don’t think we had to do much once we had banking confidentiality to develop the financial services industry.
“Once banking confidentiality drifted away from us, it became a challenge. Year after year we’re seeing a decline in the financial services business, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to compete internationally as a financial services centre.
“Similarly with tourism. We didn’t have to do much. We had sea, sun and sand in abundance all around us, and proximity to the US eastern seaboard made it easy for us to take advantage of it.
“These other industries require us to apply ourselves a bit more to take advantage of them. We have the talented people and can do it.”
Giving an insight into the REEF committee’s thinking and some of the feedback it has received, Mr Adams hinted that food security was a critical issue for many who participated in its consultation process.
The so-called “blue economy”, involving the sustainable exploitation of the country’s ocean and marine resources, as well as making Freeport a regional maritime hub were said by Mr Adams to have “resonated well” with persons seeing this as a “logical path” for Freeport’s development and to also build on the assets it already possesses such as the harbour and shipyard.
“That’s the way forward for Freeport and, I dare say, the way forward for The Bahamas,” he added.
“When you look at the reality of what is happening to other major parts of the economy, we cannot bury our heads in the sand as to what confronts us. We can’t.
“We need jobs, and we need economic opportunities. A lot of those opportunities lie in the natural resources that God has vested us with. We need to harness those opportunities efficiently, making capital available to Bahamian entrepreneurs.
“We need to become more open with respect to allowing people with capital and expertise from outside to come in and work with Bahamians to take advantage of these opportunities, and we need to be more focused and strategic in training our people.”
Mr Adams, though, warned that The Bahamas will have to tackle “cultural issues” and attitudes, citing fisheries as one area where this needed to occur given the potential for fish farming, aquaculture and mariculture.
“We need to have a paradigm shift in out thinking that these are jobs for those not academically gifted,” he told Tribune Business.
“That’s not the case. The academically gifted are the ones we need to focus on these industries. There’s a lot of work to be done, but that’s the way forward for The Bahamas.
“We can build on what we have, but this over-reliance on tourism and financial services to keep us going is not the way forward for us. We need to broaden our base, and natural resources are a natural opportunity to provide a better standing of living for our people.”
Sand and aragonite mining, and their export, also held potential for The Bahamas, Mr Adams said. He also argued that this nation must stop viewing southern Caribbean countries “as the enemy” and look to increase trade and commerce with them as a means to achieve further diversification.
“We also need to tackle energy in exploiting these pillars,” he added. “We have to tackle our energy costs and become more efficient. That’s a big factor of production and has been a major impediment towards expanding into these pillars. If other countries have done it with less, I think we can do it with some focus and effort.”