DPM praises ‘exceptional’ Sandals 95% occupancy

Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper.

Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper.


Tribune Business Editor


The deputy prime minister yesterday hailed Sandals Emerald Bay’s “exceptional” 90-95 percent slow season occupancy levels with the resort chain eyeing further Bahamas expansion. 

Chester Cooper, also minister of tourism, investments and aviation, told the Exuma Business Outlook conference that Sandals was expected to start “expansion in earnest” at its Emerald Bay property by 2023.

And he also disclosed that Sandals’ ownership was presently “deciding timelines” for bringing its Beaches brand to Exuma - a move it has considered in the past but never followed through on.

Describing the Emerald Bay resort’s performance during the traditional September/October lull for tourism as “a record for anywhere in The Bahamas”, Mr Cooper told attendees: “Sandals Emerald Bay is without question the flagship property in Exuma.

“The economic contribution of Sandals to Exuma I do not need to herald today, but it is undeniable... I am happy to report that in a recent meeting with Sandals, the Emerald Bay resort is preparing itself for renovation. It’s been a robust contributor to the island.

“It’s returned to its busy levels, and I was advised that they’re running - even during the slow period - occupancies as high as 90-95 percent. This exceptional performance is a record for tourism anywhere in the country.”

With Sandals Emerald Bay having rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Cooper said the chain was already looking to the property’s future. “We expect that by 2023 Sandals will begin in earnest expansion of its resort,” he added. “Ownership is deciding timeline to introduce its Beaches brand to Exuma, which will be a first for The Bahamas.”

Unlike Sandals, which is primarily targeted at adult couples, the Beaches brand is focused more on families. Speculation that the resort chain was focusing on Exuma for a new Beaches location has surfaced before, but never ultimately materialised into any actual hotel development, which Mr Cooper alluded to yesterday.

“I’ve indicated to them I’ve heard that [before], and I’ve told them to ensure that Mrs Cooper can cut the ribbon to the resort before 2026,” he joked, referring to the Davis administration’s expected last year in office.

The deputy prime minister, meanwhile, reassured his Exuma constituents that the long-awaited resort project for Children’s Bay Cay and Williams Cay was “not pie in the sky” and that its developers have the financing to complete what has increased from a $200m to $300m investment.

“The principals are still keenly interested in this development,” Mr Cooper said. “I know it’s taken a while, and the people of Barratarre are getting bored of it, but the good news is that $200m has increased significantly by $100m.

“The even better news is that it is going to happen; it is not pie in the sky. And the even better better news is they’ve got their own money. We have this thing of show me the money, and they’ve shown the money. It’s just a matter of completing the launch and the design. One of my priorities is to shepherd this project out of the pipeline.”

Many Exuma residents, though, are likely to be sceptical given the seeming lack of progress by the Children’s Bay principals since the project’s Heads of Agreement was signed with the last Christie administration more than five years ago in 2016.

The development’s principal is Swiss businesswoman Dona Bertarelli, whose billionaire family was said to be heavily involved with philanthropic activities in areas such as marine conservation, life sciences and children’s education.

At the time of the Heads of Agreement signing, she was managing her family’s business interests, including the five-star Grand Hotel Park in Gstaad that was rated as 2013 Best Hotel in Switzerland and ranked in the 2012 Robb Report’s World Best Resorts list.

Mr Cooper, also Exuma’s MP, also served notice of his ambitions to make Exuma an air and transportation “hub” not just for the south and central Bahamas but for the northern Caribbean region.

“I have a very clear road map as to how we can make Exuma boom,” he added. “I envision it as a hub for the central and southern Bahamas and our immediate northern Caribbean neighbours. That will position us as a force, not just in The Bahamas, but throughout the region.”

The deputy prime minister said the return of Air Canada Vacations via weekly 136-seater flights from Toronto, during the period December 19 to April 17, 2022, provided a glimpse of how such a “hub” could function. He added that it was now Exuma’s responsibility to deliver the experience to drive guest demand and encourage more frequent airline services.

Turning to aviation, Mr Cooper revealed that the Government was looking to make either Black Point or Staniel Cay an international point of entry to further open-up access to the Exuma Cays for wealthy investors and tourists, thereby creating more job and entrepreneurial opportunities for Exuma residents.

“We’re looking at a private-public partnership (PPP) for the redevelopment of Black Point airport by lengthening the runway and creation of a new terminal,” he added.

The deputy prime minister said he had also asked Woslee Construction Company to expedite the $65m redevelopment of Exuma International Airport, after being informed that the new terminal building is due for completion by March 2023.

Indicating that he is hoping for a December 2022 finish, Mr Cooper said: “We’ve waited too long. You have my assurances this process will not linger. You have my assurances that development of Exuma’s airport will not slow, it will not stop.”

With healthcare another pressing concern for Exuma’s residents, the deputy prime minister conceded that staffing and equipping the island’s mini-hospital has “lingered too long”. However, he revealed that the Government has received “proposals from two universities and two entities that are interested in driving medical tourism through this facility”.

“We’re going to expand services whether we bring in management to do it or we have it fully outsourced,” Mr Cooper pledged. “We’re going to make this facility work for us, our residents and tourists, and not allow the status quo to remain.”

And he also called on the private sector to enter housing PPPs to solve another “vexing problem” for Exuma, namely the shortage of single and multi-family units amid the rush of many owners and landlords to convert their properties to more lucrative Airbnb-style vacation rentals.

“I got a call in the middle of the campaign from a young lady who told me show had nowhere to stay,” Mr Cooper recalled, “not because she had not paid her rent, but because everybody was going to Airbnbs and she had been evicted three times in a year-and-a-half.

“She told me that if I did not fix the problem, she would move into my office. I told her my office would be put on Airbnb very soon,” he joked. “It’s a vexing problem but an opportunity. I’m asking you business persons to participate in the opportunity. This Airbnb wave has resulted in a housing shortfall that we must fix if we are to grow Exuma.”


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