By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas was yesterday urged to start a youth movement so it can grow - for “generations to come” - a flats fishing industry likely to have expanded far beyond its $141m economic impact in 2010.
Bonefish lodge owners and specialist flats fishing travel agencies told the Andros Business Outlook conference that “the most critical issue” impacting the sector’s future prospects is the aging guide population and lack of more youthful replacements to carry on this tradition.
Chad Chorney, the Bahamas programme director for US-based Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventure, a destination management firm, said developing younger fishing guides was critical to this nation maintaining its “leg up” on Caribbean rivals as their expertise was vital to the quality of experience enjoyed by visiting anglers.
“Perhaps the most critical issue that I can see is ensuring you have guides for generations to come,” he revealed. “The times I have been in The Bahamas, I can probably count on one hand the number of guides that I have met under 30 years of age as an arbitrary number.
“The Bahamas is very fortunate that it has a rich history and culture of fly fishing guides. There’s second and third generations guides. There’s a history and culture there. Obviously, Charlie Smith, but you don’t see a lot of young guides coming forward and that’s going to be critical in years to come as you look to build this industry and maximise the industry to bring guests to The Bahamas to fish.”
Confirming that Yellow Dog was willing to work with the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) to help develop the latter’s certified training courses for fishing guides, Mr Chorney added: “We want to do our part to ensure The Bahamas continues that history and culture with guides going for the next generation...
“I would say The Bahamas has a leg up on the Caribbean because of its history and culture, so it’s good they are seasoned, but you want to get the youth involved.” Yellow Dog works with some 22 fishing lodges throughout The Bahamas to book its high-spending clients in vacations here, and Mr Chorney urged this nation to start developing the next guide generation by “starting early, starting young”.
He urged this nation to develop an interest and passion in the profession by getting school children out on the flats on fishing trips, and developing a culture of conservation and preservation. “Fishing is fun. Get them out there and exploring the flats,” the Yellow Dog chief said. “Guiding is a great occupation in The Bahamas, and we definitely want to see more people involved in that. Whatever Yellow Dog can do to help in that, we’re willing and able for sure.”
Mr Chorney was backed by Kyle Schaefer, owner of Soul Fly Lodge (formerly Carriearl) at Great Harbour Cay, the Berry Islands, who echoed his concerns about the need to develop a younger cadre of flats and bonefishing guides to shore up the sector’s long-term sustainability.
Confirming that himself and an investor group had acquired Soul Fly two years ago, he praised the Great Harbour Cay community for backing the group through a first season in which the lodge provided employment for 14 persons. Mr Schaefer said the ownership group was highly focused on its staff and “developing the right people to keep them in place” so the lodge can fulfill its growth ambitions over the next five years.
“One of the particular challenges is fly fishing guides, particularly the challenge with aging fly fishing guides in The Bahamas,” he added, “and it’s very expensive and time consuming to train guides..... These are good paying jobs to a degree that is being missed by the youth.” Fly fishing guides, Mr Schaefer said, typically followed their fathers and elders into the profession; worked in other jobs close to the industry; or had their interest simulated by existing guides.
The flats and bonefishing sectors are an especially lucrative niche tourism market for The Bahamas. Visiting anglers tend to spend more per capita and stay longer, with the economic impact spread across Andros and other Family Islands that possess the best fishing flats.
A 2010 economic impact study, prepared for the Bahamian Flats Fishing Alliance and its partners, estimated that the flats fishing industry injected some $141m into the Bahamian economy that year - a number likely to have increased significantly over the 12 years since. Angling visitors were found to spend nearly $70m in Family Island economies and support some 2,500 jobs.
Latia Duncombe, the Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation’s acting director-general, told the Andros Business Outlook that flats anglers are estimated to inject $25m directly into the island’s economy per annum.
Speaking to the ministry’s efforts to develop community-based tourism on the island through “clusters” of related businesses and activities, she added that Andros was well-placed to develop all forms of nature/eco-tourism; fishing; diving and snorkelling; and other activity-based features.
Pointing to the high per capita yields generated by such activity, Mrs Duncombe said that “just four adventure travellers generate as much revenue as nine overnight tourists and close to 100 cruise ship arrivals”. And Andros’ tourism industry enjoyed a greater share of Bahamian ownership than other Family Islands.
Whereas the typical tourism ownership split on the Family Islands was just 20 percent Bahamian, and 80 percent foreign-owned, the director-general added that on Andros this was weighted 40/60 in favour of overseas interests. “Andros is ripe for entrepreneurship, and can boast that 40 percent of the tourism industry is owned by Bahamians,” Mrs Duncombe added.
Her presentation also revealed that Andros welcomed some 12,366 visitors in 2021, an increase of some 3,000 compared to 2019’s pre-COVID number of 9,365 - a 32 percent jump. Mrs Duncombe pledged that the Ministry of Tourism will seek to “establish the Andros band in the international marketplace” by exploiting its social media marketing tools and bringing influencers/journalists to the island to produce favourable coverage.
Meanwhile, The Bahamas’ decision to eliminate both the Health Travel Visa and COVID entry testing for vaccinated travellers was yesterday hailed by participants in the international tourism industry. Yellow Dog’s Mr Chorney said: “The recent news of the discontinuation of The Bahamas Health Travel Visa and elimination of testing for vaccinated travellers is a huge announcement.
“It should create more interest, and make it easier for travellers to enter The Bahamas. We definitely applaud that as a return to normalcy.” Mr Chorney said the efficiency of the Health Travel Visa system, and its approvals process, had created minimal obstacles for Yellow Dog’s clients.
He added: “The large number of travellers sent to The Bahamas really had no issues. It did cause some angst and anxiety for some folks.” David Benz, a director of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Media Group, and a Bahamas diving ambassador, said the latest COVID easing was “very timely” and will align with efforts to drive more business to this nation. “There are great opportunities for all dive operators to leverage that,” he affirmed.