By TYLER MCKENZIE
THE news around the approval of the Royal Caribbean project on Paradise Island has been peculiar to say the least.
An administration vocal in its opposition to the project while not in office is now fully in favour, while all kinds of voices seem to be overlooking the loss of business they may soon face to sing the praises of the development.
The $110m project got the approval of government last week – only for Atlantis to weigh in and say to wait a minute.
First, the approval. On Tuesday, the government said it has approved the project after negotiating greater Bahamian ownership and entrepreneurial participation.
Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said: “The government is satisfied that it has addressed previous objections to the project by ensuring much greater Bahamian participation at all phases of the construction and in the ongoing operations.”
What that means, he says, will be that it will be Bahamians to operate and run ferries to the site, and a number of activities at the site – water sports, entertainment, tours, food and beverage, retail, security, environmental monitoring and landscaping, will be reserved “principally for Bahamian entrepreneurs and businesses”.
A Tourism Development Fund levy would be charged of one percent of gross revenue – but based on Royal Caribbean’s estimates of $26m a year in spending, that’s only $260,000, which doesn’t cover the cost of one of the government’s larger foreign trips.
There is also the turnabout from Philip “Brave” Davis to consider. In opposition, there was an apparent pledge to terminate any agreement that would lead to Royal Caribbean leasing Crown land on Paradise Island.
Environment organisation Save The Bays spoke out on such saying they fully supported him and “we fully trust that he will keep his word”.
Well, the new project has four acres of Crown land being provided to Royal Caribbean – while the company has already paid the full annual rent for seven acres for two years.
The government is also touting the fact that Bahamians will be able to invest up to 49 percent in the Royal Caribbean project. That, plus running the ferries and working on the site, seems to have been enough to overcome Mr Davis’ previous objections.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister declared that Royal Caribbean will break ground on the project “almost immediately”.
Enter Atlantis. Not so fast, said Atlantis president Audrey Oswell, who said the approval was “premature” and called for Bahamians to get the government to “put the brakes on”.
In response, the government said “broad public consultation” would take place over the environmental impact assessment and environment management plan – but that doesn’t sit properly with the Prime Minister’s claim that ground would be broken “almost immediately”.
Atlantis weighing in means that more than lip service has to be paid to that consultation, however.
Ms Oswell cautioned that the move would “privatise Paradise Island’s last public beach” and warned of environmental concerns, saying: “It has not been confirmed that the Royal Caribbean project does not pose serious threats to our beautiful beaches, marine life and their habitats. If this residential land is overdeveloped or the beaches and coastline altered in any way, the Paradise Island coastline, Cable Beach, Saunders Beach and our economic livelihood stand to suffer.”
The development was already tangled in controversy because of the long-running clash with entrepreneur Toby Smith, who has a rival development planned for a $2m restoration of the lighthouse on Paradise Island. Mr Smith suffered a court blow when it was ruled his lease was not valid because of a failure of the previous Prime Minister, Dr Hubert Minnis, to sign it.
For many, that clash of local entrepreneur v foreign has left a sour taste – as if we are acting against our own interests for the benefit of outsiders.
There have been other areas where we seem to have been acting against our own interests on this issue too.
For example, the president of the taxi union, Wesley Ferguson, sent out a voice note last month that seemed to be against the interests of his own members.
He said that it was better for a foreign business to be granted Crown land over Bahamians because Bahamians don’t always follow through on their plans – what kind of talk is that?
He admitted there would be no extra money coming to his members because there is no road to the property and visitors will be ferried there by boat – so it was peculiar to hear him being so supportive of a business that will literally take passengers away from his members’ taxis.
Cruise passengers will disembark from their ship and board a boat to be whisked across to Royal Caribbean, bypassing Downtown completely.
Taxis won’t be the only ones left without money in their pockets – tourists being sucked away from Downtown will mean less spending in shops, in the straw market, in food outlets, and more.
There has been a lot of talk about trying to revive Downtown, but pulling thousands of people a day out of the area to another tourism development isn’t going to help revenues in the slightest.
It is curious that we seem to be acting against our own interests, and that the ground keeps seemingly changing under our feet on this project.
Declared opponents become keen supporters. Immediate starts to work suddenly become extensive consultation. Public concerns about Bahamian entrepreneurs end up with them sidelined in court and let down by bureaucracy. And the thing that seems to give the prospect of a pause is the intervention of Atlantis.
In the meantime, savour the view of that end of Paradise Island. If the Prime Minister is to be believed, it will be changing very soon.