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Out Islands of the Bahamas By Jonathan Tourtellot and Jessie Johnston
Much loved by escapist travelers, the Out Islands of the Bahamas are undergoing changes that threaten the social, aesthetic, and environmental qualities that make them special. "Destination Watch" in the September 2006 issue of National Geographic Traveler addresses the new landscape of these islands. Large-scale foreign (i.e., American) real estate development is changing the look and feel of the islands, imposing what detractors call a Florida-suburb style.
Here's what's happening on a selection of islands, working north to south:
The Abacos.Overflow real-estate demand from Florida is flooding the Abacos with second homes, driving up prices to levels locals can't afford. A mega-development on Great Guana Cay has generated sharp criticism for ecological damage, although developers claim to be putting unusual effort into avoiding such problems as golf-course chemicals polluting the reef.
Bimini. A massive, controversial development on North Bimini has trashed many of the lagoon's mangroves. Destruction of the mangrove swamps, essential to marine ecology, has raised concerns for the island's sportfishing industry, made famous by Ernest Hemingway. The unrelated loss by fire of the Compleat Angler hotel and its Hemingway memorabilia adds to the island's woes.
Eleuthera.The French Leave resort (a redevelopment under way on former Club Med property) is presenting itself as low-impact and fitting in with traditional Bahamian architecture. Plans call for environmentally friendly sustainable energy use, and the developers promise to use Bahamian labor rather than importing Hispanic workers. Elsewhere, promotional types more interested in the island's "next big thing" status than in its authenticity are heralding the December 2007 opening of Starwood's 1,500-acre (607-hectare) Cotton Bay development, including 29 villas, 114 estate lots, a 73-room lodge, golf course and 38-slip marina.
Andros. A community-supported national park on South Andros has failed to develop, despite stated support from the prime minister. Sustainable development on the island has a vocal advocate (and leader by successful example) in the form of the World Legacy Award-winning Tiamo eco-resort.
Cat Island. U.S.-based Crystal Mount Limited (co-owned by a member of the royal family of Qatar) was given the go-ahead in January to start work on a $26-million development whose plans include a "Monte Carlo-styled casino," 250-room hotel, 75 villas and at least 100 estate lots. Crystal Mount describes the 500-acre (202-hectare) project as "low density" and "eco-friendly," and boosters praise an expected 150 permanent jobs for Bahamians.
Exumas.A major development on Great Exuma reflects the prevailing government theory that every island must have a large "anchor" resort, like a department store in a shopping mall, in order to create better infrastructure, generate jobs, and attract Bahamians back to the Out Islands. Skeptics agree with the goals, but not the method, arguing that you can do the same thing with an array of smaller, more appropriate "boutique resorts." Rum Cay. This island, with only 80 residents, is being divvied up among developers, some of whom would fit right into a Carl Hiaasen satire, including an American who pled guilty to bank fraud and money laundering in 2003.
Mayaguana. A $1.8-billion project begun in March has supporters touting the 50-50 business partnership between the Bahamian government and Boston-based I-Group while detractors grieve that the 9,999 acres (4,046 hectares) of Crown land being developed were sold at a deeply discounted rate. Plans include expansion of the former U.S. Air Force base at Abraham's Bay to include "the world's longest runway" and a trust fund put aside by the developer to finance infrastructure and public services in the Bahamian-occupied portions of the island, prompting some to accuse the government letting private enterprises take over its responsibilities.
Great Inagua.Southernmost of the major islands, with few accommodations but home to flamingos and parrots, Inagua is virtually untouched, except for beach trash from ships. An ecotourism project is now working to help local people learn to lead birding tours and welcome other nature-lovers to their still-authentic island. Do you have any Out Island experiences to share? Send your comments/responses to us at Travel_Talk@ngs.org.
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