HARBOUR ISLAND, Bahamas — In the quaint tropical village of Harbour Island where American celebrities own vacation homes, locals drive golf carts and 18th-century houses overlook the harbor, the hotels are unscathed, the restaurants are open and the white and pink sand beaches are still pristine.
Some 90 nautical miles to the southwest in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital, the cruise ships are in port and tourists are out sightseeing. But Sandra Kem, a tour operator, says business has plummeted by half since Hurricane Dorian’s Category 5 winds and rains roared through the northwest Bahamas last week, devastating two of the archipelago’s more popular tourist destinations: the Abacos and Grand Bahama.
With crews still combing through the storm wreckage, trying to account for the missing and the dead, and evacuees wondering how long the recovery and rebuilding will take, those in areas unscathed by the storm want visitors to know that the best way they can help is by visiting the Bahamas.
Many of the Bahamas’ 700 islands and cays, they say, are still receiving visitors and open for tourism.
“We are still a beautiful tourism destination,” said June Dean, who is responsible for the Harbour Island Tourist Office. “Unfortunately our sister islands, Abaco and Grand Bahama, were totally devastated in the storm. But we are still open, we are still beautiful.”
After several days of promoting the #BahamasStrong message along with the country’s black, yellow and aquamarine flag on social media and fliers, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism on Monday began promoting a new message: a map of the Bahamas with all of the unaffected islands highlighted in yellow.
“Let us return the love you’ve shown us by welcoming you the only way we know how — with open arms,” the Instagram post said.
Last year, the country received more than 6.5 million visitors, up nearly 8% from the year before, the country’s tourism ministry said.
Ellison Tommy Thompson, the Bahamas’ deputy director general for tourism and civil aviation, said tourism accounts for half of the Bahamas’ $5.7 billion GDP, and is the country’s No. 1 industry.
“It’s extremely important,” he said. “The two islands that were hit, Grand Bahama and Abaco are second and third in terms of visitor arrivals. We will definitely feel the effects of them being out of commission. But the best way people can assist the Bahamas is to actually come and visit us and spend an extra $20 in the economy to help our reconstruction.”
Thompson said getting the public to understand that it’s only two islands that were hit by Dorian is challenging.
“It’s really a question of the Bahamas versus the rest of the islands,” he said. “We stretch 700 miles from Bimini in the north to Inagua in the south, over 100,000 square miles of water. … The major tourism center of Paradise Island was not hit. The cruise ports were not damaged. But a lot of the news that’s going out says ‘The Bahamas is devastated.’
“A lot of the journalists are reporting from Nassau and then they show images of Grand Bahama and Abaco, which were devastated. They are not making it clear, that they are in Nassau and it’s OK,” he added. “It’s like you’re living in Jacksonville but that doesn’t stop you from taking a trip to Fort Lauderdale. That is the distance we are talking about.”
As the affected northern islands recover, Bahamian officials are hoping that the untouched islands to the south, including Harbour Island, Eleuthera and Bimini, serve as a lifeline for the country — if travelers understand that most of the Bahamas is OK to visit.
“The challenge the Bahamas is facing is the same one we as a Caribbean region face,” said Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “It’s very difficult for the public to realize how extensive the Caribbean is.”
Kem, who operates the tour company Pieces of 8 Charters out of Nassau, said before Dorian she was running two boat tours to the Exuma islands each day to see the famous swimming pigs. Now, she’s struggling to fill one boat.
“It’s gotten very quiet,” she said. “I think it’s because it’s being reported as Bahamas, Bahamas, Bahamas. People are thinking the entire Bahamas are affected. The stories are so horrific that people are just staying away.”
This is the first hurricane Kem’s company has weathered since it started two-and-a-half years ago. She’s offering discounts to attract business, but she’s not promoting the deals on social media, she said.
“While business is important, a lot of people are still reeling from what happened last week,” Kem said. “We aren’t trying to say ‘Hey come!’ People are still trying to find the missing. We aren’t saying ‘business as usual.’”
Max Devine runs a similar charter tour company out of Bimini called Bimini Ocean Adventures. He said business is slower than usual, especially since the ferry and seaplane companies that normally bring U.S. tourists are focusing on helping storm victims evacuate Grand Bahama and Abaco.
“We obviously understand that’s way more important than bringing tourists here so they can have a coconut drink on the beach,” he said. “Right now it’s really dead.”
After Hurricane Irma in 2017, Devine said Bimini saw a boost in tourism as people rebooked their Caribbean vacations to unaffected islands like Bimini. He’s hopeful the same will happen after Dorian.
“Everybody who hasn’t looked at a map thinks all the islands in the Bahamas are really close together,” he said. “A lot of people message me and ask if I’m OK or if there’s any damage. They don’t realize I’m 200 miles away and everything is fine here. The islands are open and ready for business. If people can’t physically donate, one of the best things they can do is support tourism to the islands that weren’t affected.”
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Comito, the CHTA expert, said while the Bahamas faces a huge challenge of letting visitors know on one hand, they are open for business, and on the other, “we’re working on rebuilding,” he says it can be done.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated about 20% of the Caribbean, from Puerto Rico to Martinique, a study commissioned by the World Travel and Tourism Council predicted that it would take about four years for the affected islands’ tourism industries to bounce back.
“We are now two years past Irma and Maria, and we just completed research. … Those destinations are doing well,” Comito said. “Puerto Rico has over 90% of its hotel inventory open and much of it’s restored, refreshed and renewed.”
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