By Tad Linn, Hope Spot Champion for Egg Island Bahamas
Lighthouse Point lies at the very southern end of the 110-mile-long island of Eleuthera. All superlatives fall short when attempting to describe its virgin beauty. As one visiting high school student recently exclaimed: “Wow. God lives here.” Sadly, Lighthouse Point is at imminent risk of being transformed into a high-volume, high-impact, fantasy cruise port with little or no public access. Many Bahamians are asking for help from the outside world to save this iconic site.
One year ago, Egg Island, floating like a bejeweled Fabergé masterpiece in the aquamarine waters off the opposite end of Eleuthera, was also in peril from the same threat, Disney Cruise Lines. The public outcry emanating from the neighboring settlement of Spanish Wells reverberated around the world (with the help of Mission Blue), and eventually Disney abandoned the project. The islanders and many others believe Disney backed out of the project because of mounting negative press. Disney claims it abandoned the project because of the 11th hour outcome of its environmental impact assessment. Despite requests, the assessment was never made public, so many Bahamians doubt it ever existed. Even the Bahamian Minister for the Environment seemed to admit on camera that he hadn’t personally seen an impact assessment, despite the size and relative importance of the proposed project. The fact is, we may never know the whole truth because the Disney deal, and many other similar deals, are shrouded by heavy-handed non-disclosure agreements and The Bahamas does not have freedom of information legislation that would allow the public, the press and direct stakeholders access to critical information.
How can a small island nation that seems keenly aware of the importance of preserving its natural beauty, its fisheries and its heritage allow not one, not two, not three but six major cruise lines to build high-impact, high-volume cruise ports in the middle of some of the most fragile ecosystems on earth? How could it be that Disney Cruise Line is in the running to purchase, or lease on a long-term basis, a second private island? The story is brimming with mystery, intrigue, imbalances of power, short- sightedness and even the odor of corruption.
If you’re thinking, “Well, The Bahamas must make an awful lot of money out of those deals,” that assumption does not appear to be supported by the math. While it is true The Bahamian economy is largely dependent upon tourism, which accounts for over 50% of its gross domestic product (GDP), the model of cruise line business popular in The Bahamas appears to be an exceedingly bad deal. Most of the cash coming from cruise companies is in the form of “departure taxes”, a head tax placed on cruise passengers departing the country. Of the approximate $6 Billion tourist dollars earned annually by The Bahamas, only around $300 Million is derived from the cruise industry, even though the clear majority of tourists coming to The Bahamas (over 3.5 million) are onboard cruise ships. In a September 2017 interview with a preeminent Bahamian newspaper, Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar explained, or admitted, that 70 per cent of the Bahamas’ six million-plus annual visitors are cruise passengers, but the average cruise ship visitor spends an average of only $70, while the stopover visitors spend an average of $1,500. Yes, Cruise passenger spending is paltry in comparison to land-based tourist spending and, as explained below, the “private island” phenomenon has greatly exacerbated the already bad financial return on investment and environmental sacrifice.
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas is an archipelago of stunning natural beauty lying off the southeast coast of the United States of American. If you were to ask an astronaut to name the most beautiful place on earth, chances are that astronaut would name The Bahamas. Commander Chris Hadfield once said as he peered down from the International Space Station, “It’s hard to believe the colours of The Bahamas from space.” Similarly, commander Scott Kelly tweeted: “Had first video conference with my youngest daughter today. Showed her the most beautiful place from space. #Bahamas.” Astronaut Terry Virts also tweeted out pictures of The Bahamas exclaiming: “From my view, the most beautiful and colorful waters and reefs in the world.”
If anything, The Bahamas is even more beautiful at and under sea level. Her shallow, gin-clear waters provide habitat for some of the world’s most beautiful marine and shoreline ecosystems in the world. Lynn P. Holowesko, Ambassador for the Environment, Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission once said:
“We have neither gold nor silver, coal nor oil to mine. Instead, we have what the world yearns for: a beautiful land, scattered like 700 pearls in an emerald sea, capped with startlingly clear, blue skies, bathed in sunshine and moonlight year-round. The natural environment is “relatively” clean, “relatively” unspoiled. What we do have is an undetermined variety of marine and terrestrial flora and fauna which must be preserved for the future of our children and our grandchildren.”
Indeed, The Bahamas has made strides to preserve its natural beauty and the health of its ecosystems. According to the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (B.R.E.E.F):
The Bahamas recognized early on, the need to protect and preserve our important natural resources. In 1892 our first protected area, The Sea Gardens, was created off the northeastern coast of New Providence, paving the way for today’s MPA [Marine Protected Area] system.
The 176 square mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park was established in 1958 and was designated as a no-take zone in 1986. It is the first protected area to include both terrestrial and marine environments in the western hemisphere. By 2013, seventeen MPAs had been established in The Bahamas, and in 2015 an additional eighteen MPAs were added to the MPA network. Local conservation agencies and government authorities are actively working together to protect additional areas in order to meet The Bahamas’ conservation goals.
The Bahamas is a vast sanctuary for sea turtles and sharks and, despite growing incursions from foreign poachers, Bahamian fisheries are relatively stable and healthy. But there is trouble in paradise. The natural beauty of The Bahamas is also its chief marketable ‘commodity’ and the world’s major cruise lines have been, and continue to, be massive and relatively unchecked consumers. Unlike many other cruise destinations, which are dual-purpose public communities and tourism centers, six major cruise lines have managed to secure entire islands or compounds all to themselves. More specifically, Disney Cruise Line controls Castaway Cay (formerly, Gorda Cay), Holland America Line controls Half Moon Cay, Royal Caribbean International controls Coco Cay (formerly, Little Stirrup Cay), Norwegian Cruise Line controls Great Stirrup Cay, Princess Cruises controls Princess Cays (technically not an “island”), and MSC Cruises controls Ocean Cay, which it characterizes as a “marine reserve” (1). These private cruise ports are essentially self-contained money-making machines where virtually all profits flow back into the cruise companies’ coffers rather than into the treasury of the host nation.
What the heck is going on? How can these cruise companies achieve what appears to be carte blanche approval for projects that so clearly have an enormous environmental and cultural impact for so little financial return? How is it, for example, that Disney Cruise Line can dredge a massive channel into Castaway Cay that forever imperils nearby reef systems? How can Royal Caribbean be allowed to transform a beautiful little virgin island into a grotesque amusement park for over-consuming foreigners while local children must keep their distance? These are questions for which the Bahamian people are starting to demand answers, even though their government continues to deny them access to the particulars of any cruise line deals.
Much of the problem may have something to do with a blatant imbalance of power (money). That imbalance is, sadly, made worse by the strong assumption of political corruption that has plagued The Bahamas from the time of its independence in 1973, and which is at least partially responsible for the nation recently suffering a downgrading of its credit rating to junk bond status. Take Disney for example. Disney’s global earnings for 2017 topped $55 Billion. The Bahamas entire GDP for 2017 was roughly $12 Billion. Disney employs more people (199,000) than The Bahamas’ entire workforce (167,000). This kind of dynamic quite possibly creates an environment where government officials, inspectors, etc., make assumptions about the benefit of certain deals without fully vetting the pros and cons. So not “corruption” per se, but certainly a high degree of influence. Rumors of outright corruption, on the other hand, are endemic in Bahamian society.
There also exists a striking imbalance in sophistication between the parties and an imbalance of resources. If you ask a maritime lawyer such as Jim Walker of Walker & O’Neil why cruise ships sail under the Bahamian flag, or other such “flags of convenience”, you are liable to get an earful. Although the Bahamian government may beg to differ, the bottom line is this: cruise ships like to register in The Bahamas because the nation has laws favorable to cruise lines and/or lacks the resources to enforce, or fully enforce, its existing laws and regulations. Mr. Walker explains in his blog, for example, that cruise lines know full well that if a crime is committed aboard a Bahamian flagged ship, Bahamian law enforcement is simply not in a position to fly officers all over the globe to pursue a case. Similarly, Mr. Walker explained in a recent CNN article:
Cruise ships theoretically follow guidelines set forth by the International Maritime Organization and the recommendations in the Safety of Life at Sea. But the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations organization, does not have the authority to enforce its own guidelines, nor can it impose fines or criminal sanctions against cruise lines that flout Safety of Life at Sea recommendations. This obligation falls to flag states, like [The Bahamas].
The result is that cruise lines are largely unregulated. They offer low-price cruise fares to get the passengers aboard and then make their profits from alcohol sales; casino, spa and photography activities; and shore excursions.
And in the Bahamas, frequently the only place to spend your money ashore is on the island controlled by the cruise company itself.
In a nutshell, many believe The Bahamas lacks resources to enforce not only maritime regulations, such as ship safety, employment, etc., it also lacks necessary resources to investigate and police private cruise port operations. Lack of transparency magnifies the environmental and cultural risks. Once a lease or sale agreement is signed for the occupation of a private island and the initial project permits are issued, there is little hope of the Bahamian government saying “no” to proposed “improvements” or of the Bahamian government imposing fines or consistently enforcing environmental laws. The cruise companies clearly know of, and profit greatly from, this dynamic.
The question is this: will the Bahamian people take a stand at Lighthouse Point and say enough is enough? With the aid and support of organizations such as Mission Blue, One Eleuthera Foundation and Save Lighthouse Point, there appears to be considerable hope. While an agreement for sale of the Lighthouse Point property has allegedly been signed by the vendor and Disney, The Bahamian government can still deny approval of Disney’s proposed cruise port. It is not too late. The one weapon the Bahamian people have against deep pockets like Disney Cruise Line is transparency (“bad press”). Please consider signing the petition to preserve Lighthouse Point. Your support DOES matter and CAN make a difference.