Spare the Goose -
March 25, 2004
We don't consider ourselves to be trend setters; we doubt we've ever been at the leading edge of anything. That is, not until we arrived a couple of months ago in George Town on Great Exuma Island. Shortly before we got here, the Washington Post published its top ten "hot" international destinations for 2004 and listed Great Exuma as second only to Athens, site of this summer's Olympic games. The Post gushed, "Now that US travelers are realizing there's more to the 700-island country than the well-worn resorts of Nassau and Freeport, tourism experts say the Exumas are North America's next warm-your-toes destination." Many of the islanders welcome the Post's commendation as recognition long due. A few, however, consider it the kiss of death. Caught in between are a lot of cruisers like us who have been coming to Exuma for years and are wondering what all the fuss is about.
It all seemed to start with the opening of the 80 acre February Point Resort Estates around three years ago. Located a half mile south of George Town, the luxury residences come with maintenance and house keeping services and enjoy a number of on-site amenities: restaurant, computerized business centre, tennis courts, pool, beach, and private dockage. To us, the main impact of February Point and a scattering of other new foreign-owned homes was the appearance of items like imported goat cheese and fresh asparagus in the local supermarket (some cruisers also claimed the Tuesday night two-for-one pizza deal at the February Point restaurant was a significant addition to the local culinary scene). But February Point proved to be a mere harbinger of much more development to come.
When we arrived in George Town this winter, all the talk was about the 500 acre Emerald Bay Resort, a half hour drive north of town. The development is anchored by a luxury Four Seasons hotel, which just opened in January. It boasts 183 rooms (with another 60 planned), going for as cheap as $495 a night. We visited Emerald Bay on a windy day last week and found a veritable city of construction trailers amid the swirling sand and dirt. The 64 residences comprising the first phase of Grand Isle Villas are rising on the scarred slopes next to the highway; they've all been presold. Between the villas and the hotel is the new golf course, an incongruous sight on a scrubby island that suffers chronic water shortages.
Citing the Four Seasons development, the Post predicted, "once you have one high-end hotel, others tend to follow .... jockeying for the best spots on the sand." And so we see on the outskirts of George Town that the old Out Island Inn Resort and Spa is undergoing a $5 million expansion (the inn was closed for eight years while its owner cooled his heels in a Florida jail on drug-related charges). Just down the road, the new Palm Bay Beach Club residences are up for sale. Across the harbour on Stocking Island, the St. Francis marina and resort is back under construction after a failed attempt by adjacent landowners to derail it in the courts.
If it wasn't apparent a year ago, there's now no mistaking that development is profoundly changing the island. It's most evident when you visit town. The place is hopping. There are traffic jams on the main road -- you actually have to look before you cross the street. Will a traffic light be next? The single bank is jammed from the moment it opens to the moment it closes. On Fridays, pay day, the liquor store next door is also inundated and several police officers patrol the boisterous throng. Michael Minns, owner of Exuma Markets, has to struggle to keep his grocery store shelves stocked; from a single weekly mailboat delivery a decade ago, he now relies on five supply ships per week from Nassau and one directly from Miami.
It's a simple formula: more development means more jobs means more people. According to Charity Armbrister, senior manager at the local Ministry of Tourism office, "There's no unemployment in Exuma. Everyone who wants a job has one -- many have two. We've had to recruit workers from Nassau, Long Island, Eleuthera, and Andros." The island's services are desperately trying to keep up. In one year, the police force has burgeoned from 17 officers to 30. A new desalination plant is under construction. Uncompleted airport improvements are already obsolete and an entirely new terminal is being planned. George Town proper has nowhere to expand, so a road bypass and a new subcentre are in the works, including a shopping plaza, small hospital, new schools, and subsidized housing.
The George Town cruising community would be fairly indifferent to all this activity if it only meant longer line ups and more traffic in town. After all, we're a fairly self-sufficient group; most of us go into town only once or twice a week to buy groceries and run errands. The rest of the time we're on our boats, snorkelling the reefs, walking the beaches, and socializing. We didn't think too much about what was happening at Emerald Bay because it's miles away. Then came the new Crab Cay development.
Crab Cay is a mile southeast of George Town. It and adjacent Red Shanks Cay define a handful of protected bays where a hard core group of reclusive cruisers hangs out. Our April 11, 2002 entry ("Ruined Dreams") gave an account of its history and described its extensive stone ruins. We and most other cruisers assumed the uninhabited cay was a public resource. None of us were around last August at the groundbreaking ceremony for a 170-acre, $240 million dollar development that's about to transform the small island. According to the promotional literature, "the heart of the Crab Cay development will be the Crab Cay Club, a private enclave of luxury anchored by multi-million dollar residences, a five star hotel and spa, and world-class marina." For the cruisers who anchor off Crab Cay, the most controversial aspect of the development is a proposed causeway joining the resort to the main island. This would effectively eliminate easy dinghy access to town. The developers are currently considering alternatives to the causeway.
Ms Armbrister of the tourism office feels that the development boom has generally been good for the island, resulting in additional activities and services, as well as increased jobs. "People now have more choices than ever before." We sense that most of the locals agree with her. Recently in the cashier line-up, David overheard one matron advise her elderly companion, "The Lord has surely blessed Exuma!" It's hard for us to criticize developments that are bringing material benefit to Bahamians, even if they raise the spectre that there will be fewer and fewer unspoiled areas like Crab Cay for us to enjoy.
Mike Minns is one Bahamian who sees things differently. He doesn't feel the increased prosperity is worth the congestion, social strain, and environmental degradation: "The developers are destroying the very things that make Exuma an attractive place to live and visit." With very few exceptions, these developers are based in the US and Canada. Most of their customers are North American. So are we cruisers. We came here hoping to find the pristine wilderness that we managed to lose back home. We're reminded of the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. Let's not kill the goose.