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2005-12-01 15:47:25

Grand Bahama Economy In Shambles

Overall visitors decreased by 19.9 percent, unemployment is over 11 percent, but PLP government, like a broken record, keeps saying help and hope is on the way.

Grand Bahama tourism has taken a nosedive this year reflecting the economic challenges faced by Bahamians on that northern island, the Central Bank of The Bahamas indicates in a new economic report.

It led one Grand Bahama Member of Parliament - Lucaya MP Neko Grant - to declare yesterday that the economy of the island "is in shambles."

"We are quite aware that tourism is the driving force behind the economy of Grand Bahama. While there might be some construction going on, the lack of tourists in our hotels gives testimony to the fact that people are catching eternal hell," Mr. Grant said.

Yesterday, an unemployment exchange officer at the Department of Labour also spoke of the dire situation in Grand Bahama.

"The economy [of Grand Bahama] has collapsed," Franclyn Johnson said. "There are many persons applying for jobs but there are insufficient vacancies to make placements."

But Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe said yesterday that room rates are still high and the falloff in tourism is not due to airlift concerns, but the closure of a major property on the island, the Royal Oasis Resort.

The minister said the future of the island's tourism product is bright.

In its report, The Central Bank said overall visitors to Grand Bahama decreased by 19.9 percent, with both air and sea tourists declining by 30.3 percent and 13.2 percent respectively up to September.

This resulted in an overall national decline in air arrivals of 3.1 percent to 3,773,862. However, the report said that developments in the tourism sector continue to be aided by the positive performance of New Providence, where the 11.8 percent hike in air arrivals offset the 4.2 percent falloff in sea visitors for a 1.2 percent gain in overall arrivals.

Tourism figures from Grand Bahama have been heading south ever since hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck the island in September 2004. Hurricane Wilma worsened an already bad situation when it created widespread destruction on parts of the island on October 24, 2005.

Since Hurricane Frances, the Royal Oasis Resort has been closed, creating a ripple effect in other areas of the island like the International Bazaar where business has slowed substantially.

The new tourism figures were released as the Free National Movement prepared for a rally on Grand Bahama tomorrow night where the issue of a sluggish economy is expected to be the highlight of various addresses.

Thousands of Grand Bahamians lost their jobs following the storms last year and some have left the island to seek employment elsewhere.

In May, the government stepped in to pay $5 million in severance payments to the initial group of Royal Oasis Resort employees laid off and said it would go after owners of the resort to get the taxpayers' money back.

The government also promised to make additional payments to workers, but needs parliamentary approval for that payout. However, it remains unclear when those workers will receive the money given that the House of Assembly adjourned yesterday until January 11.

Grand Bahama continues to face challenges regarding unemployment as reflected in recently released figures by the Department of Statistics.

The Department said that while the national unemployment rate remained unchanged this year - standing at 10.2 percent - the unemployment rate in Grand Bahama was 11 percent, up from 9.3 percent last year.

At the time, former Minister of Economic Development in the Ingraham Administration Zhivargo Laing said the country was witnessing "jobless growth", meaning that while the national economy was experiencing growth, it was not impacting the level of unemployment.

Despite what some opposition politicians see as a doom and gloom situation, in his address at the closing of the Progressive Liberal Party's national convention just over a week ago, Prime Minister Perry Christie painted the same optimistic picture his minister of tourism has continued to highlight.

Mr. Christie noted, however, that Grand Bahama "has been having an exceptionally tough year."

But he said, "Amidst al that bad luck and bleak news, however, a dazzling ray of light is now shining over the island, especially over western Grand Bahama."

The prime minister was referring to the $3.1 billion Ginn development project he said his government has approved for the island.

"The future of Grand Bahama, therefore, looks exceptionally promising," Mr. Christie said.

But Mr. Grant - perhaps not surprisingly - sees things a lot differently.

"We need to get some tourists into town and we need to have the government bring the help because we are finished with hope," he said yesterday. "Many, many persons are losing their homes; their cars are being repossessed and they are faced with despair because there are simply no jobs to be found."

By: Candia Dames, The Bahama Journal

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