Every time a cruise ship docks in Bimini, the population of this tiny archipelago just 80 kilometres off the coast of Miami could nearly double.
That may be profitable for a place that lives off tourism. But many worry the recent launch of a new cruise line disgorging hundreds of visitors each day could be too much of a good thing.
The ship is one component of a global casino company’s project to bring unprecedented waves of tourists to Bimini, which has long defied change. Some fear it will destroy a marine environment teeming with fish and coral, and ruin a diving and sport-fishing capital of the world.
It’s also provoking somewhat of an existential crisis, posing a challenge to Bimini’s identity as a rustic and hard-to-reach getaway, known as a haunt of Ernest Hemingway and the setting for a tryst that ended a U.S. presidential run.
“Unless you are a fisherman, a diver or a drunk there was no reason to come to Bimini. But they are changing that,” said dive shop operator Neal Watson. “It’s getting to be a different place.”
Changes are coming fast. Malaysia-based Genting Group is spending at least $300 million on Resorts World Bimini, quickly becoming the largest employer in the cluster of islands and creating sharp new demand for housing. Working in partnership with a Florida developer, the company opened a casino in June, expects to finish a 350-room hotel by Christmas and 50 luxury villas a month later on their 700 acres of North Bimini. The company has plans for shopping, restaurants and nightclubs, is considering a second hotel and is in the process of upgrading the airport to accommodate larger planes.
“It’s created more jobs, of course, and you know, it is keeping people busy,” said Edith Romer Johnson, who sells lobster pizza at a shop outside the resort. “And the more money we have on the island, the more it goes around.”
The Bahamian government has welcomed the project, but critics say the benefits come at too great a cost.