COCOCAY, Bahamas – As tourists zipped down water slides, zoomed along zip lines and zig zagged between bustling shops, crowded pools and cabanas, it would be difficult to say that things at Royal Caribbean International’s private island, “Perfect Day at CocoCay,” were anything other than the name advertised Sunday, only a week since the passage of Hurricane Dorian.
Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” was even blasting from the speakers at one point.
The island, just 30 miles from where the eye wall of Dorian carved a path of destruction across the northern Bahamas, welcomed its first cruise ships back over the weekend – at least one of which, just last week, was offloading supplies in the ravaged city of Freeport and picking up evacuees heading to Nassau.
So is the case in the Bahamas now: In an archipelago that counts the $4.3 billion tourism industry as king – it makes up more than 50% of its gross domestic product – vacations exist alongside relief efforts.
In Nassau, tourists perused the shops by the port while on the other side of the city, ships ferried in hundreds of evacuees from the Abacos, where Dorian hit, many of them hungry, newly homeless and carrying with them only the shirts on their backs. Even in CocoCay, where all seems in regular order, hundreds of people worked tirelessly after the passage of the storm to clear the debris, bricks and sand that had washed in with Dorian so that by Saturday, travelers could do what they do best: spend money.
They were doing just that in a straw market run by Bahamians from the island next door, Great Harbour Cay, when Mariner of the Seas pulled into port Sunday.
“I really thought we weren’t going to work for at least a month,” said Denise Sawyer, one of the vendors.
But CocoCay got lucky. It just missed the worst of the storm, getting tropical storm-force winds. Royal brought in 40 contractors from Nassau and hired about another 50 people from the neighboring island to assist with the cleanup, in addition to its 300 employees, many of whom are local Bahamians. By Sunday, 70% of the cleanup was done.
Sawyer returned to work sooner than expected, but the ensuing months are more uncertain. Will people skip the Bahamas altogether because they think Dorian devastated the entire chain, when in reality it hit two out of the more than 700 islands in the archipelago? Geography suddenly becomes critically important.
“A lot of persons think all of the Bahamas is gone, the entire thing,” Sawyer said. “You know, something like this, even around the world, when people see devastation like this they tend to hold back … on what they plan on doing.”
It’s a perception issue that the Caribbean has faced time and again when pelted with hurricanes. And for a region of the world that depends on people thinking it’s safe enough to travel there, getting that message out is in a way a part of the relief effort.
Ellison Thompson, deputy director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, said the ministry is working around the clock to tell the world that top destinations like Nassau, the Exumas, Eleuthera and Bimini are doing fine.
“In order for the reconstruction to happen, we would need our visitors to keep coming, so taxes can be used to aid in the reconstruction of those two islands (Abaco and Grand Bahama, where Dorian hit),” Thompson told the Orlando Sentinel. Preliminary estimates put the cost of the damage at $7 billion, according to Bloomberg.
An aggressive message is crucial in the days and weeks following the storm, said Robertico Croes, an expert with the University of Central Florida who studies tourism economics in small and developing countries.
“The whole thing here is speed,” Croes said. “The quicker they can convince everybody that the southern part has not been affected and business can go on there and, as a matter of fact, it’s a good thing for business to go there, then (the faster) the south can help the north.”
Working in the Bahamas’ favor is U.S. residents’ familiarity with the region, Croes said. It’s the top market in terms of visitors to the islands, and Americans will still travel there.
In Nassau, tie-dye T-shirt shop owner Yvette Prince is banking on that. She doesn’t expect to see a huge drop in tourism to the capital city, where four cruise ships were docked Saturday afternoon.
But just in case people are confused, “here, that’s why I have this map,” she said, pointing to a booklet with a map of the islands she keeps with her at her port shop, Treasures by the Sea. “I show people, we have 700 islands, and (Dorian) doesn’t mean the Bahamas are closed.”
Still, Thompson knows that no matter how hard they work, the Bahamas will take another hit – this one financial.
Nassau is the top destination, bringing in 2.6 million visitors between January and July this year, but Grand Bahama and Abaco are the next most visited spots, accounting for about 734,000 visitors between them.
“Because they are out of commission, that is going to have an impact on the economy of the Bahamas,” he said. “Any facilities to host tourists are no longer there, persons who work in the tourism industry have nowhere to live. … it’s going to take years to recover from this. It’s not an overnight thing.”
The storm has displaced families like the Jarretts, who own 12 vacation villas in Freeport. They got on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas when it picked up 261 evacuees in Grand Bahama on Saturday and got off in Nassau, not yet sure where to go next.
Their villas, on the south side of Freeport, were battered by the storm. Doors are missing, paint is peeling off, fences and trees are down. The structures survived enough that they can now serve as homes for the company’s displaced employees who lost their homes to Dorian. Owner Emile Jarrett said he let them move in with generators when he heard some of his staff members had nowhere to go.
But he and his family left the business behind. They’ll head to Florida to pick up building supplies at Home Depot because there are no supplies back home. He doesn’t know when they’ll return to Freeport.
“There is no revenue, there is no anchor” he said at the port in Nassau on Saturday. “It comes at a time when tourism is generally down anyway in September. It couldn’t be worse.”
A family member in Florida set up a GoFundMe for them in the hopes they can rebuild the business. But if travelers don’t return, there is little hope for Sea Breeze Villas.
“Without you guys,” he said, “no us.”
(Orlando Sentinel staff writer Chabeli Herrera and photographer Joe Burbank are aboard the Mariner of the Seas.)
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