In some sense, it feels downright wrong to imagine an enjoyable vacation in The Bahamas. Yet, that is exactly what the people and the government of the Islands of The Bahamas beg us to do. Visiting is the best way (but not the only way) to help Bahamians.
News continues to report the unfathomable destruction that Hurricane Dorian wrought on the tourism-dependent northernmost islands of the Bahamas: Grand Bahama and the nearby Abacos Islands. The stories of mourning survivors, now homeless, and all they have lost are heartbreaking. Many people—and, perhaps, you—wonder how to help.
A personal backstory
Nearly ten years ago, an assignment took me to Great Abaco and the string of tiny adjacent barrier cays, which together make up the 120-mile–long chain of the Abacos, including Elbow Cay where Dorian made landfall.
After Dorian, I couldn’t stop thinking about the warm, hospitable and jovial Bahamians and expats I’d met there, and what those who survived had endured—and will continue to endure—on those flat, low-lying spits of gorgeous white sand in the middle of the aqua ocean. Bahamas’ 700 islands and thousands of cays are spread over more than 100,000 square miles of the West Atlantic between Florida and Cuba.
It’s not the first time I’ve wondered and worried about people I’ve met in a place hit by a natural disaster. In my 23 years as a travel journalist, I’ve reported on another Caribbean island’s readiness to reopen for tourism after a Cat-5 hurricane and on the tourism fallout in coastal Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, among others.
Come to The Bahamas
Wanting to help but being so far away often renders one feeling helpless. So, I reached out to Paul Strachan, senior director of the Bahamas Tourist Office in Toronto, Canada, to better understand how people can help.
“We’re continuing to fully support and provide assistance to our fellow Bahamians who were impacted by the storm,” he said.
Soon after Dorian hit, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation launched a new campaign aimed at travelers: 14 Islands Welcome You With Open Arms.
The best thing we can do, implores the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation, is simple: Visit the unaffected Islands of The Bahamas.
Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar explained in a press release that maintaining a robust tourism industry will be vital in helping the country to recover and rebuild, and hoped this message could be conveyed to the public.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of support and love for our islands, and we would like everyone to know that the best thing they can do for us right now is visit Nassau, Paradise Island and the Out Islands. Our beautiful island nation is ready to welcome you.”
In addition, the tourism ministry’s campaign to get the message out is gaining traction elsewhere. For example, the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board has also produced an “open for business” video to clear up confusion.
A double-disaster whammy
A Category 5 hurricane (like other major natural disasters) not only inflicts catastrophic damage to life and infrastructure, it often decimates a tourism-based economy. The trickle-down loss of jobs and economic hardship hurts people for months to years to come, long after the disaster itself.
The first half of this year saw a nine percent increase in international arrivals to The Bahamas and, pre-Dorian, it seemed like it might be a record-breaking year. That isn’t expected to continue.
With tourism accounting for a critical 60 percent of the nation’s GDP, the tourism ministry is hoping this consumer awareness campaign will help prevent a free fall in cancellations of cruise and land bookings (made before Dorian) to the non-impacted islands and to spur more vacationers to come now and in the upcoming winter high season.
Geography 101: The Bahamas is not a single destination
The challenging issue is one of geography, too, explains Strachan. “There is some confusion due to lack of knowledge related to our multi-island composition. As such, most people believe that the entire destination is completely devastated.”
News reports naming “The Bahamas” without specifying the impacted islands adds to the misperception.
Fourteen of the most visited islands — including the two most popular, New Providence Island and Paradise Island (connected by bridge, and home to the mega-resort Atlantis and the bustling capital of Nassau) — were not impacted by the storm.
Just a hop, skip and jump away by plane or fast ferry from Nassau, some of visitors’ favorite Out Islands weren’t affected either. These include:
- The Exumas
- Eleuthera and Harbour Island
- The Berry Islands
- Cat Island
- Long Island
- San Salvador
- Rum Cay
- Acklins and Crooked Island
The warm Bahamian people and the islands’ hotel and travel partners are ready to welcome visitors with open arms. Airports, hotels and attractions are open (with the exception, of course, of the Dorian-devastated islands and Ragged Island, which suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in 2017).
Some hotels seasonally close in the fall, especially in the Out Islands, Strachan adds, advising that reopening dates (generally by mid-October) are noted on each property’s website.
Grand Bahama welcomes back cruise ships
Grand Bahama’s port reopened shortly after the hurricane. After receiving the approval of the Ministry of Tourism, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line just announced it will be the first to bring leisure travelers back to the island, resuming its two-night round-trip sailings from Palm Beach, Florida, to Freeport on September 27. Interested passengers can book a volunteer excursion to help with the island’s rebuilding effort. Since Dorian, the cruise company has been transporting aid workers and supplies, as well as displaced Bahamians.
Yet, wipeout fears cause cancellations
Enrico Garzaroli, owner of Nassau’s Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant, confirms that a lot of people think that “the entire Bahamas has been wiped out,” and thus, are cancelling or postponing trips.
“Tourism is our number one industry; without tourists, we won’t survive,” he explains. “This is not the time to shy away, this is the time to visit, it will help our country provide the support to our fellow Bahamians in Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands who were not as lucky.”
Jessica Robertson, PR manager for Blue Lagoon Island, home of Dolphin Encounters, a multi-activity day attraction near Paradise Island, says, “We are grateful more than ever for each person that chooses to vacation in the Bahamas and, specifically, our piece of paradise.”
The travel industry pitches in
Many hotels and resorts, as well as cruise lines, airlines and others in the travel and tourism industry are greatly supporting relief efforts, transporting aid workers and supplies, making significant cash and goods donations and raising funds.
Some, like Baha Mar (a mega-resort complex that includes luxury hotel brands like the Grand Hyatt, Rosewood and SLS) are inviting guests to participate. Baha Mar’s Pack With Love campaign is asking guests to support victims by gifting items of comfort to instill a bit of calm and security.
An auction to help recovery
Another way to support long-term recovery and have a lovely Caribbean holiday at the same time is by bidding online, by Sept. 30, on a 3- to 7-night vacation package. Caribbean hoteliers, including those unaffected in the Bahamas, have donated room stays.
“The recovery will be long and painful,” says former Bahamian resident Frank Comito, CHTA’s director general and CEO. “Whether you are shopping for a romantic escape, a family gathering, a business retreat, a personal getaway or a holiday gift, there’s much to choose from — all while helping to support people in need.”
Proceeds of the auction will help the most urgent needs identified by CHTA and BHTA, except for a small processing fee that will pay for the online auction platform.
Great deals from hotels and resorts
To entice vacationers, some hotels and resorts are announcing deals and incentives to visit before Christmas. For example:
- Garzaroli’s Graycliff Hotel is offering 30 percent off stays before Dec. 20, when booked by Oct. 31. See the special deal on the property’s website.
- Breezes Resort & Spa Bahamas is offering 40 to 53 percent off all-inclusive rates — from $140 USD per person/night — for bookings by Sept. 30 on select dates through Dec. 18. For details, see the fall sale on the property’s website.
If you can’t visit The Bahamas, donate
Of course, the need for cash donations is critical. You can help by donating to a reputable relief organization or other fundraising causes (check them out to be sure they are legitimate).
For monetary donations, check this hurricane relief list of trusted partners vetted by the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency. Due to the cost and logistics of transporting supplies, U.S. drop-off locations for goods are only available in Florida, and in Canada, in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.
“We welcome all donations and appreciate everyone’s efforts,” says Strachan.
Voluntourism and volunteer opportunities will soon emerge in the next phase of restoration efforts. Check the relief website above or with your preferred tour operator, cruise line, hotel, or relief organization.
One other easy way to help: Please share this story to help get the word out and follow #BahamasStrong on Twitter.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Of all generations, baby-boomers are in a unique position to help when disaster strikes. Many have the time and funds to take a vacation (even an unplanned one) or are retired and can volunteer the use of their lifelong skills to help out. If you can’t travel, consider donating to relief efforts.
- The Bahamas has a wide range of upscale resorts and hotels, including adult-only properties, family-owned boutique hotels, and vacation rentals. Located just 55 miles off the coast of Florida, the Bahamas offer an easy fly-away escape. They are also easy to get to from Canada on Air Canada or Westjet.
- Check hotel websites and social media channels for up-to-date information.
- The Atlantic hurricane season runs through Nov. 30. If you plan to visit The Bahamas during that time, ask your travel provider or hotel if they have a hurricane guarantee (that allows you to cancel or reschedule in the event of a hurricane).
- Don’t be a lookey-loo. It’s insensitive to visit the hurricane-ravaged islands or the temporary camps in Nassau and other places housing the homeless if you have no other reason to be there.
All photo credits: Pixabay
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