How to help the Bahamas recover from Hurricane Dorian? Don't be a stranger, officials say

Amy Bennett Williams
The News-Press

On a recent sunny afternoon, Nassau's famed straw market was bustling as crowds carrying Carnival cruise tote bags oohed and aahed over the hand-made purses and hats.

Four behemoth ships were docked in the Bahamian capital's port, with more scheduled to arrive the following day.

Yes, the capital has become a hub for hurricane helpers and displaced people since Hurricane Dorian walloped the islands Sept. 1, but it has the capacity to bend to accommodate them without breaking. 

Even as he begged the world to come to his country’s aid by stabilizing the climate, the Bahamian prime minister couldn’t help but wax poetical about his nation’s “naturally warm aquamarine and jade waters.”

A bus transports cruise tourists from the boat docks to downtown Nassau, Bahamas three weeks after Hurricane Dorian.

In his address last week to the United Nations’ general assembly, Hubert Minnis said Hurricane Dorian’s devastation should serve as an urgent warning that his archipelago and all coastal communities are endangered by what he called “the global climate emergency … the greatest challenge facing humanity.”

But later in the speech, Minnis made another plea to the world: “Please come and visit one or more of the 14 other major islands in the Bahamas not affected by Hurricane Dorian, including Nassau on the island of New Providence,” he said. “The revenue from tourists visiting The Bahamas will play a vital role in reconstructing and rebuilding the affected areas,” sentiments echoed by tourism officials throughout the island nation.

A recent meeting in the luxe lobby of Paradise Island's Baha Mar resort illustrated how tourism and recovery can go together.

As slot machines jingled and flashed behind them, Naples couple Patty and Christina Amandis, waited for Mia Campbell and family to arrive. Patty, a Naples, Florida DJ, has been coming to enjoy the Bahamas since she was a kid and estimates she's visited between 30 and 40 times.

But the couple's visit to the islands last week was different: It was a mission trip. The two Naples residents traveled to the waterfront resort, just over a bridge from Nassau, to give away the more than 100 pounds of hurricane help they'd gathered in Florida and hauled to the Bahamas.

More:Bahamas nation struggles to right itself a month after Category 5 Dorian brutalized islands

More:By the numbers: Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas

"We love the Bahamas and the Bahamian people, and this is our chance to give back," Patty said.

Nassau resident Mia Campbell, originally from the hard-hit Abaco islands, tearily hugged the Amandises and assured them their help would reach those who most need it.

Be like the Amandises, says the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation, because the best way to help the islands recover is by helping them conduct their tourism business as usual.

It’s not that the Bahamas want the rest of the world to forget what happened when the Category 5 monster tore through the Abacos and Grand Bahama islands – it’s that they want it to remember that 14 of its 16 main islands are perfectly fine and open for business.

More:Dorian's legacy: The slowest, strongest hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas

The commonwealth’s last official census in 2010 counted 351,461 residents, with the country’s projections for 2019 at 391,000, though some organizations place that closer to 400,000. Of those, two thirds live in the capital city of Nassau (they’re known as Nassuvians) on the island of New Providence.

Since the storm, those numbers have increased by as much as 10,000, but National Emergency Management Agency Director Capt. Stephen Russell said Nassuvians will make room.

Visitors enjoy the beach in Nassau, Bahamas in front of the cruise ships three weeks after Hurricane Dorian, which left the capital unscathed.

Like Minnis, Russel wants the world to focus on all that Nassau and the Bahamas’ other islands have to offer. 

"We are open for business," he said. "That's what the world needs to know."

Indeed, the Bahamas’ recovery hinges on the success of the tourism sector – some 60% of Bahamas GDP, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. That number is the highest of any Caribbean nation, which is why last week’s just-inked deal with Carnival Holland America Line was such good news for the Bahamas government – and such a relief, considering it happened three weeks after Dorian.

Visitors stroll through downtown Nassau, Bahamas near the cruise ship docks on Sunday, September 22, 2019. Three weeks after Hurricane Dorian slammed the islands north of Nassau, the island is still open to its main source of income, tourism.

In case you missed it:Arthrex doctor on Bahamas relief mission: 'We heard stories of amazing survival'

How to help:Bahamas help: Complete list of donations, supplies needed after Hurricane Dorian

And:Naples billionaire provides yacht to rescue 50 dogs, deliver 30 tons of supplies to Bahamas

The agreement calls for a $100 million port to be built on Grand Bahama as well as $80 million in enhancements to the company’s private Half Moon Cay,  including a massive pier that will enable the island to accommodate larger ships. One of those will be Carnival’s still-under-construction Mardi Gras, the first cruise liner to be run on liquefied natural gas.

Cruise ships dock seen from the air in Nassau, Bahamas on Tuesday, September 25, 2019. All but two of 
 the nation's 16 main islands are still open for business.

The agreement shows the Bahamas are "full speed ahead," Minnis said.

As deputy director general of the tourism ministry, Ellison Thompson told USA TODAY earlier this month: "The Bahamas is a country of 700 islands and cays beginning 50 miles off the Florida coast and stretching for 750 miles from Bimini in the north to Inagua in the south," said Thompson. "The distance between these areas are similar to the distance between Philadelphia and New York.

"If NYC has an issue, it doesn't affect Philadelphia."

Case in point, the experience the Amandises had at Baha Mar. As Patty looked around at the casino floor, the cafe, the scenic overlook above the turquoise waters below, she summed up the scene in a single word: "Paradise."  

Map of the Bahamas and Florida.

By the numbers

16: Main islands in the Bahamas

14: Islands open for business

$180 million: Port investments pledged by Carnival Corporation in Freeport and Half Moon Cay

60: Percent of the Bahamas' gross domestic product supported by tourism

6.6 million: Foreign visitors to the Bahamas last year

17: Percent increase from the previous year

Sources: Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation,Carnival Corporation, USA Today,  Inter-American Development Bank