Country profile: The Bahamas

Bahamas
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Bahamas 'swimming pigs'

The highly adaptable ‘swimming pigs’ of the Bahamas have become a major tourist attraction. © Gabrielle Manni

Flag of the Bahamas

If countries could be compared to inanimate objects, the Bahamas would surely be a collection of showcase cars – varying in their shape, size and maximum speed. With pristine exteriors, this collection of gems would attract buyers, investors and those who simply wanted a test drive – just to see what it’d be like to live ‘that kind of life’. The cars might be auctioned by a set of dealers with questionable motives, their hands slick with backhanders.

The Bahamas is an age-old tourist bait – an escape. It has everything an idyllic Caribbean holiday destination is supposed to have: sandy beaches, coconut trees, friendly locals, crystal waters and iconic local food. It has reggae music blasting from every restaurant and sunshine at least 355 days of the year. But there are a few skeletons in the closet.

Tourists are not averse to some of this history: tales of pirates, plunder and fort-based attacks add a dash of spice to the mix. The Bahamas was a haven for corruption even in its earliest days. It has been home to slavery, rum running and, fast forwarding into the more recent past, offshore banking, which some might call piracy by a different name.

Dancers wrap up a session of ‘rushing’ for Junkanoo, a traditional perfomance of music, dance and costumes

Mandy Roberts

The capital city, Nassau, is where it all began, and tourists often get no farther than its casinos, luxury hotels and high-end shops. Many of the outer (particularly southern) islands and cays, are untouched by mass tourism development and retain the old, simple way of living. From mid-Bahamas upwards though, the spread of hospitality development risks encroaching on quintessential island life – and the stark contrast between the unattainable wealth of tourists and living conditions for ordinary Bahamians has inevitably led to a rise in petty crime.

In Nassau, there is the ritzy section ‘Out West’ but many Bahamians live ‘Over the Hill’ – the local term for the less-developed end of town with its older houses and basic standards of living. On the outer islands, you have a different divide. In northern islands like Abaco, there’s growing disparity between native Bahamians and illegal migrants from Haiti, who live in shanty towns (‘The Mud’) with makeshift buildings lacking proper sanitation and electrical wiring.

An 82-year-old Acklins Islander, one of many caught unawares by devastating Hurricane Joaquin, October 2015.

Vanessa Arnell

As with many countries, government corruption is inevitable, particularly if you are the Caribbean’s wealthiest nation. Perhaps more troubling still for young Bahamians like me is the sense that the country has been sleepwalking since its independence from Britain in 1973. Although it has taken big steps to improve the experience for tourists, it hasn’t built a legacy for future generations of Bahamian people. So the big investors dig deep into the natural resource wealth, and all those who can do so milk the tourism cash cow – feeding an aspiration to keep up with our US neighbours. Meanwhile printing, citrus, sugar cane, rum and beer, all of which were once valuable industries, are now costly imports.

It’s as if the motivation of recent ancestors to build a stable and secure future for the Bahamas has been forgotten. Instead Bahamians rely on the money of others as the last of its few remaining industries sell out.

The upcoming generation is stuck with a lack of prospects, their choices limited to tourism or banking, and the lack of government concern about this has young Bahamians like myself scratching our heads. If we’re going to continue using the phrase ‘It’s better in the Bahamas’ then we need to reset our standards. Better than where? And if we can’t do this, maybe the country should be listening to its youth, who are urging ‘It’s time to wake up, Bahamas’.

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