Island Insights: Abaco Shows What Bahamas Can Be
By Roderick A. Simms II, Chamber director
Family Island division chairperson
WHEN people think of the Bahamas they tend to have this idea of enjoying warm weather accompanied by a great cocktail, and a place to stay where the beach becomes their backyard. While this is all true and available, Abaco offers a more unique product that caters to the hospitality and industrial potential of the Bahamas. Abaco is comprised of two parts: Great Abaco and Little Abaco, along with a myriad of smaller cays that capture 130 square miles of Bahamian waters. Opportunity presents itself in the form of eco-tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality and boating.
Abaco has paved the way for many things in the Bahamas, and is rich in history. The island is home to the candy-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse in Hope Town, which is one of the few remaining manually-operated lighthouses in the world. It is also pivotal in the production and export of local carpentry products via its timber logging industry. Abaco also has the infrastructure for further potential developments, such as a solar energy plant or becoming a mass agriculture and livestock exporting hub. That is why it is important to see this island for more than just its pristine beaches and cays, and other eco-tourism activities. It is time to look at alternative revenue-generating streams that can put Abaco on the map as perhaps the industrial capital of the Bahamas.
One of the difficulties that all developing nations face is being able to tap into their natural resources and exploit them. It requires capital, infrastructure, human resources and innovation. Fortunately, Abaco has all the necessary ingredients to further expand its pine forest industry. While forest projects require great attention to the protection and preservation of the environment, once careful assessments are performed there are huge economic opportunities for local and foreign investors.
The commercial prosperity of this sector has yet to be completely unlocked, although it has the potential to greatly reduce the country's import bill. In 2013, Lindar Industries was granted a logging concession to cut pine trees on Abaco for commercial and residential development. If more opportunities like this are presented, then Abaconians can see a boost in employment, economic activity and opportunities for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
It is, however, easier said than done. These types of projects require political will, and a significant and efficient source of capital. If not, residents will be left staring at abandoned machines and a damaged landscape. Abaco is no stranger to the forestry industry, and its history dates to as early as the 1940s and 1960s. The late 1950s was a learning period for future investors, especially when the Abaco Lumber Company moved to Grand Bahama in 1944 after the supply of useful pine in Abaco had been drained. The lumber company was originally known as the Bahamas Timber Company, and was purchased by Wallace Groves in 1946. The island still has room for more businesses in the industry. After all, everyone needs a little competition.
Hotels and Resorts
In there was ever a doubt about Abaco's potential in tourism, think again. This island has some of the most picturesque boutique hotels and resorts in the Bahamas. Words can only do a little justice in describing the Abaco Beach Resort, Green Turtle Club Resort & Marina, Treasure Cay Beach Marina & Gold Resort and the Delphi Club Bonefish Lodge. Notice that each of these resorts offer more than just a bed and fine dining.
Hotels and resorts in Abaco can easily combine hospitality offerings with other attractions, such as eco-tourism and fishing activities. The island also leads the way in room availability among the Family Islands and, as of 2016, there were 1,195 hotel rooms on Abaco. One of the most recent developments was Southworth Development's acquisition of 100 per cent ownership in the Abaco Club on Winding Bay. The company plans to pump a further $10 million into the property and, in the future, develop a marina and boat slips along with expanded food and beverage offerings.
However, there is a growing concern for Abaco's hotel sector due to the rise in vacation rental homes. While this is not a situation unique to Abaco, it still has a tremendous impact for the island that has the largest amount of hotel rooms outside of Nassau/Paradise Island and Grand Bahama. With platforms such as AirBnB gaining more popularity, hoteliers now have the additional stress of competing with vacation home owners and others.
In the free market, competition sounds great and is a relatively healthy way to boost consumer confidence. But for an island that has four ports of entry (Marsh Harbour, Treasure Cay, Spanish Cay and Walker's Cay) and just under 1,200 rooms, the competition gets a bit stiff when even more inventory is being added. On the demand side, consumers enjoy lower prices and more options, but on the supply side owners must find ways to maximise/maintain profit. There will always be a group of visitors that prefer to stay in a luxurious high-end resort. However, for a family of five on a budget, $200 for three days versus $200 per night may be the better deal. Therefore, there is a need to expand product offerings among hoteliers and resort owners to remain competitive. This can be a simple task, and many owners have mastered this by adding activities such as boating/marina, tours and sports tourism. The key word here is consistency.
Marinas and boating is a way of life in Abaco. There are just under 35 marinas and boating/yachts slips in total on the island. Statistics show that Abaco attracted 9,332 marina boaters in 2016. That number outpaced New Providence, and was the third highest when compared to Bimini and Grand Bahama. The island's proximity to South Florida makes it an ideal spot for boaters.There is a market here to be further tapped into, and potential investors looking to develop property should not second guess the need to build an accommodating marina.
Locals have coined the phrase 'Buy Bahamian' because it is both a sentimental and economic form of encouragement for those doing business in the Bahamas. But can we meet local demand? Let's take baby steps here. Abaco has the potential to supply food stores throughout the Bahamas with items such as fruits, vegetables, sisal products and livestock.
It could also improve food security in the Bahamas with the availability of 11,737 acres of agricultural land under the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources that can be used for a period of up to 21 years. Only a fraction of this is being used.
In 2015, the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) launched the Abaco Agricultural Project. Hopefully, more initiatives like this will come on board to help develop the agriculture sector.
The Wilson City power plant was a controversial issue when plans to build the site were first disclosed. Residents at the time were concerned about the emissions plaguing the area and the original plan to use Bunker C fuel.
The $105 million plant now uses diesel, but changes are still being talked about at Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC), now Bahamas Power and Light (BPL).
Several power outages occurred across Abaco in late July and early August 2017 because of a "series of tests" at the Wilson City power station, according to a BPL representative. That event had an adverse impact on hotel and business owners. But the power company subsequently said it is eying Wilson City's conversion to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility, instead of diesel fuel. Although the plant has already been designed for use as an LNG facility, it will still take some time to put everything into operation. Here we see that Abaco could potentially become the first island to ever employ LNG at a power plant in the Bahamas. The efficient production of energy is key to economic prosperity for any country, island or state.
Abaco hits the spot for investors that are looking to do more than develop villas and hotels. While it offers luxury real estate and more, Abaco has tremendous potential in the industrial sector much like Grand Bahama. But there is still a lot of work needed in terms of government and private sector support to help launch the further development of initiatives such as livestock farming, boating and forestry. There are millions of dollars being missed out on. If Abaco is already known as the sailing capital of the world, then who is to say that it cannot be a leader in other industries. If you ever lost hope in what the Bahamas can truly become, then a trip to Abaco will surely erase any sense of loss.