Most of the attention aimed at the Bahamas right now – more than a week after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian dealt a severe blow in the north – is focused on the rising death toll, the efforts by survivors to flee and the aid that is arriving.
But officials with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation are trying to reinforce a different message: Most of the country’s islands are open to visitors, and those tourists are badly needed.
“When people say the Bahamas has been devastated, it gives the wrong impression,” says Ellison “Tommy” Thompson, deputy director general of the tourism ministry.
He acknowledged that Grand Bahama and the Abacos, two of the country’s northernmost areas, have suffered a terrible blow. Hotels and airports there are closed, and ports are only open for humanitarian purposes.
Between January and July of this year, more than 4.5 million people went to the Bahamas by air and sea, Thompson said. Of those, 415,124 visited Grand Bahama and 284,228 visited the Abacos. Those are the second- and third-most-visited destinations after Nassau and Paradise Island.
“It’s going to take years to get those islands back up, so we need the tourism revenue in order for us to sustain the reconstruction that’s going to be necessary,” Thompson says. “We definitely need the visitors to come.”
He said tourists have been canceling their visits at what is already a slow time of year because of the storm, which experts say could hurt the economy as recovery efforts move forward.
“The Bahamas are heavily reliant on tourism, so any small decline in visitor arrivals will have a relatively big negative economic impact,” Carolin Lusby, an assistant professor of travel and tourism management at Florida International University, said in an email.
In a news release this week, the tourism ministry said 14 of the country’s most-visited islands are unaffected, including Nassau and Paradise Island, the Exumas, Eleuthera and Harbour Island, Bimini, Andros, Cat Island and others. Overall, the country has more than 700 islands and thousands of cays in a sprawling archipelago southeast of Florida.
“One of the things we want to get across is the fact that the Bahamas is not one island,” Thompson says.
“They’re having to teach geography at this point to people,” says Rich Harrill, director of the International Tourism Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
He said the communication from the Bahamas needs to strike a balance: acknowledge the disaster, address the recovery and make sure the needs of the local community are being met. But since the economy depends on tourism, the message that parts of the country are open for vacationers needs to be clear as well, Harrill said.
“Someone’s going to have to come out with something very quickly, a 30-second spot . . . that says welcome to the Bahamas, we’re still open, you can still get flights out of Miami, you can still enjoy yourself,” he says.
Messaging has to be practical, too, Lusby said, letting potential visitors know which specific destinations, cruise terminals and airports are open. Even then, some may still stay away.
“Tourists differ in their resilience to disaster and risk,” she said in an email. “New travelers or mass tourists are generally more risk-averse.”