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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Postcard from Nassau

Paradise Lost

When you fly over Nassau, just before you land, you see the most spectacular water. Beautifully clear and a tempting assortment of blue and aqua colors. You only need to swim a short distance offshore in calm warm waters to see schools of fish just beneath the surface. Paradise awaits.

The airport has been recently renovated and lines are short. But there is also the sticky residue of a long history of colonialism. All kinds of colonialism have taken place there, including Americans setting up a plantation economy. The Brits had the longest run. While it is an independent commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth is still its reigning monarch. It appears that the future colonialists may turn out to be Chinese.

There are 700 islands that make up the Bahamas. But Nassau is where most Bahamians live and where most tourists visit. Although it is home to thousands of hotel rooms (concentrated in two areas) and hundreds of cruise ships, Nassau is not a place of great efficiency. Fairly soon after arriving, you realize everything is on “island time.” Online maps don’t work, and many buildings are in a state of decay. Humid weather and storms take their toll. Only the wealthy can afford constant maintenance.

We stayed in a hotel that was most recently a Sheraton. It is now part of the Meliá chain. Nobody cared how long the check-in line was, and nobody was in any hurry to speed up the process. When the client (that word has little meaning there) next to me was hysterical about swapping a room, I thought the manager was going to slap her instead of trying to resolve the problem quietly out of earshot.

Although there was a grand driveway for valet parking, it wasn’t used, and guests had to park their cars at some distance in a temporary lot, which required you to cross a vehicular path. Never mind the fact that the concrete walkways and the plaster around the pool were spalling. While the air conditioner in our room worked fine, there was no HVAC going in the glazed single-loaded corridor. And it was being repainted with all sorts of toxic paint and plaster dust on the carpet. The funniest moment was when my travel companion opened our room door and the housepainter fell in.

Nobody pours a full glass of wine, taxi drivers swindle you, and the tourists seem willing to endure it all for the pretty warm water and the modest room rates at the Meliá (compared to the Disneyesque fantasy island known as Atlantis). Atlantis is a monstrosity resort built by a South African and run by Starwood. If you lose a whole world, you can build it any way you want later.… The Atlantis is probably the largest employer of Bahamians in Nassau. Many people think it is the Bahamas, as they arrive at the airport and are shuttled to the resort and never leave. We did not venture there.

Next door to our rundown former Sheraton was the latest transformation of this quiet island. The newly found/built paradise is called Baha Mar. While they will have a zillion rooms, lots of pools, golf courses, and casinos, they are not going to be quite as fantasy-based as Atlantis. One ingenious design touch at the Meliá was that the hotel frosted the glazing in our corridor so we couldn’t see the construction zone next door. Perhaps it will be a surprise when it opens.

Apparently, the Chinese developers of Baha Mar have created a nature preserve across the street, and other public amenities. This is the reason there is a new road from the airport and a new airport. What is curious is that the construction site is almost entirely Chinese. The sign over the gate is in Chinese, and the construction workers are Chinese. My friend said that the developers said there were not enough trained workers in the Bahamas. No doubt the cost of labor might have something to do with it?

We also heard that the target audience is the newly wealthy formerly Communist Chinese. Baha Mar absorbed an earlier Wyndham development that was also out of scale with the early low-rises on beautiful Cable Beach. When it opens later this year (if you believe the banners), a new kind of colonialism will set in with a new set of tourists. I am not sure I will return to witness it.

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Charlotte said...

Oh dear, that is not a very happy postcard. I'm curious, Kenny, what inspired you to go to Nassau in the first place? The water does look amazing, but I'm not sure that's enough to make up for a half full glass of wine, etc.

Unknown said...

The author has a somewhat limited knowledge of the Bahamaswhich includes the economic and political complexities of this developing nationsince independence from Britain in 1973.

With 90% of it's GDP reliant on services (primarily tourism) foreign investment has been significant over several decades. It should be noted that the 'monstrosity' Atlantis is not owned by Starwood but Brookfield. The resort model has been successful for those wishing to escape their daily lives to a Paradise found.

China has invested close to $5 billion which included calls for massive improvements to the island's infrastructure whihc employeed hundreds of Bahamians. The Chinese labor brought in had the skills to complete the work in the swift time period required. The work force population is just under 190,000 for the country.

In this global economy not sure why the author thinks Bahmas may not participate. China holds a large portion of US debt. Why wouldn't Bahmas wish to wiegh their options to remain competitive in this part of the world were travelers have many options.

Oftern when Americans travel abroad they have this lofty notion that the rest of the world should offer the same conveniences they have at home. Witnessed this even in London, when folks visiting The Gap asked if they could pay in dollars or in resturants thinking ice/refridgeration was a given.

Might suggest if the hallways are not cool perhaps consider Ocean Club on Paradise Island for a few more dollars. Trip Advisor might have been a better place for much of the content of this piece and certainkly help Melia with it's transition from Sheraton.

Given the fine writing ususally found in Design Faith would have expected a more textured report beyond water color, rude staff and "plantation economy. Perhaps most disappointing is the dismissive cultural reference to "island time" and all that implies about this country.