Every time a cruise ship docks in Bimini, the population of this tiny archipelago just 50 miles off the coast of Miami could nearly double.
That may be profitable for a place that lives off tourism. But many worry the recent launch of a new cruise line disgorging hundreds of visitors each day could be too much of a good thing.
The ship is one component of a global casino company’s project to bring unprecedented waves of tourists to Bimini, which has long defied change. Some fear it will destroy a marine environment teeming with fish and coral, and ruin a diving and sport fishing capital of the world.
It’s also provoking somewhat of an existential crisis, posing a challenge to Bimini’s identity as a rustic and hard-to-reach getaway, known as a haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
“Unless you are a fisherman, a diver or a drunk there was no reason to come to Bimini. But they are changing that,” said dive shop operator Neal Watson. “It’s getting to be a different place.”
Changes are coming fast. Malaysia-based Genting Group is spending at least $300 million on Resorts World Bimini, quickly becoming the largest employer in the cluster of islands and creating sharp new demand for housing. Working in partnership with a Florida developer, the company opened a casino in June, expects to finish a 350-room hotel by Christmas and 50 luxury villas a month later. The company has plans for shopping, restaurants and nightclubs and is in the process of upgrading the airport to accommodate larger planes.
The Bahamian government has welcomed the project, but critics say the benefits come at too great a cost.
The Bahamas National Trust, a nongovernmental environmental organization created by Parliament, as well as researchers at the Bimini Biological Field Station say runoff from a proposed golf course would destroy a protected area of mangrove that acts as a nursery to the fish, conch and lobster that make the place a destination.
A secondary issue is the 1,000-foot jetty that Genting will build to shorten the time it takes to get off and on its ship, which began service in July. Opponents say the project will damage coral reefs; a company official says it complies with environmental regulations and that the site was chosen specifically to minimize any threat.
Genting insists the golf course is still under consideration and would only be built if it can be done in an environmentally sensitive way.
“We are not here to ruin what Bimini is, we are not here to ruin the water, we’re not here to ruin the pristine mangroves, the quaintness of the island,” Dana Leibovitz, president of Resorts World Bimini. “We want to integrate. We want to be part of the island and we want to continue for that to be the main draw to the island.”
Bimini only has a full time population of about 1,600, about the size of a full capacity cruise ship and has avoided mass tourism because of scarce air service and the passing Gulf Stream, which makes the crossing from South Florida too rough for small vessels much of the year.
For Eric Carey, executive director of the Bahamas National Trust, the Resorts World project is excessive for a place so small.
“Everyone understands that all of our islands rely on tourism,” Carey said. “But when one thinks about going beyond what’s there now, with a golf course and the jetty, well that borders on being out of scale.”
Thousands have come since the cruise ship service began operating, but Joseph Roberts, a commercial fisherman and proprietor of Joe’s Conch Shack, hasn’t seen enough new customers to allay concerns that development will contaminate the mangroves that partially encircle Bimini.
This is a place with a colorful history. In the colonial era, it was a hideout for pirates who stalked treasure-laden Spanish ships coming from South and Central America and the Caribbean. Bimini has also seen its share of glamour.
Hemingway visited in 1935 and then returned for the summers of 1936 and 1937, writing part of “To Have and Have Not” while there. Genting projects the number of visitors to Bimini will grow from 70,000 last year to 400,000 in 2014, which is likely to produce ripple effects throughout the local economy, a fact welcomed by Biminites like Robert Saunders, who works at a local hotel.
“There are people who don’t want any progress anywhere,” Saunders said. “There can be downsides and upsides, but I see more upsides.”AP