By NEIL HARTNELL
#Tribune Business Editor
#The deputy prime minister yesterday admitted Exuma’s growth has “severely outstripped the capacity of our infrastructure” with tourist arrivals 22 percent ahead of 2019’s record-breaking levels through to end-August 2022.
#Chester Cooper, the local MP, told the Exuma Business Outlook conference that the pace of progress in outfitting its mini-hospital to cater to an ever-expanding population was “a great disappointment for me” given ambitions for the island to become the “healthcare and aviation hub” for the central and southern Bahamas.
#With American Airlines set to “shortly” restore direct flights to Exuma, he told attendees via a recorded video address: “We’re working hard to prime the pump in tourism, and we are marking a remarkable recovery almost back to 2019 levels. Our product is very strong, our brand is amongst the most recognised in the tourism industry and if we continue to build they will come.
#“We’ve had a very strong September, which is typically one of our most slowest months, and I predict that by the year-end we will match the record-setting 2019 arrivals volumes.” Mr Cooper said Exuma attracted around 70,00 visitor arrivals in 2019, the last full-pre COVID year which saw a record 7.2m tourists travel to the entire Bahamas, but numbers through August 2022 were “roughly 22 percent more than 2019 levels”.
#“Exuma is truly a success story in the business of tourism, and I will tell you that we can fill twice the number of rooms we have on Exuma given the trends we see on Bahamas.com and various booking platforms,” the deputy prime minister added. “I can tell you that the Government has been working, and we are reaping tangible rewards for the country with the amazing level of development for Exuma.”
#Calling on hotels to construct more rooms, and Exuma residents to invest in vacation rental properties, Mr Cooper acknowledged that Exuma’s infrastructure had failed to keep pace with the tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI) driven growth that the island is experiencing.
#“Forgive me for saying what has become obvious, but our growth has severely outstripped the capacity of our infrastructure,” he told the conference. “Bahamas Power & Light, the Water & Sewerage Corporation and our schools all need a significant capital injection.”
#Turning to Exuma’s mini-hospital, with direct airlift connectivity to new destinations and source markets being eyed, Mr Cooper said: “With all this development it will mean more people visiting our home, and a critical part of taking care of them is ensuring we have a properly outfitted hospital.
#“We’ve added some resources and personnel to the mini hospital, but we’re still not where we want it to be and I will confess this has been a source of great disappointment for me. However, we continue to explore our options and I will update the community as further developments occur.” X-ray machines have already been installed.
#Mr Cooper said the recent threat posed to Mayaguana by Hurricane Fiona, which saw elderly residents of that island evacuated to Exuma, had further solidified his “vision” that the island can become a healthcare and aviation “hub” for the southern and central Bahamas.
#Tourists would fly into Exuma directly, with domestic airlines then distributing them to the more remote and less travelled southern Bahamas islands. In so doing, the deputy prime minister added that his constituency would “make itself a player in the region”.
#Elsewhere, Mr Cooper said the Government is working on a private-public partnership (PPP) for the construction and financing of a “new multi-purpose government complex” on Exuma that is being modelled on the existing facility in Abaco. Various public services can then be offered from one central location.
#“Banking is another concern,” he added. “One of the clearing banks is exploring providing services on mainland Exuma. That is something that is in the works, and I will update you more when there is more certainty on the timeline for opening.”
#Gowon Bowe, Fidelity Bank (Bahamas) chief executive, addressing the same Exuma Business Outlook conference later in the day confirmed that the BISX-listed institution was the one referred to by Mr Cooper. He indicated that it will not be a conventional ‘bricks and mortar’ or physical branch presence, but one more geared to the digital and electronic payments era.
#The deputy prime minister, meanwhile, said work on laying water mains in Little Exuma will begin in 2023. And a further five miles of roads are to be completed and fully repaved before year-end, taking the total to 12. Mr Cooper also foreshadowed that the Forbes Hill Cultural Village will open in the new year at the former all-age school, offering a farmer’s market, gifts and souvenir sales and a location where Bahamians can sell locally produced goods.
#“It represents where Exuma has come from and where it is headed,” he said of the initiative. “We don’t have to destroy our past to make room for our future. We can build on it, and use it to propel us forward. I encourage everyone who loves Exuma the way I do to do the same.”