THE Bahamain Government has credited Sandals Emerald Bay with spurring a 60 per cent increase in visitor arrivals to Exuma over the last two years.
Last Friday's edition of The Nassau Guardian reports Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell as saying that visitor arrivals to Exuma are now just under 40,000 per year, a rebound from the 21,600 stopover visitors recorded in 2009, the year that the Four Seasons Hotel closed.
In 2009, the Four Seasons on Exuma was acquired by hotel mogul Gordon 'Butch' Stewart who poured approximately US$100 million into refurbishing the property.
Now, the six-star resort, which sits on 500 acres, boasts 250 luxury suites, butler service, an 18-hole Greg Norman Championship golf course and a 144-slip marina.
Industry analysts have rated it one of the finest hotels in the Caribbean.
According to The Guardian, Mitchell praised Stewart — who is also chairman of the Jamaica Observer — in an address on behalf of Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe at Exuma Business Outlook (EBO).
The newspaper report noted that while the presence of Sandals has spurred the revival the island needed, both the public and private sector know there is still a long way to go.
"My task is not to focus on visitor arrivals gains or losses, but to draw to your attention the challenges we face and must overcome to ensure we have a thriving and sustainable tourism industry here in the Exumas," Mitchell is quoted as saying.
He outlined many of the points first revealed by the director general at the tourism ministry, David Johnson, prior to the opening of the EBO.
"The official highlighted the need for infrastructure, improved airlift, better roads and other transportation services as key areas of focus," The Guardian story said, adding that one of the more immediate and pertinent issues of the day is lower utility costs.
"Earlier this year, Sandals voiced its displeasure with high operating costs that ate into its bottom line and made business difficult on the island. In fact, Mitchell revealed that Exuma has it far worse than resorts in the capital," The Guardian reported.
"The data examined by the Ministry of Tourism with one major resort show that although Nassau's utilities, especially electricity cost, remain among the highest within the region, Great Exuma's cost almost double those of Nassau on a per room, per night basis," Mitchell is reported as saying.
This situation, he insisted, cannot be absorbed and sustained, as it will force customers to "simply choose to go elsewhere".
According to The Guardian report, the lack of dining options was also noted as a challenge for the island's tourism product. However, the recent reopening of a restaurant at Grand Isle should go a long way to aiding this endeavour.
"The high-end community located just down the beach from Sandals has invested high six-figures into a new kitchen and restaurant, which is open to the public," the newspaper report said.
It also said that in the case of Sandals and Grand Isle, Mitchell dismissed the concerns of critics that larger resorts cannot work on what are known in The Bahamas as the Family Islands.
He said Exumians must "face the reality of our circumstances and chart a sensible course for development".
"It is true that we must find the right balance. We must never sacrifice the secure, homely feeling of our Family Islands simply for the creation of income or wealth. However, we must properly plan where development might be invited, where population centres can be allowed to blossom and, on the other hand, which areas should be reserved for preservation and conversation," Mitchell is reported as saying.