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Heritage tourism – Bahamas’ hidden treasures

Heritage tourism – Bahamas’ hidden treasures

New initiatives capitalize on archipelago’s rich history to enhance the visitor experience

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
December 8, 2010
December 8, 2010
Catherine Boal

Leaders in the tourism sector are seeking out new ways to convince visitors to The Bahamas that the nation has more to offer than the usual foolproof formula of sun-drenched beaches and glittering turquoise seas. To refresh the country’s tourism product, new initiatives are tapping into what sets the nation apart from other tropical destinations: its rich and colourful history.

According to the Travel Professionals of Color association, heritage tourism is growing by 4.5 per cent annually. Former director of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corp (AMMC) Dr Keith Tinker believes that it is important to focus on The Bahamas’ history to capitalize on this growing market, whilst also educating visitors and making locals proud of their country’s past. “Our historical traditions are unique. There are some aspects of our heritage that really stand out–our European, African and Lucayan ancestry,” he says, citing the nation’s colonial and slave past, as well as its first known settlers, the Lucayan Indians.

“When a person has a home, they like to showcase it and the significant elements of it–particularly if they are things of intrinsic cultural value. Not only are you proud of it, you want to show it to the world.”

Nurturing a history-driven tourism sector can bring big dividends economically, according to Geneva Cooper, senior director of visitor experience at the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation (MOTA), who says the type of tourist it attracts can lead to a more profitable industry. “Heritage travellers are more educated, they stay longer and they spend more. Once it is developed, we can expect to derive more income than from the ‘sun, sand and sea’ visitors. People will want to come back over and over. It is particularly sustainable,” she explains.

Domestic heritage tourism is also on the rise, with more Bahamians heading to the Family Islands and the historical sites of interest there, according to Dr Tinker. His aim is to create more Cultural Heritage Centres throughout the archipelago to join the current sites in Rock Sound and Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera, and the one on Long Island. “In the Family Islands, tourist numbers are increasing, as is the need to establish heritage resource centres.”

The positive impact on domestic tourism was an unexpected benefit Dr Tinker says, but a very welcome one. “We had not even considered it. It is just evolving that way. Heritage tourism is very significant in terms of domestic tourism.”

Heritage sites
Some of the historical sites on New Providence already receiving visitors both domestic and international are forts Fincastle, Charlotte and Montagu, the Clifton Heritage Park and the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. Other sites are now being developed to add to the range on offer.

“Heritage tourism is very cost effective–you have everything in place already,” says Cooper. “Restoration could be costly, but everything is there and you build a history around it.”

With this in mind, historical buildings in downtown Nassau were given a facelift last year in a bid to draw more tourists off the cruise ships and onto the streets of the capital, as well as making the heart of New Providence more aesthetically pleasing for those who live and work here. Tying in with the nation’s artistic heritage, the Downtown Nassau Partnership’s Love The Bahamas project, which was co-sponsored by MOTA, commissioned murals from local artists to grace the walls of historical buildings such as the Trinity Church and the Cotton Ginny building on Bay Street.

Speaking at the official launch of the project last year, Minister of Culture Charles Maynard spoke of the importance of heritage tourism and Bahamian culture in general to the tourism market. “Three years ago I was inspired by [the artist] Jackson Burnside who said that ‘by 2020 more people will travel to The Bahamas for our culture and heritage than for our sun, sand and sea.’ And I believe that.”

It is not just the centre of the capital that has a part to play in the drive towards heritage tourism. MOTA would like to see lesser-known districts getting involved as well, such as Gambier, Fox Hill and Adelaide, which all have distinct historical importance in the development of New Providence. These areas have been identified as key sites for promoting both the culture and the history of the island, and the ministry has invested around $50,000 in rejuvenating these communities through clean-up efforts, ecological studies and providing training workshops for local tour guides.

“We want to ensure we get the support of the community, because we want these people to benefit from heritage tourism,” says Cooper. “It is there to bring revenue to these communities.”

The ministry hopes that these efforts will make pre-arranged tours of those areas available to all tourists and is using its website to promote these. “Heritage tourism is fairly new for The Bahamas, but it is growing. We want to put it on the map. When you look at it right now, we are not at the forefront of heritage tours, but we certainly want to get there,” says Cooper. “People want to interact with the [local] people. They want that history. We want to make sure we can give them that experience.”

Other opportunities
The notoriously treacherous Bahamian waters have a history all of their own hidden beneath the waves, and it is this aspect of the country’s past that the AMMC is hoping will open up heritage tourism even further. The government is expected to lift its moratorium on salvaging operations within the next year and, once it does, the organization is keen to investigate the hundreds of shipwrecks dotted around the islands.

Dr Tinker says these wrecks hold historically significant treasures that should be brought to the surface, restored and exhibited. “There are a lot of significant artefacts that speak to the era,” he explains, referring to a time some 400 hundred years ago famous for sea-faring and piracy. “It is going to be a very interesting avenue that most of the Caribbean has not exploited.”

Through this kind of initiative, the tourism industry is getting creative in a bid to lure more visitors to The Bahamas. By building a sustainable heritage tourism sector, looking to the past might help secure its future.

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