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Exuma offers the best of The Bahamas

Exuma offers the best of The Bahamas

Family Island charm makes Exuma an unrivalled destination

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
August 21, 2017
August 21, 2017
Catherine Morris

Investors, second-home owners, tourists and developers have all fallen under Exuma’s spell in recent years, as the island chain is fast becoming one of the most popular in the archipelago.

The Exumas are a cluster of over 360 cays and islands 35 miles southeast of Nassau. The 120- mile long chain is typically divided into three areas: Great Exuma, Little Exuma and the Exuma Cays. The capital is George Town, a sleepy fishing village on Great Exuma’s north shore, which sees a steady stream of visitors throughout the year eager to take advantage of the Family Island’s calm, clear waters or simply soak up the small-town feel.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Exuma’s appeal is growing. In 2014, just over 42,000 tourists visited the destination. A year later, this figure rose to more than 48,500.

Tamika Rolle, acting manager at the Ministry of Tourism’s Exuma office, confirms this upward trend saying: “Exuma is booming; there has been an increase in our arrivals. Tourism is our main industry and it has been growing since the recession.”

Wonderful waters
Rolle says a large part of Exuma’s appeal is its natural attractions, in particular its “magnificent waters.” The destination has long been a favourite with boaters and yachters due to its calm and clear seas, known as some of the best in The Bahamas.

Fishing, sportsfishing and sailing are all popular pursuits here and a lot of the island’s tourism trade comes from the sea as yachters wind their way through the Bahamian archipelago. These travellers can make use of six full-service marinas dotted around the Exumas offering short-term or long-term dockage. Beginner boaters favour Great Exuma’s north shore as it is sheltered from the open sea by Stocking Island. George Town comes alive with regattas several times a year, which attract both locals and visitors to see the spectacle.

Watersports enthusiasts are also frequent visitors to Exuma, as it is one of the best places in the world to try your hand at kitesurfing, kayaking, snorkelling, paddleboarding, diving or snorkelling.

In 1958, the Bahamas National Trust established the 176 sq miles Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park–the first park of its kind in the world–to preserve and protect the flourishing and diverse marine life in the area. Thanks to these conservation efforts, the waters around Exuma are a nature-lover’s paradise. Dazzling coral reefs, seabird breeding habitats and intricate cave systems and blueholes make the park a must-see for visitors. The area is home to several rare and endangered species including sea turtles, Bahamian iguanas, several shark species and stromatolite reefs, which are some of the oldest and rarest organisms on earth.

High-end development
With a wealth of attractions drawing visitors to Exuma, a number of high- end resorts have sprung up to meet demand. Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma is the stalwart of the market, taking over the former Four Seasons resort in 2009 to create a 249-room luxury complex, with an 18-hole golf course, spa and 150-slip deep-water marina. In addition, the resort recently made a multimillion-dollar investment into opening three new restaurants. Since it opened, Sandals has invested over $137 million directly into the local economy.

Rolle, a native of Exuma, says Sandals, and the Four Seasons before it, helped transform the destination. “These employers bring a lot of jobs and a lot of visitors. We had Bahamians coming back to the islands and it was a domino effect where people came back, opened up other businesses because of the influx of visitors and the economy grew.”

Pedro Rolle, head of the Exuma Chamber of Commerce, agrees, saying: “Foreign investment developments bring a myriad of entrepreneurial opportunities for local people and for Bahamians generally. As a result of collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, foreign investors and government, the entrepreneurial spirit of Exumians should flourish through vertical linkages with these resort projects.”

Improving infrastructure
With tourism growing, the infrastructure in Exuma is undergoing a necessary upgrade. The new Exuma International Airport is set to break ground this year and will provide a new terminal building with expanded customs and immigration facilities. The completed terminal is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2018. Pedro Rolle says the project is crucial to Exuma’s progress. “Reliable air service is the basis upon which incremental business is delivered. Jet service is a fundamental pillar of our economic prosperity and it allows us to compete effectively on a global scale.”

Aside from Sandals, another long- standing fixture of the Exuma economy is February Point. This exclusive community overlooks picturesque Elizabeth Harbour and offers real estate investment opportunities alongside vacation rentals. It is currently undergoing a $40-million expansion with plans for a five-star boutique hotel, condo units, restaurants and an expanded marina. In summer 2016, the resort broke ground on its Overwater Penthouses–four bedroom homes starting at $5.7 million.

Five-star luxury isn’t hard to find in the Exumas, and another new entrant to the market is set to invest millions into the local economy in the next few years. In 2016, the Bahamas government signed an agreement with CB Commander Ltd and CH Amiral Ltd to create a $200 million eco-friendly, high-end resort spanning two islands in the Exuma chain, Children’s Bay Cay and William’s Cay. The cays are situated 15 minutes from Barraterre at the northern end of Great Exuma. Under the agreement, Children’s Bay Cay will be transformed into a five-star resort including a 50-room hotel with five over-the-water pavilions, a clubhouse, a beach club, spa, marina village, small cinema complex and a 20-slip marina to accommodate vessels up to 120 ft.

On neighbouring William’s Cay there will be an 18-hole golf course, 15-20 luxury villas, seaplane and helipad facilities. The two islands will be joined by a specially constructed bridge. The development is expected to break ground this year.

“It will give the economy a boost, create jobs and attract even more people to Exuma,” says Tamika Rolle. She believes that foreign investors and developers, such as the team behind Children’s Bay Cay, are drawn to the Exuma cays because they recognize their suitability for smaller, more exclusive offerings. “Developers see that Exuma has the potential for success and the economy here is stable. The whole destination is attractive. What makes it special is that when these developments come, they are not megaresorts or properties that take away from the island feel. People are drawn to that quiet type of vacation.”

Boutique experience
Tamika Rolle predicts that boutique-type hotels will continue to dominate the market in Exuma, providing an alternative to mass-market megaresorts found elsewhere. One of Exuma’s newest resorts is a case in point. Lumina Point, a boutique luxury eco-resort on Stocking Island, officially opened in February and prides itself on providing a bespoke experience for each traveller. The exclusive boutique hotel has 12 rooms, a gym, spa and restaurant. Assistant operations manager Danielle Scott says that business at the property is solid, with over 50 per cent occupancy since it opened.

Most visitors are coming from Canada and the US and, according to Scott, the size of the resort and its location are a large part of the appeal for these tourists. “We are not on the mainland, so that gives customers the feel of a getaway. It is a private island more than a hotel. You do not have the hustle and bustle here, people can catch up on some rest and relaxation.”

Scott confirms that the popularity of boutique resorts such as Lumina Point are on the rise, especially at the higher end of the market where wealthier travellers are prepared to pay more for the personal touch. “People want to enjoy their vacation and want more of a family-feel rather than the corporate- feel. They want people to remember their names.”

Furthermore Lumina Point is tapping into another important industry trend–ecotourism. The resort is powered entirely by solar panels, runs a reverse osmosis water system and includes farm-to-table options on its restaurant menus. Scott summarizes the resort’s ethos as “promoting healthy living” and says it is proud of its environmental efforts.

Despite Exuma’s popularity, Tamika Rolle says the market is far from crowded and, so far, development has been mindful of the environment. “There has not been over-development and we hope that it will stay that way,” she says. “Exuma is made up of 365 cays and islands, so there is always room for growth.”

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