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It is the paradise retreat where Ernest Hemingway set his novel Islands In The Stream – a place so relaxing and unspoilt that the author described it as being “like the end of the world”.
Bimini, the smallest habitable island in the Bahamas, may be only 50 miles off the coast of Florida, but its 2,000 inhabitants have resisted the onslaught of mass tourism – preferring to attract a small, elite clientele of divers, big-game fishermen, and Caribbean connoisseurs of Hemingway’s ilk.
But now the once sleepy seafaring community is under threat. A Malaysian consortium has won approval to start bringing up to 500,000 tourists a year to a casino and a hotel on the nine-square-mile island, and is currently accused of damaging coral reefs by dredging channels for its cruise ships.
And the development is even turning neighbours against each other, with local workers and the government, who support it, squaring up to environmentalists, opposition politicians, and marine experts such as Fabien Cousteau – grandson of the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau – who campaigned against the resort’s creation.
Lloyd Edgecombe, Bimini’s chief councillor, accused campaign groups of making trouble for locals who want the jobs the resort will bring. He said “a lot of offensive things about Bimini people” had been coming from such groups. “They are basically calling the people of Bimini stupid,” he said. “These outsiders are coming here and want to make an uproar.”
But many local people are themselves determined to halt the construction. “What is happening on and around that little gem in the ocean, Bimini, will go down in the history of the Bahamas as the greatest potential tragedy to an eco-system,” said Joseph Darville, founder of the Save Our Bays action group.
The cruise ship pier is currently under construction, despite continuing attempts by environmentalists to halt the project through the courts.
Kristine Stump, a marine biologist who lived and worked on Bimini for three years, said the lack of a crusie ship terminal was hampering the resort’s business.
“Using small launches to unload everybody takes hours – severely limiting the amount of time they can spend at the resort,” she said.
“It has been an ecotourism-based economy for a century, and the loss of the reef will really hurt Bimini in the long run. They’re also destroying critical habitat for lobster, grouper and conch, and destroying the natural storm protection for the island itself.”
The dispute has come to a head after many years in the making. Bimini had always attracted wealthy American tourists, arriving by private yacht or chartered sea plane to luxuriate in its sparkling clear waters and on its white sand beaches, or to explore the teeming reefs and nearby deep waters famed for their marlin, swordfish and tuna. It was this which attracted Hemingway, who spent three summers on the tiny island in the 1930s fishing, boxing and swilling rum in the wooden bars along its shores.
He wrote To Have and Have Not – a novel about running contraband between Cuba and Florida – on the island, perhaps inspired by Bimini’s history of pirates and Prohibition smugglers. Yet one of his characters in Islands In The Stream summed up life on the cays in far more tranquil terms: “Swim, eat, drink, work, read, talk, read, fish, fish, swim, drink, sleep.”
Holidaymakers including the Duke of Windsor, Richard Nixon and Sir Anthony Hopkins all visited. But it was only in 2007 that the Bimini Bay Resort began to bring mass tourism to the island.
The resort’s construction was controversial from the start, with Mr Cousteau making a film entitled Paradise In Peril in 2008 to protest against the destruction of mangrove swamps to create space for 480 holiday homes.
Last summer, however, alarm grew further among environmentalists the resort was taken over by the Genting Group, a Malaysian company with international resorts and gaming interests which last month won approval to develop a new $4 billion casino complex in Las Vegas.
The company has already erected a 10,000 square-foot casino in Bimini and a new 343-room ultra modern luxury hotel is set to open before the end of the year.
Now it is offering a super-fast ferry service from Miami that can deliver 1,500 tourists a day to the renamed Resorts World Bimini – and wants the vast pier built to entice even more visitors, and to speed up the process.
But residents of Bimini are questioning how far the all-inclusive packages offered to visitors by the company can benefit the island – and how many of the promised 300 new jobs will materialise for locals.
“People understand the importance of tourism, and welcome new investments to the island as long as they display a basic respect and understanding of what has established Bimini as an attractive tourist destination for the last several decades,” said a spokesman for the Bimini Blue Coalition – a group of local residents and environmentalists working to protect the island.
“This proposal suggests compromising or diminishing… our beaches, our reefs, the clarity of our water, for the sake of an unnecessary convenience to your resort. It takes away from what everyone loves about Bimini.”
The coalition produced in May a powerful video [below], on which the hammering of metal into the bay provides a soundtrack to images of gently bobbing boats, and the gleaming seas and sands.
They say that instead of constructing a pier for its giant ferries, Resorts World Bimini should use smaller boats to bring tourists ashore, or simply expand use of the airport.
And they point out that Bimini is home to 14 of the world’s most treasured and valuable coral reefs, attracting divers from far away and pumping a reported $80 million a year into the local economy.
Tristan Guttridge, executive director of the Bimini Biological Field Station, described the island as “a marine biologist’s dream.”
“The marine environment at Bimini is really diverse,” he said. “The pristine waters are home to a huge range of marine animals – from the globally-endangered great hammerhead shark and loggerhead turtle, to the commercially-important queen conch and Caribbean spiny lobster.
“It’s essential that these underwater communities are preserved and continue to flourish – because this both attracts tourists, and sustains local lifestyles. But the recent disturbances and past mangrove removal and dredging means that they face an uncertain and fragile future.”
Last year church leaders combined with fishing guides, council officials and managers of every other hotel or resort on the island to write to Perry Christie, the Bahamaian prime minister, urging him to put the final seal of approval on a plan for a marine reserve around North Bimini, bit to no avail.
Kwasi Thompson, shadow environment minister, said that he was “very disturbed” by the government’s apparent lack of concern for what he said would be the “permanent and irreparable environmental damage” to Bimini. its corals and fisheries that would be caused by the dredging project.
But the government has given Resorts World Bimini full support for its $150 million resort upgrade.
Mr Christie spoke proudly of how tourist arrivals to the island were up 93 per cent year on year, and has taken a personal interest in the resort, travelling to Bimini last month with KT Lim, chairman of Genting Group, for the inaugural night flight to the island.
Alfred Gray, minister of agriculture and marine resources, lashed out at the environmentalists. “There will be some people who wouldn’t want you to eat fish, if they could stop you,” he said earlier this month.
“They don’t want you to eat nothing. They don’t want you to eat fish, they don’t want you to eat conch, they are just generally ’conservationists.’”
Mr Edgecombe, the local councillor, accused opponents of the project of living in the past. “Bimini is no longer a fishing town,” he said. “These young people don’t want to go to no boat and fish.
“This is the 21st century. There’s going to be some environmental destruction, but it is going to be kept at a minimum.
“I’m not an expert on environment, but I know Bimini people are going to benefit tremendously.”
Resorts World Bimini insists that it has the greatest respect for the environment in Bimini, had worked closely with the government and its agencies to minimise damage and would not do anything to harm the ecosystem. A spokeswoman said the new pier “enables Bimini to enjoy a greater economic impact for the entire island, more jobs for Biminites and Bahamians, and endless entrepreneurial opportunities for Biminites”.
She added: “We will continue to construct the cruise pier as expeditiously as possible.”
But Ms Stump disagreed, insiting: “It’s an ecological and socioeconomic disaster.”