Bahamians love summer. School is out, the kids are home, beaches are crowded, and our culturally casual pace of life slows to a more sedate saunter, often as much for the heat that exceeds 90 degrees as for the humidity that sometimes exceeds 90 percent. The perennial, though futile, effort to stay cool, especially at night when BEC (the Bahamas Electricity Corporation) fails us, is aided by evening showers that both refresh and reset the temperature to a more bearable level.
Summer also marks the travel period, with many Bahamians travelling to the United States and Canada, although more recently more Bahamians have opted to travel to the Family Islands. Therefore, over the next few weeks, we will devote this blog to a series on domestic tourism as we consider this… what is the lure for Bahamians to explore our Family Islands? This week, we will explore the island of Andros, the largest of the major 26 inhabited Bahamian islands that is often referred to as “the Big Yard”.
Andros Island has an area greater than all the other 700 Bahamian islands combined. It is the sixth largest Caribbean Island after Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad. Andros is approximately 2,300 square miles in area – roughly 104 miles long and 40 miles wide at its widest point – with a population of approximately 7,400 inhabitants based on the 2016 census. While it is considered a single island, Andros consists of hundreds of small islets and cays connected by mangrove estuaries and tidal swamplands as well as three major islands: North Andros, Mangrove Cay, and South Andros.
Approximately 40,000 Lucayans, a subgroup of the Taíno people, were here when the Europeans first landed. The Spanish valued the Lucayans’ free-diving skills in fishing for conch, therefore they enslaved the natives and transported them to Cuba to work as pearl divers. The Lucayans suffered high mortality due to infectious diseases carried by the Spanish, diseases for which the Lucayans had no immunity. After the Lucayans became extinct, there were no known permanent settlements in The Bahamas — including Andros island — for approximately 130 years. However, during the late 1600s and early 1700s, pirates and buccaneers frequented Andros island. Morgan’s Bluff and Morgan’s Cave on North Andros are named after the famous privateer-pirate, Henry Morgan. Loyalists fleeing the United States during and after the American Revolution settled on various Bahama Islands including Andros, bringing their slaves with them and, by 1788, Andros reported 22 white heads of families, with a total of 132 slaves who cultivated the land.
After the United States acquired Florida in 1821, Seminoles and black American slaves escaped and sailed to the west coast of Andros where they established the settlement of Red Bays. Hundreds more of these “Black Seminoles” joined them in 1823, with more arriving in later years. While sometimes called “Black Indians”, the descendants of Black Seminoles identified as Bahamians, while acknowledging their connections to the American South.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Greek spongers immigrated to Andros for the rich sponge fishing on the Great Bahama Bank off Andros’ west coast. For many years, Andros sponging was The Bahamas’ largest industry until the industry was wiped out by the Red Tide algae in the 1930s.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Owens Lumber company, a US-owned company, deforested much of the indigenous pineyards that grew on North Andros. As a result of poor planning for sustainable harvests, the island today has overcrowded forests of mainly young trees.
Tourism is Andros island’s largest industry, and the largest private employer. Andros is marketed as the least-explored island in the chain. From Nicholls Town in the north to Little Creek in the south are 35–40 hotels, resorts, guest houses and lodges with a total of approximately 400 rooms. Small Hope Bay Lodge, near Fresh Creek, the first dive-dedicated resort in the world, was founded by Dick Birch, a Canadian immigrant. It continues to operate, owned and managed by Dick Birch’s children.
Andros is known as the bonefish capital of the world because it is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of fishable flats. Other varieties of fishing are available on Andros and there is an abundance of snapper and grouper.
Tourists are primarily scuba divers, attracted to the barrier reef, the third largest in the world, the Tongue of the Ocean, and Andros’ world-famous blue holes. Also vacationing in Andros are bone-fishing anglers, and those looking for relaxation at a destination that, while off the beaten path, has easy air connections.
The infrastructure in Andros is like many of the islands of The Bahamas. The public utilities are generally of average quality and in urgent need of upgrading. The roads, especially the main highway that connects North Andros to the south with its many cavernous pot-holes, are poorly maintained and extremely difficult to navigate.
Andros has four airports with paved runways: San Andros Airport at Nicholls Town, Andros Town International Airport located at Fresh Creek, the Clarence A. Bain Airport at Mangrove Cay and Congo Town Airport in South Andros.
Andros is connected to Nassau by Sea-Link ferry, which runs daily, and is also accessible by mailboat from Nassau and for inter-island travel with stops at numerous Andros settlements. There is no public transport on Andros Island, but a private shuttle bus service on North Andros connects Nicholls Town with Behring Point. Taxi and rental car service are available at all four airports.
The Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) is the most recent development on North Andros.
BAMSI is expected to establish and operate a state-of-the-art comprehensive commercial teaching farm, which will include crop and livestock enterprises, production of fresh fruits, condiments, fish, meat and value-added processed items, primarily for the domestic Bahamian market.
The Institute intends to demonstrate that the production of farm and fish products is financially and commercially self-sustainable, and once BAMSI is fully operational, it should significantly reduce the nation’s billion-dollar food import bill.
Given Andros’ proximity to Nassau (only 30 miles away), its gargantuan land mass, its abundant fresh water supply, its multifaceted natural resources and inviting landscape, although there is an urgent need to upgrade the airports, docks and roads, the island’s future prospects are enormously positive.
However, unless the prohibitive cost of travelling to Andros, as well as the other Family Islands, is creatively and comprehensively addressed, the average Bahamian will consider vacationing in the United States before his own country because the airfares are the same and, in some instances, less expensive.
Additionally, the cost of accommodations and transportation once on the island are very high, given the amenities offered. When a family travels to a Family Island now, since the family members who used to live there and offer housing are for the most part no longer there, they must consider lodging cost as well as the cost of other activities. A vacationing Bahamian family needs to be able to find things to do, tours to take and other ways to spend their time.
We have seen the wonderful Androsian events like Crab Fest, homecomings and regattas which draw large crowds. The same wonderfully creative Family Islanders responsible for those activities should also turn their attention to more regular events aimed at tourists, domestic and foreign.
We should approach the challenge of Family Island tourism fully cognizant that the Family Islands are in direct competition for the vacationing dollar with North America, where not only do many Bahamian travelers feel that they can get more bang for their buck, but where there is a plethora of activities for young and old alike.