THE BAHAMAS: Tourism still drives a diversifying economy
Thomas Cromwell

HM King Abdullah

Just two hours from Washington by air, the Bahamas have long reaped the benefits of close proximity to the Florida coastline as a favorite Caribbean destination for sun-seeking tourists. Some 60 percent of the Bahamian islands' economy is derived from tourism, and this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the government there is interested in diversifying revenue sources for the country and has encouraged the development of a financial sector, which now accounts for 15 percent of GDP, international database services and is exploring new projects, such as a LNG terminal to be linked to Florida by pipelines.

The Bahamas' representative in Washington is Joshua Sears. He says that although a former British colony, the Bahamas have increasingly been drawn closer to the United States by everything from the education many Bahamians have received in America, to the dominance of Americans in the tourist population (80 percent) and the growing trade relations ($1 billion a year with Florida alone).

Tourism has been a boon, of course, helping Bahamians achieve a GDP per capita of over $16,000. It has also helped fund other government initiatives, from developing a network of 120 medical facilities and a good system of schools. But, as 9/11 showed, tourism is an industry susceptible to the ebb and flow of international events, not to mention the peculiarities of nature, which not only provides the sun, sea and sand for vacation pleasures, but also each year sends hurricanes howling across the Caribbean, knocking down structures and dumping floods of water on the islands in their path.  This year, hurricanes cost the Bahamas about half a billion dollars.

Ambassador Sears said that the Bahamas saw "a dramatic decline in visitors" after the terror attacks of 9/11, but that by the end of 04, the number of annual visitors should have returned to 5 million. He says, too, that there is a great deal of investment continuing in the tourism sector, with new projects as well as expansion of landmark properties, such as the Atlantis resort. A major emphasis is to attract conventions to the Bahamas, where US corporations can enjoy the tax-free status.

Proximity to the United States has brought undesirable as well as desirable business to the Bahamas. Its islands have long been a favorite location for drug smugglers en route to America. Ambassador Sears says that one of the main areas of cooperation with Washington is in narcotics interdiction. He says bilateral cooperation in this field is "tremendous." Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) allows US officers to operate in the Bahamas to gather intelligence on drug trafficking and to apprehend criminals they find in the trade.

The ambassador says it will still be some time before the Caribbean nations realize a free trade zone that embraces all of them, but on January 1 next year three states (Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados) will get the ball rolling by removing customs barriers for one another. The Bahamas have not yet concluded their negotiations on entry into a Caribbean single market, but Ambassador Sears says "at some point, the entire Caribbean will be a single market." But "it will take some time."

One concern, especially among smaller Caribbean nations, is that free trade agreements could mean their indigenous industries are overwhelmed by competition from larger neighbors. This is a major worry overshadowing any possible FTA with America. But, the ambassador believes, with the right terms to protect weak industries in small economies, international free trade agreements can be achieved. 

The Bahamas have been one of the most successful countries in countering an HIV/AIDS epidemic. They have done well, first of all, by the government recognizing the problem and then adopting an aggressive program to counter the disease. "We have the highest level of political support," the ambassador says. The first cases were diagnosed in 1981, but by the mid-1980s a comprehensive AIDS prevention program had been put in place, he says.

In the 1990s, the US National Institutes of Health conducted a project to tackle mother-child transmission. The Clinton Foundation contributed lower-cost drugs and the government began spending $6 million a year on the program. The result has been a dramatic drop in infection rates, from a high of 30 percent of children being infected by their mothers, to just two percent today. The Bahamas have been so successful in this field that they have earned praise from the World Health Organization and their program has been used as a model by some other countries.

Looking ahead, the Bahamas recognize the need for a well-educated population if it is to compete successfully in the world economy. "The global economy requires the Bahamas to adequately equip its human resources," the ambassador explains. The National University of the Bahamas is providing some of this education, while many Bahamians continue to go abroad for specialized degrees. To help bolster the rule of law, a law school has recently been created at the university.

In addition to areas already mentioned, economic diversification looks likely to lead to the creation of completely new industries, including in fields such as hydroponics, the ambassador says. At the same time, the government is actively working on making the standard of services and life common on all the islands, and has initiated a measure of decentralization in local administration to help achieve this goal.

And while the ambassador recognizes that global security is "an overarching" issue for the United States and the Bahamas, he hopes that the value of Bahamians studying in American universities will not be forgotten by Washington, as visa restrictions continue to be tight in the aftermath of 9/11.


Biography of Joshua Sears, Ambassador of the Bahamas to the United States

His Excellency Joshua Sears is The Bahamas' Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States of America, United Mexican States, the Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, Ambassador designate to the Republic of Colombia and High Commissioner designate to Malaysia.

Mr. Sears presented his credentials to President William Jefferson Clinton on 14 June 2000.

He was appointed non-Resident Ambassador to Mexico also on 1 April 2000 and he presented his credentials to President Ernesto Zedillo on 2 May 2000.

Mr. Sears presented his credentials to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States Dr. Cesar Gaviria on 11 May 2000.

He attended the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus) where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with honours.  He also holds an advanced diploma in public administration and policy management.  In 1977, he was a participant in the United Nations Institute for Training and Research's (UNITAR) Regional Training and Refresher Course in International Law for the Caribbean Region.

In 1980 he was awarded a UNITAR Fellowship in International Law, which involved studies and attachments at the Hague Academy of International Law, The Netherlands; the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), Washington, D.C.; and the United Nations, New York.

Mr. Sears has held several appointments in The Bahamas Public Service, including Deputy Permanent Secretary, 1986 and Undersecretary, 1991 in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Environment; Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Security and the Office of the Attorney General.

Mr. Sears' Foreign Service appointments include First Secretary at The Bahamas Permanent Mission to the United Nations in 1983.  In 1986, he was appointed Deputy High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and also served as Deputy Head of Missions in The Bahamas Embassies to France, Belgium, Germany, and the European Community (European Union).

Mr. Sears has represented The Bahamas at a broad range of conferences, seminars and workshops under the auspices of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Commonwealth of Nations and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).  These have included the United Nations General Assembly, the World Health Assembly (World Health Organization), the Conferences of the Pan American Health Organization, the Regular and Special Sessions of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, the Conference of Heads of Governments and ministerial meetings of CARICOM, and as Alternate Governor of The Bahamas to the Inter-American Development Bank.

He was elected Rapporteur at the United Nations Seminar on Recourse Procedures and other Forms of Protection Available to Victims of Racial Discrimination in Managua, Nicaragua, in December 1981.

He also served as the National Coordinator of the First Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nassau, 28 November to 9 December 1994; Supervisor, 1980 Census; and as Presiding and Returning Officer in several general elections.

Mr. Sears is the current Chairman of the Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Affairs of the Organization of American States as well as Vice Chairman of the Permanent Council of the OAS in Washington, D.C.