Lauren Duffy, Ph.D. - RESET Research Fellow
Disaster can remind us of the tragic socioeconomic inequalities that exist in many of tourism destinations in the Global South. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, the question becomes how those vulnerabilities are exploited in the vacuum of the destruction.
The crisis: The state of the response
Over the last month, stories, reports, and photos across media outlets have given us glimpses into one of the worst natural disasters that the Caribbean region has ever seen. Moving at a painfully slow speed of seven miles per hour, Hurricane Dorian was one of the strongest storms to make landfall in the Atlantic, leaving a path of devastation that is consistent with that of a 30-mile wide tornado. At its peak, there were sustained winds 185 miles per hour, with gusts registering at 220. The official loss of life remains at 56[i], but as the island continues to come to terms with the scope of the devastation, Duane Sands, Minister of Health for The Bahamas warned a week after the storm that, “[t]he public needs to prepare for unimaginable information about the death toll and the human suffering”[ii]. Much like the memories many of us hold of the ‘Xs’ that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Response Team marked on doors of homes in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina[iii], search and rescuers are spraying ‘Cs’ on doors of structures that remain standing, indicating the building had been searched with no causalities found; ‘Ds’, however, are marking buildings where the dead have been found. Most calamitous, though, was the storm surge that rose to 20-feet above sea level, accounting for many of the 600 people who remain missing, likely washed out to sea [iv]. At the time of writing this, there is an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of debris – from homes and offices which were flattened by the winds and sea surge – that alone will cost upwards of $74 million to clear and remove. Further, the preliminary estimations of property loss are around $7 billion, with only half of this damaged property being insured ($4 billion in loss in Abaco, $2 billion in Grand Bahama, and $1 billion in New Providence)[v].
Following the storm, that only hit two of the 30 inhabited islands that make up The Bahamas, the tourism industry dropped across the country. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2017, tourism accounted for 47.8% in total contribution to the country’s GDP and over 55.7% of total employment[i]. It is, without a doubt, the most important industry for the country and similar to its Caribbean neighbors, it is economically tourism-dependent. The Bahamas typically ranks fourth in the Caribbean region in terms of tourism’s direct total contribution to GDP (behind the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica). And before Hurricane Dorian arrived, it was set to be a record year with 4.5 million visitors – 700,000 who had been to the two affected islands – during the first seven months of 2019[ii]. Abaco and Grand Bahama accounted for 19% of the country’s room supply (which does not reflect the sharing economy or cruise tourism)[iii]; minimally, then, we can assume that increased efforts to redirect this tourism demand to other parts of the country will be part of the recovery strategy.
The immediate crisis communication responses led by the Director General of the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, Joy Jibrilu, have been some of the most effective that I have personally witnessed in wake of a disaster. In step with Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation has played a substantial role in messaging and communicating recovery efforts, so much so that the Bahamas.com/relief – the official relief page for the country – is platformed off of the Official Site of The Bahamas (Bahamas.com). The initial campaigns included a simple map of the entire country relative to the two affected islands, subtly providing a basic geography lesson to everyone. Their main message has been that The Bahamas is ‘Open for Business’: as Jibrilu stated, “[m]ost of the country’s islands are open to visitors, and those tourists are badly needed.”[i] Following this lead, both formal and informal messaging from the island appeared: “we are battered, but not broken” and “in unity we will be stronger” were some of the messages in Prime Minister Minnis’s earliest national addresses to the public[ii]; other media campaigns that transcended platforms, such as #BahamasStrong, spread quickly. Notably, other private companies and businesses also tapped into this effort, including the #TravelforLove campaign promoted by The Atlantis based in Nassau, New Providence[iii]. By all accounts, the efforts led by the Ministry and partnering tourism organizations has been received positively with responses from customers reflecting this sentiment: “We will come back sooner than planned to support The Bahamas.”
Critical question: Who benefits from the rebuild?
Over the last week or so, the stories and images from Great Abaco and Grand Bahama have quietly exited prime time news cycles. Great and necessary work continues to be executed by aid and relief organizations and Prime Minister Minnis emphasized the need for accountability, fairness, and respect in continued relief efforts[i]. However, with a critical lens, we need to be asking, what happens next?
Much like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Dorian brought to the public’s attention to the socio-economic inequalities within The Bahamas. There were those who could evacuate the islands before the storm arrived, and those who had little choice but to stay, many of whom attempted to ride out the storm in makeshift homes within the shantytowns of Sand Banks, the Mudd, Pigeon Peas, and the Farm. There were those who had property insurance that will provide a basis for personal and business recovery, and those who simply did not.
The Washington Post highlighted these issues using two short aerial videos shot immediately following the storm; one of Baker’s Bay, described as “an elite playground for millionaires” and the other of the Mudd in Marsh Harbor[iii]. The images tell a story of how different the lifestyles and livelihoods were between those in these two spaces. No longer can we continue to ignore the fact that there was something of a caste system that was drawn between the White, wealthy visitors from the Global North and the dark skinned, poor residents and tourism workers of the Global South. According to a 2018 government report, it was estimated that Abaco and Grand Bahama had 3,000 Haitian immigrants, 20% of whom were likely undocumented[iv]. And particularly notable is that tourism work is what attracted many of the Haitian immigrants to the location after migrating in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. The fact of the matter is, the shantytowns across Abaco Island helped power The Bahamas tourism industry. Glen Kelly, harbor master at the Abaco Beach Resort, told the Washington Post: “I’ll put it as raw as I can. We’ve always depended on Haitian labor, legal or illegal, to maintain this place”[v]. As a tourism industry, we need to consider our role in creating and maintaining such a system of exploitive workforce.
Further difficult to swallow is the reality that the disaster is not over for the local communities and former residents of these islands. Indeed, while they remain focused on survival day in and day out, the larger scale discussion of ‘rebuilding’ is underway. This is where the very tangled and dangerous web of national, business, and personal interests lay. Who is going to come out a winner from this? As Fraser asked “who goes down and who emerges better positioned than before: these are matters often predetermined by the structures of power and wealth, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and despised and favored forms of work, as well as moral and social prejudices in place before disaster strikes”[vi].
Naomi Klein, a leading scholar on the topic, considers disaster capitalism to be an orchestrated effort in the wake of a disaster, that considers the market potential created in such a vacuum[vii]. Even more disturbing is that some plan in advance for catastrophic events such as hurricanes to maximize these economic opportunities[viii]. What is also notable is the way in which a sense of urgency and desire to return to stability, can allow for policy decisions to be made that would otherwise have never been well-received. After the initial disaster and the ‘rebuild’ begins – is when some believe the most egregious tragedies happen: those who survived are in their most vulnerable state against an agenda of disaster capitalism[ix].
According to a report that has surfaced reflecting on the development in Barbuda after it was battered by Hurricane Irma in 2017, there has been a detectable shift in the “locus of control over development projects from Barbudans to global elites.”[x] Barbuda was notable to have maintained a sense of identity that separated it from mainstream mass tourism that is dominant in the rest of the Caribbean. In part, Barbudans controlled development as a result of communal land ownership and general policies that had limited private development. However, the push coming post-Irma is “capital-intensive luxury ecotourism-based model of development, which global elites are spinning as a post-disaster, humanitarian, ‘green’ recovery.”[xi]
In the case of The Bahamas, disaster capitalism could be the way in which corporate interests and private investment shape the island. We should, for example, be critical of the cruise ships role in recovery and rebuilding as they are known for creating exploitative relationships with island nations across the region[xii]; James M. Walker, a maritime lawyer who is involved in several civil lawsuits against the cruise industry was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the cruise lines were once again “taking advantage of the good publicity… offering only a pittance of relief aid to The Bahamas given the enormous revenues” that they make from allowing their guests to experience their resources.[xiii] What interests do the cruise lines have in the rebuild and what power will they execute to influence development in their favor?
This is not to say the previous arrangements were equitable, as The Bahamas did not have many of the protective policies as Barbuda had maintained for so long. Still, what is being done for the workers who have migrated to Nassau and other parts of the country? How will policy decisions help stabilize their lives as the first and most important interest? What responsibility does the Bahamian tourism industry have to the Haitian residents (documented and undocumented) who were a vital part of the workforce? With the recent government directive to not allow immediate rebuild of the shantytown communities, where will these people remain in the immediate recovery?
Optimistically, could we imagine a country that considers the rights of the tourism workers? Could the government hold new tourism businesses more accountable for livable wages and fair housing? Could we see the former shantytowns - many of which had no running water and spotty electricity – improve in its basic infrastructure? Could we bring human rights issues to the center of the rebuilding of Abaco and Grand Bahama? Klein published a book last year about Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico on the Disaster Capitalists. What she witnessed there also raises hope for those beginning the recovery process in The Bahamas; residents coming together in grassroots movements to organize their collective power to influence future development in ways in which they desired [xiv].
Only time will tell as to what is in store for the communities within Abaco and Grand Bahama will look like, but for the sake of those most vulnerable after a disaster, let’s not stop paying attention.
[i] Chavez, N. & Thomas, C. (September 27, 2019). 600 people are still missing in the Bahamas weeks after Hurricane Dorian. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/27/americas/bahamas-hurricane-dorian-missing/index.html
[ii] BBC News (September 6, 2019). Hurrican Dorian: Bahamas death toll expected to be ‘staggering’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49602445
[iii] Miller, C. (2013). X marks the spot: decoding the Hurricane Katrina X through urban memory of New Orleans residents. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of Georgia, Athens.
[iv] Ailworth, E. (September 22, 2019). Opening the Door to Hell itself: Bahamas confronts life after Hurricane Dorian. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/opening-the-door-to-hell-itself-bahamas-confronts-life-after-hurricane-dorian-11569176306
[v] Karen Clark & Company (September 4, 2019). KCC Special Report: Hurricane Dorian Impacts on the Bahamas. Retrieved from https://www.karenclarkandco.com/news/publications/year/2019/Hurricane-Dorian-Impacts-on-Bahamas.html
[vi] World Travel and Tourism Council. (2019). Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2018. Retrieved from https://www.wttc.org/economic-impact/country-analysis/country-reports/
[vii] Sampson, H. (September 11, 2019). The Bahamas wants you to know it’s still open for business. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2019/09/11/bahamas-asks-tourists-sustain-reconstruction-by-returning-after-hurricane-dorian/
[viii] Durbin, D. & Gomez Licon, A. (September 7, 2019). Tourism-dependent Bahamas says it’s still open for business. Associated Press News. Retrieved from https://www.apnews.com/f585fe0d4b0545749a24908e7a59a85a
[ix] Sampson, The Bahamas.
[x] Office of the Prime Minister, The Bahamas (September 11, 2019). National Address. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/opmbs/videos/501156740451636/UzpfSTYxMjU4MDc3NTEyOjEwMTU2MjQwMjM2OTQ3NTEz/
[xi] Fox, A. (September 12, 2019). Why you should visit the Bahamas, according to travel writers and editors. Travel + Leisure. Retrieved from https://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/island-vacations/why-we-love-the-bahamas-tourism
[xii] Ailworth, Opening the Door.
[xiii] Smith, D. (September 14, 2019). “The poor are punished”: Dorian lays bare inequality in the Bahamas. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/13/hurricane-dorian-the-mudd-haitians-inequality
[xiv] Sieff, K. (September 12, 2019). When Hurricane Dorian blew through the Bahamas, it exposed one of the world’s great faultlines of inequality. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/when-hurricane-dorian-blew-through-the-bahamas-it-exposed-one-of-the-worlds-great-faultlines-of-inequality/2019/09/12/9485f8ae-d415-11e9-8924-1db7dac797fb_story.html
[xv] Ailworth, Opening the Door.
[xvi] Sieff, When Hurricane Dorian blew.
[xvii] Fraser, S. (April 4, 2013). A history of disaster capitalism: Profiting off natural disasters from the Sam Francisco earthquake to superstorm Sandy. Mother Jones. Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/04/history-disaster-capitalism/
[xviii] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Macmillan.
[xix] Pérez, M. S., & Cannella, G. S. (2013). Situational analysis as an avenue for critical qualitative research: Mapping post-Katrina New Orleans. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(7), 505-517.
[xx] Gotham, K. F., & Greenberg, M. (2008). From 9/11 to 8/29: Post-disaster Response and Recovery in New York and New Orleans. Social Forces, 87(2), 1-24.
[xxi] Gould, K. A., & Lewis, T. L. (2018). Green Gentrification and Disaster Capitalism in Barbuda: Barbuda has long exemplified an alternative to mainstream tourist development in the Caribbean. After Irma and Maria, that could change. NACLA Report on the Americas, 50(2), 148-153.
[xxii] Ibid, p. 149
[xxiii] Pattullo, P. (2005). Sailing into the sunset. In P. Pattullo (Ed.). Last resorts: The cost of tourism in the Caribbean. New York: NYU Press.
[xxiv] Robles, F. (September 10, 2019). Cruise Ships, Long Contentious in Bahamas, Offer Lifeline After Dorian. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/travel/bahamas-hurricane-dorian-cruise-lines.html
[xxv] Klein, N. (2018). The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico on the Disaster Capitalists. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Battle_For_Paradise.html?id=cp9VDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false