On February 27, 2023, a record was set at the Nassau Cruise Port (NCP). Six ships with a collective 28,554 passengers were simultaneously docked at the port.
And while the news was shared by many in The Bahamas as cause for celebration, it was met with a different reaction in other circles.
While NCP CEO Mike Maura praised the “extraordinary record”, and said it equated to “thousands of visitors exploring downtown Nassau, learning about our island and culture through our restaurants, taxis, and tours, and making wonderful memories of The Bahamas that will surely drive them to return,” reviews from previous visitors were not so shining.
On Porthole Cruise and Travel’s Facebook page, a post announcing the accomplishment was met with an onslaught of comments detailing complaints over the state of Downtown Nassau and its reputation as a port of call.
Some noted that Nassau is a port where they refuse to get off the ship.
“The town is filthy,” one comment read. “If my ship goes there, I never get off and know a lot of people who say that.”
Another commenter said, “28,000 disappointed people if they've ever been literally anywhere else.”
When she was challenged by a Bahamian to spend money on excursions for a better experience, the former visitor replied, “Why would you book an excursion at every port versus actually experiencing the local culture? I'll be on my fourth cruise in the last 11 months in two weeks. Money is not the issue. Only people that have ever been on a cheap Bahamas cruise love Nassau. It is widely known in the cruise community as the worst port. There are way too many other better places.”
As a Bahamian, it hurts to read these kinds of comments. But, in this case, is it really entirely inaccurate and unfair? It’s not exactly unreasonable to expect that the downtown of The Bahamas’ capital city would be a showcase of some of the best of what the country has to offer.
And I think we can all agree that Downtown Nassau is far from that. It’s been widely discussed for years. From politicians to business owners to the general public, we all know we need to do better.
But what does better mean?
Tourists Want to See the Real Bahamas
Bahamians know The Bahamas. We know what makes home feel like home. They’re the things we find ourselves missing, even longing for, when we travel or live abroad for some time. But how many of those things are easily found downtown? Let’s be real — sometimes, you can barely find an authentic Bahamian accent on Bay Street.
A good destination is more than souvenir stores and American comforts. Tourists are looking for authentic experiences. Nobody visiting any city wants to feel like they’re experiencing a façade or a thinly-veiled theme park. But that’s the effect that long stretches of mostly souvenir and jewelry stores with franchises throughout the Caribbean tend to have. And it’s a shame because there are some real cultural gems in downtown Nassau and the areas surrounding it.
From the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas to historic Bain and Grants Town to some of the still-standing historic buildings, there’s surely potential. But these need to be better incorporated by emphasizing the creative industries in an overall plan for downtown’s revitalization.
The best downtown areas have a variety of things going for them — a vibrant nightlife, eclectic shops and stores, great restaurants, and plenty to keep people entertained.
But if we want Downtown Nassau to feel authentic, it needs to be authentic. There needs to also be a focus on making it, first and foremost, a space designed for Bahamians, where locals can work, find entertainment and live. It should be the social, cultural and economic center of New Providence and The Bahamas at large.
The space should be purposefully designed to serve the needs of people who actually live in Nassau, and not only for those who visit on a cruise ship for a few hours. From residential units to grocery stores and pharmacies to restaurants, bars and well-planned public spaces, the building blocks of a sustainable community are needed. From there, focus can be placed on better incorporating the existing museums, art galleries and other entertainment spaces, while incentivizing the development of more of them.
Downtown should have a unique energy that makes it a vibrant, desirable place to visit or call home. With the right investments and attention, Downtown Nassau can be not only a gem for locals, but also a destination of choice. But the state of Downtown Nassau today is a blemish on not only Nassau’s destination brand, but unfortunately that of the entire Bahamas.
Redefining Our Destination Brand
So, this brings us to a broader destination branding issue that also reared its head on social media in recent weeks.
Many of us saw the video of Nicole Byer, an American comedian who went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and portrayed her [poorly planned] vacation to Paradise Island as a Bahamas problem. Bahamians, justifiably, were upset and defensive. And there’s definitely a lot to unpack in terms of the problematic nature of her review. But the most obvious moral of the story is that you get what you pay for, and it’s not fair to judge a destination off of its cheapest offerings.
That said, as Bahamians, we also know that visiting Paradise Island isn’t really Nassau and that downtown is probably not the best representation of what New Providence has to offer. We know that the swimming pigs are in the Exuma Cays, not a 15 minute ride off the coast of New Providence. We know that New Providence and visiting Andros or Abaco or Eleuthera or Exuma are all very different experiences. We know that our culture is rich and unique, and it can vary from island to island. And all of this makes for a destination that’s diverse, with much more to offer than Atlantis, Baha Mar, Junkanoo Beach, the straw market, and Margaritaville.
But how well is this information being relayed to potential and actual visitors?
If we were to go off of some of our most recent social media moments, we’d be left to conclude that there’s an information gap.
When it comes to The Bahamas’ brand, it’s fairly straightforward. The main selling point is and has been “sun, sand and sea”. But with a country made of hundreds of islands that stretch over thousands of miles, it might be time to consider a better way.
There are too many people who think that Downtown Nassau = New Providence = The Bahamas. And it’s not that we agree with the assessments of people like Nicole Byer or cruise passengers who don’t venture beyond the limited borders of Bay Street. But, unfortunately, cheapness and erroneousness aside, it’s ultimately The Bahamas’ destination brand that suffers when we don’t make this distinction as clear as possible.
Allowing visitors to believe that staying at Comfort Suites for a weekend really counts as “visiting The Bahamas” is harmful for a destination with as much to offer as ours.
It’s time to start thinking about and marketing The Bahamas as a more complex destination than what’s been portrayed in the past. We’ve spoken before about the need for a more holistic destination brand. And this is a part of it.
We need to make the messaging clearer — The Bahamas is a diverse country with rich culture and heritage, but you're going to have to explore more than just Bay Street and Paradise Island to find that.
See Boxing Day Junkanoo in Downtown Nassau. And if you’re looking for art, visit the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, the D'Aguilar Art Foundation, The Current Gallery at Baha Mar, TERN Gallery or Contemporary Art Bahamas (CAB). Go to Charles Town. See Fort Charlotte and the Queen's Staircase. See the world’s third-largest wine cellar at Graycliff. Eat fine cuisine at any of the restaurants that feature chefs from the award-winning Bahamas culinary team. Dive the world’s third-largest barrier reef in Andros or the second-deepest blue hole in Long Island. See some of the world’s clearest waters in the Exumas. Marvel at pink sand and historic Loyalist communities on Harbour Island.
The list can go on for ages, and that’s the point. But nobody should believe that they could have all of these experiences in any one place, or hold The Bahamas as an entire country responsible for a bad experience at one resort on one island.
The Bahamas is certainly more than sun, sand and sea. And when we can properly acknowledge, appreciate and share our diverse offerings, for what they are and where they are, it makes it easier to say with confidence that it’s better in The Bahamas.