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Bahamas officials fear Hurricane Dorian destruction will spread to vital tourism industry

By North America correspondent James Glenday and John Mees in the Bahamas, Friday September 6, 2019 - 13:18 EST
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Much of the Bahamas, including the capital Nassau, escaped unscathed. - ABC

There are two major operations currently taking place on the Bahamas.

One is aimed at helping those hardest-hit by Hurricane Dorian, the strongest storm to ever hit the archipelago.

The other is an effort to protect the nation's reputation as a highly desirable holiday destination.

The country has the most tourism-dependent economy in the Caribbean and there are fears the shocking pictures of devastation and death currently being broadcast across the globe, might turn many visitors off.

That would make the enormously expensive recovery process much harder.

"People hear the Bahamas have been destroyed and they think it's the whole country," Ellison Thompson, one of the country's top tourism officials, said.

"We are 700 islands. Just the northern islands, two in particular, were hit."

"So our main island is open again, operating as normal, and we are trying to get that message out as fast as we can."

Six out of every 10 jobs in the Bahamas is tourism-related and the industry makes up more than 40 per cent of GDP.

The Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, the two places destroyed by category five winds and a raging storm surge, have about 15 per cent of the nation's hotel rooms.

New Providence, home to the country's capital Nassau, is the main hub. It has a couple of mega-resorts, makes up about two-thirds of the tourism industry and survived unscathed.

Right now, it needs to attract every visitor it can get to fund the massive recovery and rebuilding process in the northern islands, which early estimates suggest will cost more than $10 billion.

"We've got banking, we've got fishing, we've got farming, we've got foreign investors," said Nathaniel McKinney, an official who helps cruise passengers arrange day trips, such as horse drawn carriage rides through downtown Nassau.

"But we really, really need the tourists. Australians, please come see us."

Concerns grow for the missing

Economic concerns are understandably still a secondary concern for many Bahamians.

A lot of locals have a friend, family member or associate who was in the path of the hurricane, the eye wall of which is now nearing Cape Fear in North Carolina, the United States' National Hurricane Centre reported at about 10:30am (AEST time).

The death toll rose to 30 overnight, but officials said that was likely to increase.

With phones still down in several places, relatives have been posting pictures on social media of those missing, pleading for information.

There are widespread rumours and speculation about how many people may have drowned in the metres-high storm surge.

"We haven't heard from a lot of people that we want to," Derek Benjamin, a pastor who for 19 years lived on the Abacos, said.

"We haven't heard the full story just yet, I think the confirmed death toll is going to be a lot higher."

At the country's largest airport in Nassau, people are waiting, hopeful of being reunited with their loved ones, as vulnerable residents are evacuated from the disaster zone.

Jovan Cambridge said he feared for his son Simba's life when the roof of their house was blown off soon after the eye of the storm passed.

"I just had to quickly grab him and my wife," he said.

"I did not think we were going to survive. The storm was — you can't describe it, you just can't."

For many who made it out alive, the reality of their situation is starting to sink in too.

They have not just lost their homes, but also in some cases their livelihoods.

It may be months before they can return. When they do, things may have changed forever.

"I don't think it will be the same again," Mr Cambridge said.

"There's just so much to rebuild. Houses, businesses, our whole community.

"I hope we get as much help as possible."


© ABC 2019

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