Business Monday

Baha Mar mega resort in Bahamas to open — finally — in March

The Baha Mar resort advertises itself as “the new Riviera.” It occupies 1,000 acres along Nassau’s Cable Beach.
The Baha Mar resort advertises itself as “the new Riviera.” It occupies 1,000 acres along Nassau’s Cable Beach. Courtesy Baha Mar

Golfers were supposed to be swinging their clubs at the Baha Mar Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course by now and gamblers placing bets at the $3.5billion resort’s state-of-the-art casino.

But Baha Mar is behind schedule, and the Bahamas’ newest resort, which was largely financed by the Chinese government and built with the help of about 4,100 Chinese laborers, will miss all but the tail end of the all-important high season.

Instead of opening in mid-December as planned, the 1,000-acre resort along Nassau’s Cable Beach is scheduled to begin receiving guests at three of its hotels on March 27 and at a fourth — the Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar — on May 1. The grand opening ceremony, produced by Jamie King and Emilio Estefan, is planned for May.

“They will miss the high season, but they will spend the time making sure everything will be in place for the next high season,” said Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe. “We feel we will do well in terms of arrivals for Baha Mar and expect high occupancy rates and high room rates.”

Robert Sands, a senior vice president for Baha Mar Ltd., declined to comment on the delay in opening other than to say the project is “quite complex” and Baha Mar wants to be sure it can “offer the complete luxury product” when it opens.

“We want to provide a full luxurious experience,” he said. Baha Mar will be wooing guests from around the world — from North Americans, who are expected to account for the biggest market share, to Latin Americans and Chinese high rollers.

The government hopes that Baha Mar will turn the Bahamas into a world-class gaming destination.

“Our state-of-the-art casino will match what you would find in Las Vegas, Macao or Singapore,” Sands said.

But the project takes on added importance in a country where around 55 percent of jobs depend on tourism and the industry is responsible for nearly half of the economy.

Not only is China State Construction Engineering Corp. the main contractor for the project but it has a $150million equity stake in Baha Mar, and the Export-Import Bank of China financed $2.4billion of the project.

It’s emblematic of the growing relationship between the small island nation with a population of about 380,000 and the most populous country in the world.

Currently that relationship is going gangbusters — although some Bahamians question whether the ties between such unequal partners give China too much sway in the Bahamian economy.

There also has been friction over using imported labor — a model China often uses for its construction projects — at a time when the unemployment rate in the Bahamas is nearly 16 percent.

But another Bahamian hotel project with the Chinese is in the works, and Prime Minister Perry G. Christie and a delegation were in China earlier this month discussing further collaborations.

Before the start of the China/CELAC Forum, the Bahamanian delegation met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and business executives from Beijing and Shanghai to discuss several new private and public projects and two new initiatives described as being “at sensitive stages.”

Among the projects that were discussed were a mutual air services agreement involving Air China and Bahamian airlines, an indoor stadium and an agreement on technical and marine research cooperation.

“We’re confident there will be sufficient airlift to meet our goals,” said Sands. JetBlue, he said, also has added a Los Angeles-Fort Lauderdale flight that will help with the Asian market and Air Canada plans to increase capacity to the Bahamas starting in March.

In October, China State Construction Engineering Corp. also signed an agreement to purchase the landmark British Colonial Hilton Nassau Hotel and redevelop it and an adjacent property. The government had been looking for someone to redevelop the property for several years.

“We are very delighted to once again participate in a project in the Bahamas,” said Yi Jun, chairman of China State Construction Engineering.

The Chinese plan a luxury hotel, condominium units, a parking garage with roof-top garden and banquet rooms, high-end shops, restaurants, a movie theater, nightclub, marina and waterfront boardwalk in downtown Nassau.

The Bahamas is glad to have piqued the interest of the Chinese, said Wilchcombe. “They’re investing everywhere. The truth is they have the wherewithal to do it.”

International hotel construction is a relatively new segment for the Chinese but Beijing seems to like the Bahamas. About 4,100 Chinese workers, who lived in barracks at the site, have helped build Baha Mar.

“Their departures are ongoing based on the trade. They complete their work and leave,” said Sands. Currently there are about 2,600 Chinese workers, and the project has reached a point that many of the barracks are being demolished and workers are being placed in housing at satellite sites.

Wilchcombe said there haven’t been any problems with Chinese workers deciding to overstay their welcome. “They come, they construct, they leave,” he said.

The Baha Mar project got a boost when new gaming regulations — the first update since casinos were legalized in the Bahamas in 1969 — went into effect on Nov. 24.

They allow Internet, interactive and mobile gaming and in-play sports and proxy betting as well as VIP gaming rooms and other amenities key to Baha Mar’s quest to attract high rollers from around the world to its 100,000-square-foot casino. It’s the largest in the Caribbean.

The gaming legislation also improves the process for casino operators to collect debts once casino patrons leave the Bahamas.

When the Baha Mar casino is ready to open, the gaming license will be transferred from the Crystal Palace Casino at the Wyndham Nassau Resort, which occupies prime territory in the Baha Mar complex.

But the only thing the tired Crystal Palace Casino will have in common with the new casino is the license. “They are totally different. It’s not even fair to compare the two,” said Sands.

Though the Crystal Palace Casino remains open, the hotel was closed and is now being used as a training center for new Baha Mar employees. All told, it will take about 4,000 workers to keep Baha Mar humming. Already about 650 people have been trained at Baha Mar’s Leadership Development Institute.

What the future of the old Wyndham will be is something that will be addressed once Baha Mar has been completed and is operating, said Sands.

Baha Mar isn’t the only mega resort in the Bahamas. Across the water from Baha Mar on Paradise Island sits Atlantis with tanks full of thousands of fish and other marine life, a mile-long water ride and a casino.

With 3,414 rooms, it is bigger than Baha Mar, but it was built in three distinct phases over 14 years, rather than all at once, like the new Cable Beach resort.

Though the two resorts certainly represent competition for each other, executives say they’ll complement rather than cannibalize each other. Atlantis, which revolves around recreating the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, is more family-oriented while Baha Mar is expected to appeal more to adults.

Tens of million are being spent on marketing the new resort, Sands said. While Baha Mar is targeting key U.S. cities such as Miami, “we will be focusing a lot of efforts in China,” said Sands. That means enticing not only mainland Chinese, but high-net-worth Chinese in cities such as Vancouver, London, Toronto and New York, he said.

Beyond the Baha Mar ads that have begun to appear in local media, there’s another Miami connection. Estefan produced the soundtrack for the short online film The Voyage that is featured on the resort’s reservations site.

Also expected to boost occupancy is a visa waiver agreement that China and the Bahamas signed last year. It will allow Chinese tourists to travel to the Bahamas and Bahamians to go to China for up to a month without getting a visa.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

The Baha Mar Casino & Hotel

▪ Set on 3,000 feet of white sandy beach, Baha Mar includes The Baha Mar Casino & Hotel (1,000 rooms), a 700-room Grand Hyatt, a 300-room SLS LUX, and a 200-room Rosewood hotel.

▪ Room rates start at $350 per night at the Baha Mar Casino & Hotel and average around $720 at the Rosewood and SLS LUX.

▪ There also are 284 private residences at the resort.

▪  The all-inclusive 649-room Meliá Nassau Beach is being renovated in stages and will become part of Baha Mar when the $19million renovation is completed. It will be rebranded as the Meliá at Baha Mar when it joins the resort.

▪ To keep guests occupied, the resort also features 200,000 square feet of convention space, more than 50 restaurants, bars and clubs, boutiques, an ESPA spa, art galleries, 20 acres of beach and pools, a beachfront nature sanctuary and an 18-hole golf course with ocean views where Baha Mar hopes to host PGA Tour events. The course has become part of the Tournament Players Club (TPC) Network.

▪ The largest restaurant is the 350-seat Deuce, which was so named because it’s the second location of the award-winning Bone’s steakhouse in Atlanta.

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