Facing fierce opposition from nearby residents, Disney has canceled plans to build a cruise ship port on an unspoiled Bahamian island.
Disney officials said they backed off plans after an initial environmental study found the work would damage coral on Egg Island, an uninhabited island off the north coast of Eleuthera and ringed by a pristine reef. The company, which also leases an island off Great Abaco, wanted to create a second exclusive stop with a terminal.
“We recently completed a careful and thorough review of a project at Egg Island and determined that the environmental impact of our intended development would be too significant,” Disney Cruise Line spokeswoman Kim Prunty said in a statement.
News of the project outraged residents of nearby Spanish Wells, who quickly organized a petition that collected nearly 3,000 signatures and prompted the local district council to demand answers from Prime Minister Perry Christie.
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We are just happy to hear the project will not go forward and the environment in the area will not be destroyed.
Kenred Dorsett, Bahamas minister of Environment and Housing
Christie did not respond to Herald requests for comment but Friday in a text message Kenred Dorsett, minister of Environment and Housing, said, “We are just happy to hear the project will not go forward and the environment in the area will not be destroyed.”
Dorsett said he had not seen a copy of the study, but Disney officials confirmed that an initial assessment had been submitted to the country’s commission that oversees conservation.
Rumors about the project began swirling in the tight-knit village after drilling equipment turned up on the public dock in Spanish Wells in June and then, because of a customs dispute, sat on the dock for another month drawing attention. Attorney Holly Peel, whose grandfather Leo Pinder helped pioneer the island, tracked down a temporary business license pulled by an Orlando engineering company working for Disney.
Opposition quickly mounted and spread, said Spanish Wells deputy district councilor Robert Roberts.
“There were a lot of Bahamians participating. Not just here, for sure,” he said. “The [prime minister] was on the radio, a talk show, and it became an issue.”
Turning islands into private retreats for cruisers has grown in popularity since Norwegian first leased Great Stirrup Cay in the 1970s. Including Disney’s Castaway Cay, five islands in the Bahamas now provide exclusive island vacations with private beaches, fake shipwrecks and water slides. At the opposite end of Eleuthera, Princess Cruise Lines operates Princess Cays on 40 acres of beachfront.
But residents say Egg Island, the only remaining cay in the district not privately owned or leased, has long been used by locals for beach parties and summer getaways. At just 12 acres, the island is beloved for its undisturbed shores, where turtles regularly nest, and a reef just off the beach. Until recently, the Higgs family held a 99-year lease but surrendered it when the family patriarch died, Roberts said.
For the community, it’s a huge win. For the Bahamas, I hope this is an eye-opener for the importance of these issues.
Holly Peel, attorney and opposition organizer
After collecting signatures, Peel said she sent Christie’s office an environmental study compiled by the group as well as a report suggesting the island might have been Christopher Columbus’s first stop in the New World. The Spanish Wells district council also sent a letter, Roberts said.
Rumors began circulating Thursday that Disney, which declined to comment on the project to the Herald earlier in the week, would release a statement. When she woke up Friday morning, Peel said her phone “was on fire” as news quickly spread after Disney announced it was dropping plans.
“It’s just such an emotional morning because I think how close this community was to losing Egg Island,” she said. “For the community, it’s a huge win. For the Bahamas, I hope this is an eye-opener for the importance of these issues.”
Residents hope to eventually have the island designated as a sanctuary, open to fishing, diving and other recreational activities but protected from development, Peel and Roberts said.
“Maybe this particular assessment has told them enough that maybe they’ll just go ahead,” Roberts said.
As for Disney, the company said it regularly looks for “opportunities for growth” but currently has no specific plans for other islands in the Bahamas.
Staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich