Bahamas seeks Genting investment beyond Bimini

If Bahamian government leaders have their way, the opening of Resorts World Bimini Bay will be only the beginning of Genting Group’s footprint in the country.

Bahamas Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe said Friday he has been in discussions with Genting about opening a casino on Grand Bahama Island. That would mark a homecoming of sorts: Genting built and operated the Lucayan Beach Resort and Casino in Freeport during the 1980s, which it later sold.

Wilchcombe’s comments came after a press conference Friday to announce the plans for Resorts World Bimini Bay, a joint venture between Genting Malaysia Berhad and RAV Bahamas. The $24 million luxury boutique casino at the Bimini Bay Resort & Marina in North Bimini Island is scheduled to open in December, creating at least 300 jobs for the island and helping to boost tourism.

But Wilchcombe and Prime Minister Perry Christie both acknowledged they are trying to sell Genting on taking a larger role in their efforts to rejuvenate the island’s tourism industry. Christie said he had “tried to persuade” Genting to take a look at the Bahamas back when it was facing difficulties earlier this year in the Florida Legislature with its efforts to seek approval for resort gambling in Florida.

“We’ve asked Genting to look around,” Wilchcombe said. “When you have a brand like Genting that has a database of clients, they can use that database to benefit the Bahamas.”

Dana Leibovitz, president of Resorts World Bimini Bay, acknowledged that Genting is “always looking for opportunities.” But the current focus is on completing Resorts World Bimini Bay, which will include full-scale table games, slots and sports betting.

“Right now this is it,” Leibovitz said. “It’s too early to say about anything else. We’re listening. We have a great relationship with the Minister of Tourism.”

Resorts World Bimini helps Christie’s team post another checkmark in its campaign to reduce unemployment. When Christie took office in May, joblessness stood at almost 15 percent and youth unemployment at 34 percent.

Beyond the 300 direct jobs that Resorts World Bimini will create, Bahamian officials estimate the project will have an indirect impact on as many as 1,000 people. The government will help provide training for Bimini’s residential population, which is less than 3,000 people.

“The emphasis will be placed on ensuring that the people of Bimini do not look through the window but actually get into this development by being active participants,” Christie said. “We will work with the developer to ensure that our residents have sustained employment as a result of the economic impacts this development will bring about.”

Past casino efforts haven’t always worked as planned, though. A gambling facility in Exuma failed, and despite its popularity, the massive Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, which includes a large casino, has struggled during the economic downturn. But, said Christie, "Genting brings a perspective that we cannot ignore."

Friday’s announcement came after more than a decade of effort by RAV Bahamas Chairman Gerardo Capo of Miami to convince Genting Chairman K.T. Lim to build a casino at Bimini Bay. Capo became friends over the years with Lim and his father Lim Goh Tong, the company’s former chairman, visiting their resorts in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as their former cruise line in Asia.

But it was hard to consummate a deal with a firm on the other side of the world. “I couldn’t pursue it on a daily basis,” Capo said. “When you’re trying to make a woman fall in love with you, it takes perseverance.”

Ultimately it may have been the similarities between the two families that drew them together. Like Lim’s father, who built his first casino resort Genting Highlands in Malaysia on a then-untouched mountain top, Capo has worked to turn 750 acres he purchased in 1995 for $3 million into a resort destination. Over the years, he’s invested nearly $40 million of his own money in the $200 million project.

Bimini Bay opened its first phase in late 2007, bringing a luxury resort to the typically rustic island that was once a haunt of author Ernest Hemingway and where Martin Luther King wrote his famous “I have a dream” speech. Today Bimini Bay boasts more than 480 luxury homes and villas, the largest yacht marina complex in the Bahamas and a shopping village.

“The old man (Lim) struggled the same way I have and they can relate to that,” Capo said. “They also see a lot of future potential; otherwise they wouldn’t be coming here.”

The difficulty in previous negotiations with RAV Resorts came down to logistics, Leibovitz said. Until recently, Genting was based only in Asia. With its new focus on expanding in the eastern United States in New York and Miami, the company now has offices in this hemisphere.

“We’re now a much more worldwide company,” Leibovitz said.

The timing of the Bimini announcement comes only months after Genting lost its efforts to get the Florida Legislature to approve an expansion of casino gambling beyond tribal lands and pari-mutuel facilities. Genting has spent $500 million in just over a year purchasing real estate in Miami for a future resort casino, including the site of The Miami Herald.

“This is a totally separate project and has nothing to do with Florida and what we’re doing there,” said Leibovitz, who was the only member of the Genting team to talk to the press on Friday. Genting executives Colin Au and Jessica Hoppe, who lead the Florida efforts, were both also present for the Bahamian press conference.

A key part of the future success of Resorts World Bimini lies in the ability of the Bahamian government and private industry to work together to improve access to the tiny island only 48 nautical miles off the coast of South Florida. It’s only a half hour plane flight, but currently service is limited, access is difficult from anywhere beyond South Florida.

Wilchcombe says he is currently in discussions with Bahamas Air and two other major national airlines about adding services to Bimini. The government is also looking at the long-term need to extend the airport runway and expand the facility.

“We have these wonderful islands and they don’t have enough airlift,” Wilchcombe said. “We need an additional 100,000 seats to get the numbers we want in Bimini.”

The government has talked with Genting about contributing to the airport and infrastructure expansion, but no agreement has been reached, he said.

Currently many Bimini’s 50,000 annual visitors get to the island by boat — a 2 ½ hour trip. During the winter, not a prime boating time, arrivals are limited.

Capo is a partner in a high-speed ferry venture that will make the trip from South Florida in 90 minutes. Boats could carry about 450 people and make three or four trips per day. Dredging is underway.

, By improving transporation and adding a casino, government officials hope to lure visitors to Bimini for more than just the fishing that has long been the area’s main attraction.

“It’s about giving people an opportunity to see what Bimini is all about,” Leibovitz said. “It’s the magic of Bimini that is really what drew us there. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful island.”