With its white sands, rolling hills and turquoise, crystal-clear waters, the island of Eleuthera is “one of the most breathtaking places on the face of God’s green earth”, says Joe Darville, chairman of Save the Bays, a campaign group dedicated to protecting natural harbours around the Bahamas.

Yet, despite this exaltation of the Bahamian island, which lies some 50 miles east of the archipelago’s capital Nassau, Darville has grave fears about its fate in the hands of a cruise operator’s development plans.

His ire is trained on Disney Cruise Line, which is hoping to buy up 746 acres of private land on the long, thinnish island for the purposes of a new port. If some reports are to be believed, it is a done deal, with Disney set to lay down in the region of $25m to purchase the land, known as Lighthouse Point, from developers.

For Darville, the deal, however, is a rotten one; another zero-sum exchange of a large international corporation bolstering its profit margins, while locals see little of the returns.

“I am not anti-development,” he says. “But development must be done with care, by those who care. It must be sensitive to the environment and sustainable for the future. Its footprint must be acceptable.

“In the case of Lighthouse Point, it is beyond insane. It is a giveaway of our children’s heritage. It sets the stage for no limit in selling their birthright.”

Putting pen to paper: anti-Disney petition gains signatures

Strong words indeed, but words which appear to resonate with swathes of Eleuthera’s 11,000-strong population.. According to Darville, a petition launched by Save the Bays to stymie Disney’s plans now has over 28,000 signatures, which he claims to be one of the largest such appeals “in Bahamian history”.

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“A petition against Disney’s plans claims to be one of the largest in Bahamian history.”

“Before this, the most signatures Save the Bays had amassed was 7,000 for a broad spectrum of environmental measures. Bahamians are not great petition signers,” he says. “But in this instance, people, even children, are signing every few seconds. It is jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring.”

Save the Bays isn’t the only local environmental group to have put up its dukes against Disney. Local green groups and NGOs, including ReEarth, Bahamas National Trust and One Eleuthera Foundation have all publicly denounced the operator’s plans, with the latter even setting forth a competing plan to acquire Lighthouse Point.

Disney promises more jobs and ecological harmony

It’s quite likely Disney anticipated such a backlash in the Caribbean, given the lukewarm reception afforded to other cruise companies operating in the region. As reported in this very publication earlier in the year, the green light granted to Carnival Cruise Line to open its own private port destination on Grand Bahama, has proven to be far from uncontroversial.

But like Carnival, Disney, is adamant the new port will provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the local economy – some estimates put the island’s unemployment rate at 70% – while preserving the area’s natural beauty.

In an op-ed taken out in the local press, Disney president Jeff Vahle pledged his company’s plans for Lighthouse Point will “create 120 to 150 permanent, quality employment opportunities”, while setting out a set of green commitments, including “sustainable design and building practices” and the use of solar power “for much of our operation”.

“Disney is adamant the new port will provide a much-needed shot in the local economy.”

By way of burnishing its credentials, Disney has also pointed to its previous record in the Bahamas. The operator already owns Castaway Cay, a private island 60 miles north of Eleuthera, where it claims current wages among workers are double that of the country’s minimum wage, with employees also receiving health benefits.

Despite the levels of public animosity towards the project cited by Darville, another recent poll, conducted by Public Domain, a local market research group, revealed that roughly 38% of the 994 households surveyed on the island were “very much in support” of the development.

If this is anything to go by, perhaps locals are more open to the project than it appears.

Indeed, in his aforementioned op-ed, featured in The Tribune, Vahle spoke of holding a symposium “under a Poinciana tree” on a recent trip to the island, during which “people stopped to listen while we talked of Eleuthera and its unique history”. The president may well be accused of laying it on a bit thick, but the story may not be so apocryphal as cynics believe.

“It’s a welcome change to see the local community supporting such an idea rather than petitioning against it,” ventures Tony Peisley, a veteran cruise industry analyst. “I only really know what I’ve read, which is that residents around the site lobbied in favour of this and that the project now looks set to go ahead.”

Controversial: lessons to be learned from Labadee

Nonetheless, Peisley appreciates that cruise operators buying up private parcels of land – particularly private islands – are controversial.

He cites the example of Labadee, a private beach on the northern coast of Haiti, opened in 2009 and used exclusively by Royal Caribbean. In 2016, Labadee became the focal point of rioting during the Haitian general election, with the bay deemed to be a tasteless symbol of foreign exploitation on an island with one of the highest rates of poverty in the world.

“One hundred years from now, our great grandchildren may be searching for high land or living on the sea.”

In the case of Eleuthera, Peisley believes the private port is “likely to produce less income for local suppliers and retailers than a cruise call at a conventional town or city port”.

That said, “Disney does both, and the fact is that, historically, private island calls get the highest ratings from passengers compared to those other calls, and they do generate economic impact for the destination”.

As a relatively small operator – with only four ships to its name, compared to Carnival’s  26-strong fleet – Disney clearly stands a lot to gain from Lighthouse Point. With private cruise ports and islands being a “pretty well served area in the Caribbean”, one also cannot fault its timing in looking to get a foothold in what is undoubtedly a profitable segment of the industry.

But the likes of Joe Darville remain unmoved. In an area of the world particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change and rising sea levels (at least 80% of Bahamas’ land sits below sea level) the motives of cruise operators continue to raise more eyebrows than they do glasses.”

One hundred years from now, our great grandchildren and theirs may be searching for high land or living on the sea,” says Darville. “And where will Disney be then?”