Lighthouse Point in Eleuthera, Bahamas, Aug. 27, 2019. (Lacey Williams McGhee)

Selling the Family Jewels

ELEUTHERA, Bahamas— As The Walt Disney Company vetted properties for its next cruise port in 2018, the company narrowed in on Lighthouse Point, Eleuthera’s cliffy southern tip. Despite a local and international outcry against the development of this Bahamian landmark and proposed marine protected area, Disney successfully purchased the privately-owned, 758-acre property on March 7, 2019. 

While the cruise industry remains crippled by COVID-19, Disney’s Lighthouse Point website says the company is working through the red tape required to move forward with construction.

Recently, Disney released an environmental impact assessment (EIA) — a 551-page document the company said took three years to compile, which explains the development’s expected impact on South Eleuthera’s environment, wildlife, climate and society.

Some of the project plans, which Disney said are “inspired by the natural environment and rooted in the culture of Eleuthera and the Bahamas,” include a 2,348-foot pier and marina; dining and beverage facilities; retail facilities; spa facilities; recreation facilities; a beach expansion; themed buildings and elements; recreational areas; maintenance and utility plant facilities; and employee dining, housing and recreation facilities.

Digital illustration of the Lighthouse Point cruise port development planned in Eleuthera, Bahamas. (Walt Disney Company)
Pier illustration from Disney’s Environmental Impact Assessment. (Walt Disney Company)

As Disney moves forward, opposing parties, including The One Eleuthera Foundation and the Waterkeeper Alliance, continue fighting. 

Some of the efforts to halt Disney’s Lighthouse Point development include a petition that’s garnered more than 445,000 signatures, counter-proposals for the acreage at hand, public discussions, and a scientific letter of concern signed by 25 researchers, professors, Bahamian business owners and others. 

Citing “unprecedented local levels of ship and human traffic, as well as pollution, leading to the disruption of marine habitats and displacement of organisms,” the letter of concern signatories urge Disney to “pursue a more sustainable development alternative for Lighthouse Point.

Executive Director of the Bahamas National Trust Eric Carey said his organization offered a counter-proposal for the Lighthouse Point property in 2018. His team’s proposal included a national park, small eco-lodges, and a scientific research facility operated in conjunction with existing south Eleutheran organization, the Cape Eleuthera Institute.

Carey said the proposal would  have created more consistent, better-paying jobs for Bahamians and preserved “the ecology and ambiance of the entire site.” Instead, Carey said South Eleutherans must deal with a “cruise ship with smoke belching from its smokestacks, and thousands of tourists on the beach.” 

Although Lighthouse Point was privately owned before Disney’s purchase, the property remained untouched and open despite the former owner’s unrealized aspirations of a multi-villa resort and 140-split marina. The road to the point is unpaved, narrow, and peppered with potholes, but tourists and locals regularly make the journey to enjoy the point’s natural beauty and vacant beaches.

During a review of Disney’s environmental impact assessment hosted by the Bahamas Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP) on April 8, 2021, a diverse cast of Disney executives — including Vice President of Animals, Science and Environment Dr. Mark Penning and Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Kim Prunty and other partners who contributed to the report — guided a more than 350-person virtual audience through its findings. 

More than once, Prunty told the audience Disney’s plans should cause less environmental harm than the former owner’s plans. However, Prunty said Disney’s roughly 120-acre Lighthouse Point cruise port construction project has room for a “potential future expansion.” 

In its current form, Prunty said the development is expected to contribute a more than $800 million increase in Bahamian gross domestic product over its first 25 years and a $355 million increase in Bahamian government revenues, which she said exceeds government concessions. The company’s environmental impact assessment also says care will be taken to prevent or minimize “adverse ecological impacts.”

Both of these claims raised concerns from the EIA review session audience, including questions about the report’s efficacy. 

Executive Director of the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) Casuarina McKinney-Lambert said she believes the existing Disney EIA report is inadequate, emphasizing that its economic analysis was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m asking for an economic assessment that reflects the current economic reality,” she said.

EIA contributor and Oxford Economics economist Zachary Sears said that despite being completed “a few years ago,” the project’s 25-year economic analysis remains relevant. “COVID is a short-term dynamic,” he said. “We have all the confidence in the world that there will be a public health remedy here in the short term, and this analysis looks well beyond that.”

University of Michigan biology professor Scott Tiegs Ph.D. questioned the report’s claim that there were no bonefish — a common and recreationally-fished marine species — found around Lighthouse Point during 63 hours of underwater observation conducted over a “several-year period.”

“I’ve been coming to Eleuthera for over 10 years. In fact, I bring groups of students there as part of marine ecology class, and we routinely see bonefish in this area. They’re all over the place!” he said. “How could you have missed this very obvious and conspicuous species that’s of obvious economic concern for the island of Eleuthera?”

Disney’s Animal Programs research scientist and veterinarian Dr. Andy Stamper said his team plans to study fish migration patterns in the fall of 2021 to ensure fish can pass beneath the new pier. However, he said any necessary design changes to accommodate migrating fish are “experimental at this point.” 

Disney’s Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Kim Prunty said the company plans to begin on-site construction late in 2021 after all relevant Bahamian agencies approve. 

For now, the Bahamas Department of Environmental Planning and Protection Director Rochelle Newbold said additional questions and comments on Disney’s EIA should be submitted to DEPP at depp.gov.bs, or Disney at lighthousepointbahamas.com, by May 7 at 5 p.m. EDT.

Until those comments have been reviewed and addressed, Newbold said the company will not be able to progress to the next step in the approval process. 

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