It takes less than an hour to wing it over the beautiful waters of the Atlantic Ocean to a relaxing or adventurous escape on an idyllic island in the Bahamas. From the cockpit of a private plane, general aviators have a breathtaking view of the archipelago of islands that is surely enviable to the average traveler passing over.
Flying to the Islands of the Bahamas (TIOTB) is simple and well within the capabilities of even the lightest single-engine aircraft. The country’s 700 islands and cays, a myriad of things to see and do, and a unique culture—including delicious cuisine; body-twitching music; and warm, friendly people—make it the ideal destination for the private pilot.
Once the Florida coast is left behind, first landfall occurs at Grand Bahama Island (60NM) or Bimini (50NM). Although Nassau and Grand Bahama are the most populous Islands of The Bahamas and the most visited, there are some 58 airports throughout the Islands of the Bahamas, and most of them are FAA-approved.
There is a continuous program of runway improvement, new construction, repair, and installation of NAV/COM facilities at the airports throughout the Bahamas, and the country is constantly pursuing means of making it increasingly easy for private pilots to enter. To date, the minimum procedures required include the filing of an e-APIS and a U.S. international flight plan before departing the U.S and an easy transition through customs and immigration upon arrival.
As to the multiplicity of destinations within TIOTB, the country’s Chief Aviation Specialist, Mr. Greg Rolle, has noted, “We offer 21 distinctly different island destinations, including our capital city of Nassau and the island of Grand Bahama. Also, islands such as Exuma, Eleuthera, Abaco, Cat Island, and Inagua each offer unique features and are waiting to be explored.”
Rolle’s comments were made at the launching of the 2011 Bahamas Pilot Challenge, an event that has TIOTB partnering with PilotMall.com aviation superstore. The promotion between the two is designed to encourage general aviation travel throughout the Islands of the Bahamas and challenges participants to visit all twenty Bahamian Airports of Entry (AOE) during the 2011 calendar year.
Marketing Initiatives to Get the Word Out
In recent years, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation (BMOTA) has stepped up its marketing efforts towards the private pilot, especially targeting the more than 48,000 based in the state of Florida. The thrust of the message to the pilots is proximity, abundance of airports that encourage island hopping, radar coverage/flight following from the U.S. through TIOTB, the simplicity of customs and immigration procedures, and, of course, the inimitable beauty of hundreds of unspoiled islands and cays.
The visionary initiatives of the aviation team over the years have included the Bahamas Fly Ins, which have been taking place for more than a decade. The Fly Ins allow pilots, their families, and friends to experience the Islands of the Bahamas while enjoying camaraderie and fun with other pilots. Being a part of a group gives ease to pilots flying to the islands or across the ocean for the first time
The success of the Fly Ins brought about The Bahamas Flying Ambassador program. The Flying Ambassadors— seasoned private pilots with extensive experience flying to and around the Islands of the Bahamas—reinforce the efforts of the Bahamas’ aviation team. Members of the group are readily available to share their knowledge of the ease of flying across the Gulf Stream to the Islands of the Bahamas.
FBO Involvement In 2009, the BMOTA made a decisive move to streamline its efforts. Four FBOs along the Florida Coastline were chosen as Bahamas Preferred Gateways. Chief Aviation Specialist Greg Rolle boasts that the Bahamas preferred FBOs have proven to be a great resource to his aviation team, as well as to private pilots leaving the U.S. for the Bahamas.
The selected preferred gateways are equipped to provide Bahamas customs and immigration information, as well as supplies (forms) and up-to-the minute destination information, thus serving as a one-stop shop for private pilots, as well as general aviation traffic, both private and charter.
It is emphasized, too, that although pilots can choose the FBO they want to stop at, they are encouraged when going into the Bahamas to stop at one of eight chosen gateways to be provided with all the information they need.
Consequently, to ensure that the Bahamas Preferred Gateways front line staff is prepared to assist, a series of training sessions is conducted at the Preferred Gateways along the southeastern coast. Training for the staff includes general information on the Islands of the Bahamas and things to know “before you go” about Bahamian culture, hotels, restaurants, shopping activities, and historical sites. Information is also provided on fishing, boating, and diving in the Islands of the Bahamas for the adventurous pilot.
About the Islands Training for the Preferred Gateway staff does not end at the FBO centers in the U.S. Instead, they are taken down to TIOTB to experience the flight across the ocean, the reception upon arrival in TIOTB, and to enjoy the culture of varied islands. Preferred Gateway staff is given the opportunity to see firsthand the diversity of the Bahamian islands and how each is distinctively different.
Nassau, the capital of TIOTB, is the center of commerce and politics and the entry of arrival for the renowned Atlantis resort, Paradise Island. Features of Nassau include historical sites, such as forts, unlimited duty-free shopping, and the world-famous Nassau straw market.
Grand Bahama, the second most populous island in the Bahamas chain, offers two different types of experiences. The island features a city atmosphere with a casino and nightlife on the one hand, and on the other an eco-tourism destination. Grand Bahama’s Lucayan National Park provides the visitor with unlimited nature and outdoor activities, including kayaking, bird watching, and exploring a wonderland of caves and blue holes.
The smaller islands, known as the gems of the Bahamas, are less explored and mostly visited by private pilots and boaters. Each of the smaller islands has its own distinct personality, although all offer water sports and nature adventures. A small sampling of the islands includes Cat Island, Exuma, Inagua, Eleuthera, Abaco, and Bimini.
Cat Island is known for its Rake and Scrape music, which is totally indigenous to TIOTB, and Mt. Alvernia, which at 206 feet above sea level is the highest point in the country. Exuma, known mostly for its annual regatta (sailing competition), boasts some 365 cays. The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is known for its sparkling blue waters and coral reefs brimming with unique and mysterious marine life.
Inagua National Park is home to the world’s largest colonies of flamingos. With more than 60,000 flamingos, it is said that the ratio of flamingos to people is approximately sixty to one. Eleuthera and Harbor Island, famous for pink sand beaches, also features the must-see Glass Window Bridge. The bridge, which links North Eleuthera and South Eleuthera, is a narrow span of a few feet that allows one to look into the dark turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and, within steps, stare into the calm aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea on the other.
Of course, one cannot speak of the out islands without mentioning Abaco, with the possibility of a power boat ride across the waters to visit neighboring Cays or Bimini, the closest Bahamian destination to the U.S. Bimini is historically known for many things, including being one of the bone fishing capitals of the world.
The out islands are also known for a wide array of resorts, from small family guest rooms to hotels and luxurious resorts on hideaway islands and cays. The Riding Rock Hotel is to be found on historically influential San Salvador and on the geographically unique Staniel Cay, Exuma, can be found the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.
Group Fly Ins For those pilots who need further encouragement to fly to one of the Islands of the Bahamas, opportunities exist to join any number of group Fly Ins apart from those hosted by the Bahamas and its partners.
Groups such as the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) take annual trips to TIOTB. The group can include as many as 44 aircraft and 100-plus people. The Southeastern Bonanza Society (SEBS), a social organization of pilots, also makes annual flying trips to the Bahamas. Another group, Governor General’s International Air Rally, includes general aviation pilots from across the globe, including Australia, Switzerland, France, Canada, and the U.S., who travel to the Bahamas as a part of an international air rally competition.
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is proud of the strides it is making in the aviation market. To capture a share of this niche, it continues to produce and make readily available information on the ease, economic value, and exceptional experience of a Bahamas visit. To quote Bahamas Aviation Council Co-Chairman, Rick Asper, “Nobody treats general aviation pilots like the Bahamas.”
About Flying to the Bahamas Up-to-the-minute information on flying to TIOTB is available at www. bahamas.com/flying. Both the Bahamas Private Pilot Guide 2010/2011 and the Bahamas VFR Flight Planning Chart 2010/2011 is available at Bahamas Preferred Gateways or by calling BMOTA’s Aviation Department at (954) 236-9292. Members of the Aviation Department and their partners are available at major aviation shows, including Sun ’n’ Fun, Lakeland, FL; AOPA; and EAA AirVenture OshKosh, annually (AirVenture Oshkosh Air Show will take place in Wisconsin, July 25 - 31, 2011).. At these shows, team members give presentations on flying to TIOTB.
Bahamas Gateway FBOs: Banyan Air Service, Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE); Jet Center Fort Pierce, Saint Lucie Int’l Airport (FPR); Miami Executive Aviation, OpaLocka Airport (OPF); Galaxy Aviation of Palm Beach, Palm Beach Airport (PBI); Galaxy Aviation of Stuart, Witham Field Airport (SUA); SheltAir Aviation - Fort Lauderdale Jet Center, Ft. Lauderdale/ Hollywood Airport (FLL); SheltAir Aviation - Jacksonville (JAX); SheltAir Aviation - Daytona Beach (DAB); and Showalter Flying Service, Orlando Executive Airport (ORL).