Sun, fun and roulette

Updated: 2015-03-25 08:57

By Mike Peters(China Daily)

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Sun, fun and roulette

Wild pigs develop a unique aquatic lifestyle in the Bahamas. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Double-oh-seven has been there for some sun and fun.

In fact, three 007s have frolicked in the surf on these islands. While promoters of the Bahamas can't promise you'll end up in a James Bond movie if you come for a vacation, they're confident you'll have a much fun as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig seem to on the big screen. (A bonus: Any glamorous blondes you might meet are probably not there to kill you after the fun and games start.)

The island nation of the Bahamas has opened its arms to Chinese tourists this year, and two recent governmental moves make the Atlantic Ocean getaway an exciting opportunity now.

China's President Xi Jinping and Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie have met twice in recent months, and a new agreement means Chinese tourists don't need visas to visit the country for up to 30 days. That's only true of four countries in the world.

Another bonus: Last year's reciprocal agreement between the United States and China allowing 10-year tourist visas.

That means Chinese tourists who are already planning to visit the US can add the Bahamas as an exotic leg on the same holiday. Nassau, the capital, is just an hour's flight from Orlando or Miami, and just three hours from New York.

While the Bahamas is not all that familiar to Chinese, users of social media probably know some of its most famous inhabitants: the country's famous swimming pigs. A video of the porkers padding in the surf has been an online sensation in China.

What else can you do?

Sink your toes into Pink Sand Beach, its rose color created by the crushed shells of crustaceans washed ashore. Tour the colonial architecture of Rawson Square, including the imposing pink-and-white Government House that dates back to 1801. Take a hike through an ancient primeval forest, led by staff from the Bahamas National Trust, and explore the tropical floral of this protected site. Stroll among the vendors of Arawak Cay to savor the atmosphere of a Bahamian fish fry, including a made-to-order conch salad.

Early or late, the beach beckons, with the chance to swim with turtles and nusharks. And after soaking up the natural beauty, the history, the snorkeling and maybe a sailing excursion amid the 700 islands that comprise the Bahamas, you can do what Britain's most famous secret agent would do: Head for the casino.

"That's the beauty of the Bahamas," says Sarkis Izmirlian, chairman and CEO of the brand-new Baha Mar resort, which opens this week.

"It's like having the Maldives and Monte Carlo all in one place. More natural beauty than you can explore in one visit, premium-class resort hotels and all the shopping you want.

"At some other island destinations, you have a lovely small hotel and a great beach to hang out at-but then what else do you do? And in Las Vegas, well, you're in the desert. We are offering a big variety of experiences to make the Bahamas a complete holiday destination."

Izmirlian concedes that, before his project, hotels in the Bahamas tended to be very North America-centric.

"But I have a saying: You have to go fishing where there are fish," he told tourism officials and journalists early this year.

"So we are reaching out to those markets that are doing very well."

While many international destinations are playing catch-up to court Chinese tourists, Izmirlian says, Baha Mar has been preparing to host such visitors even before the resort opened this month.

"We're going far beyond having a special package for Chinese groups," he says.

"As an international tourist myself, I very well know the experience of going to a place where you don't know the culture and language."

Izmirlian says he has made sure the resort has a 24-hour Mandarin hotline, restaurant menus and signs around the resort in Chinese, and a Chinese-speaking staff member at every hotel, gallery, the performing arts center and the nature sanctuary. Visitors will find wedding pavilions, duty-free shopping and Las Vegas-style concerts.

Many facilities will be familiar to Chinese who enjoy luxury travel.

In addition to the flagship Baha Mar Casino and Hotel, accommodations within the resort include a 700-room Grand Hyatt, a 300-roon SLS LUX and a 200-room Rosewood Hotel. Guests can enjoy a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, two spas, a complete convention facility (if visitors must combine work and play), as well as more than 30 restaurants, nightclubs and bars. The natural beauty beyond, Izmirlian says makes the whole experience a family-friendly mix.

"And at every facility," he says, "Chinese guests can be confident they will be understood."

That might seem like a lot of attention and investment for a country that only saw 3,000 tourists from China in 2014.

But officials and business leaders in both hemispheres share Izmirlian's confidence it will pay off. Baha Mar, for example, is financed by the Export-Import Bank of China and built by China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.