"This is probably the biggest private construction project the Bahamas has ever seen," says Timothy Brown, the company's project manager. "We're looking at an $800 million investment, with a total of 5,400 permanent employees," up from the current 3,500.
According to Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director-general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the expanded Atlantis will pull in an additional 250,000 stopover visitors a year to the Bahamas. Based on an average $900 expenditure per tourist, that means an extra $225 million in foreign exchange--not an insignificant amount in a country where tourism generates $1.4 billion a year, or 60 percent of GDP.
Built in 1969, the property now known as the Atlantis had its ups and downs as it went through several owners and names--the most recent of them being Merv Griffin's Paradise Island Resort & Casino. In December 1994, Sun International bought the hotel and over the last four years has modernized most of its facilities. A 100,000-square-foot entertainment center opened in the new Royal Towers complex in September, while the the rest of the hotel will be inaugurated in December. Guests at the hotel already have access to a casino featuring eight hundred slot machines and baccarat, blackjack, roulette and craps, as well as a fourteen-acre waterscape park featuring a 3.2 million-gallon saltwater, open-air aquarium.
Yet not all is paradise on Paradise Island. Early in September, a forty-eight-hour strike at the Atlantis and the island's other dozen or so properties resulted in frustratingly long check-in lines, reduced services, some cancellations, and the closure of seven out of the resort's eleven restaurants. In all, forty-five hundred members of the Bahamas Hotel Allied and Catering Workers Union walked off their jobs in Nassau and Paradise Island. The strike ended after hotel management tentatively agreed on an unspecified salary increase pro-rated over the life of the contract.
The Atlantis may be the largest, but it isn't the only game in town. Hilton International has just signed an agreement to operate its first hotel in the Bahamas. In fact, says the Caribbean Development Bank, the hotel building boom is helping fuel economic expansion in the Bahamas. In 1997 the country's GDP grew by 3.5 percent--up from 1 percent in 1996--marking the fifth consecutive year of growth.
Sun International, whose executives tend to describe their Paradise Island project in superlatives, are pushing the gigantic resort as the reincarnated lost continent of Atlantis. "Awaiting those in pursuit of the mythical past is a journey that will first begin beneath the surface of the turquoise sea," says a promotional brochure. "Ruins, chambers and underwater corridors will summon the curious and reveal, perhaps, the stolen moments of Atlantean life. Surrounding this antediluvian labyrinth will be some of the most fantastic, living sea creatures you've ever seen."
Upon completion of the twenty-three-story Royal Towers, with its 1,208 rooms and suites, the new Atlantis will offer more than 11 million gallons of water activities and attractions, including a five-story-high, life-size Maya temple with water slides, and a dozen new restaurants.