The Bahamas are the quintessential island paradise. Located southeast of the United States and north of Cuba and Hispaniola, this archipelagic country has a long history as a tropical getaway for winter-weary Westerners.
The Bahamas were originally inhabited by the Lucayans, an Arawakan people from South America who settled numerous Atlantic and Caribbean islands by the 7th century. They may have been the first Americans encountered by Columbus, as the Bahamian island of San Salvador is a likely candidate for the first island Columbus landed on during his 1492 voyage. The native population was soon decimated by Spanish slave traders, and the Bahamas were probably uninhabited when English settlers arrived on the islands in the mid-17th century. Britain declared the Bahamas a crown colony in 1718, largely in response to the abundance of pirates in the islands, among them the notorious Blackbeard. An influx of British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution caused another major demographic shift in the Bahamas; the new settlers tripled the population, and brought African slaves with them, who became the predominant Bahamian ethnic group. Self governance was not achieved until 1964, and full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations was granted in 1973.
The advent of Bahamian tourism began with the US embargo on Cuba, which prior to 1961 had itself been a major tourist destination. Since then, the country has successfully marketed itself as a premier vacation spot, aided by its gentle climate, thousands of beaches, and low tariffs. Numerous exclusive resorts have sprung up, some even encompassing entire islands, often owned by large cruise lines. Tourism accounts for about two thirds of the Bahamas’ GDP, and has given it the third highest per capita income in North America. Offshore finance has become a significant contributor to the economy as well, due to the country’s lack of corporate and capital gains taxes.
The Bahamas has long been a favorite retirement destination among Britons and Americans, owing to the tropical environment and low taxes. Second or vacation homes among the wealthy are popular as well, for the same reasons. Modern amenities are widely available, and US currency is commonly circulated; the Bahamian dollar is pegged to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio, making trading and price gauging quite easy. Most of the islands’ non-US or European immigrants come from surrounding island nations, usually to work. Most jobs are to be found in the tourism and finance industries, although the country has been making efforts to diversify into manufacturing, agriculture, and e-commerce.
English is the official language of the Bahamas, and almost universally spoken. Most Bahamians also speak Bahamian Creole, which is also spoken in the Turks and Caicos Islands; it is common for Bahamians to switch back and forth between the two as the situation demands. Haitian Creole is the most common minority language, spoken by immigrants from Haiti.