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Cruising for Fun & Profit PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2013

To Bimini and back: Not perfect, not terrible, and maybe not what it appears to be.

IBimini SuperFast cruise deckncat Tasmania, an Australian ship-building company, has launched 25 large vessels capable of surpassing speeds of 45 knots, or 51 miles per hour. One of those ships, the recently completed Francisco, has been proclaimed the fastest ship in the world.

Named after Pope Francis, the 325-foot long, 5000-ton Francisco can achieve speeds of up to 58 knots, or 67 mph, and is capable of carrying 1000 people. Incat intends to deliver the Francisco to the Western Hemisphere, where it will ply an aquatic route between Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay.

Until that time, and maybe even after, Resorts World Bimini will continue to claim that the Bimini Superfast, which has been shuttling hundreds of people between Miami and Bimini for the past three months, is the fastest cruise ship serving the Americas.

Built in Germany in 2001, the Bimini Superfast can achieve maximum speeds of 31 knots, or 36 mph, according to FleetMon.com. That might seem slow compared to the Francisco, until you consider that the Bimini Superfast is more than six times heavier and twice as long.

Besides, the Bimini Superfast is being marketed as a cruise ship, not a speedy ferry.

As such, the Superfast, which claims a maximum capacity of 1600 people, is also carrying four bars, two restaurants, and a pair of casino areas filled with slot machines and table games.

Oivind Mathisen, editor of Cruise Industry News, isn’t sure if Bimini Superfast is the fastest cruise ship in the Western Hemisphere right now, but he does admit that, for a 33,000-ton, 670-foot-long vessel, the Bimini Superfast is pretty fast.

“Most cruise ships are built for a top speed of 20 to 22 knots [23 to 25 mph],” Mathisen says. “Usually cruise ships travel at 12 to 18 knots [14 to 21 mph]. The slower they go, the less fuel they use, and the more energy-efficient it is for them to stay afloat.”

And it’s called Bimini Superfast. That means something, right? “I think Superfast is some kind of brand,” Mathisen says.

Indeed it is. For most of its existence, the Bimini Superfast was named Superfast VI and, as part of the Superfast Ferries fleet, transported people between Italy and Greece.

Government Cut at Miami Beach Entrance to Port of MiamiThe change in name and mission occurred earlier this year, when the Greek company Attica Holdings sold Superfast VI to Resorts World Bimini’s parent corporation, the Malaysian-based Genting Group, for $73 million.

Here’s where things get really superfast. Within three months of purchasing the vessel, Genting completed its modifications (including turning a pool into a dance floor) and inked a deal with Port Miami to pay $11 million to improve Terminal H (where the ship is docked) and $7 million per year in rent.

The original plan: Start launching two trips a day from Miami to Bimini by June 28.During that same time frame, according to Bahamian media, Genting completed its acquisition of the 750-acre Bimini Bay Resort (a.k.a. Resorts World Bimini), presented a $150 million master plan to the Bahamian government (which no one outside of the prime minister’s cabinet apparently has seen), and completed the construction of a 10,000-square-foot casino with 153 slot machines and 15 table games.

But Genting was moving a little too fast. The United States Coast Guard deemed the ship unsafe. Among the problems: The back-up emergency power system didn’t operate correctly, the crew failed tests on how to respond to an emergency (including how to operate the vessel’s lifeboat machinery), and there weren’t enough sprinkler heads. It took a month for those problems to be corrected.

Finally, on July 20, the Bimini Superfast undertook its maiden voyage from Miami to Bimini. In celebration, the ship was promoted on billboards, in e-mail blasts, online advertisements, and radio commercials all over South Florida.

Looming in the background is Genting Group’s intentions for Miami. Two years ago the $45 billion corporation, which owns 50 percent of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Lines and operates casinos all over the world, announced they bought the Miami Herald building, which they planned to replace with Resorts World Miami, a $3 billion resort that would include a casino large enough to accommodate 8500 slot machines.

Slot Machines on gambling cruiseDuring its $500 million buying spree, Genting assembled 30 acres of property in the Omni-Edgewater area that included the old Omni Mall, the Boulevard Shops, a 527-room Hilton Hotel, and several large parking lots.

But an intensive lobbying campaign to allow casinos in Miami failed in the state capitol. So in March 2012, Genting declared that it would concentrate on building condos, hotels, retail space, and an 800-foot, publically accessible bayfront promenade where the Miami Herald building currently stands. Demolition crews are already ripping apart the 700,000-square-foot Herald building.

Not that Genting has given up.As for the Omni Mall, which Genting originally intended to transform into a casino, the company will turn that into a 215,000-square-foot office complex, with some 30,000 square feet being used by Genting itself. A pedestrian bridge connecting Omni Mall to a Metromover station is already advertising Resorts World Bimini and the Bimini Superfast.

Genting and other casino interests are preparing to lobby state legislators hard next year. “I think you'll see them [casino lobbyists] back perhaps even stronger than in 2012,” David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and a casino critic, told The Florida Current last month.

With so many fast-moving parts, it may not be surprising that problems would arise. For example, online reviews on websites like Yelp suggest that the Bimini Superfast still has a lot of kinks to work out. “The three hour wait makes IT NOT WORTH YOUR TIME,” shouted a review by Juan A. from Miami on August 21. “[It takes] almost 2 hours of your day just getting to and from the ship,” declared Jim M. from Hollywood on August 31.

So why did Genting rush to start the Miami-Bimini ferry service? Is there some kind of connection between Genting’s plans for Bimini and its aspirations for Miami? And is it really better in the Bahamas with Genting as a corporate citizen?

To find out, I booked a cruise on the Bimini Superfast.


AFree cruise buffet or buy better treatsvariety of ticket choices are offered on the Bimini Superfast website. Day trips from Miami to Bimini and back are $69 on weekdays and $99 on weekends. One-way trips are $59 from Miami to Bimini and $79 from Bimini to Miami. Children under 12 years get a ticket discount of $10. Luggage can be checked for $25. Parking at Terminal H can range from $7 to $20.

“That’s a pretty good deal,” remarks Jim Weakley, executive editor of Florida Sportsman. Air travel to Bimini often runs to the hundreds of dollars. Traveling by private boat can cost $40 or $50 one-way in fuel costs alone, Weakley points out.

These night cruises were transformed into cruise-to-nowhere trips in which, for $20 per person on Friday and Saturday nights, guests are invited to party until dawn three miles off the coast of Florida, where prohibitive American gambling and drinking laws aren’t enforced.Until recently there were evening trips in which passengers left Miami for Bimini at 7:00 p.m. and returned around 6:00 a.m. The nighttime passengers never disembarked, says Heather Krasnow, a publicist for the Genting Group. Instead the Bimini Superfast remained anchored just off the Bimini coast.

Staterooms are available at prices ranging from $40 to $200 for a day trip and from $60 to $250 for a night cruise.

Promotional rates are sometimes offered, too. I tried to snag one of the free tickets for a day trip, but by the time I settled on a date (September 9) they were all gone.

When my girlfriend dropped me off at Terminal H, my mind was foggy. I’m not a morning person, yet the ticket demanded I be there by 8:30 a.m. (If you check luggage, arrival time is 7:00 a.m.) It was now 8:25 a.m.

Bimini SuperFast anchored in the Atlantic Ocean“You better hurry!” yelled a uniformed security guard at the terminal.

So I raced up an escalator with my backpack (one free carry-on is allowed). I also had a printout of my ticket and my U.S. passport. Day-tripping American citizens must either have a U.S. passport or bring a birth certificate and a valid government I.D. If you stay overnight, you must have a passport. Non-U.S. citizens need a passport, an alien registration card, and (in some cases) a travel visa.

A friendly hostess from the Philippines greeted me and pointed out where a complimentary breakfast was being served.The ship’s entranceway was a drab lounge filled with slot machines. A couple of dozen seniors were already hanging out in the lounge, ready to pounce on the slots once they were activated.

The free buffet happened to be on Level 10, the top deck of the ship, known as “Club Bimini.” A DJ was already playing dance music. Two middle-age women danced to the beat. A group of tourists made toasts with mimosa-filled champagne flutes. Several women were already at the Aqua Bar, sipping drinks.

Instead of the buffet, I opted for Level 7 and the Sailfish Bistro, where I gathered a tasty plate of eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, and mixed rice, plus a cup of orange juice and a cup of coffee. Price: $5.

By 9:15, we were on our way.A brief conversation with the cashier revealed that 90 percent of crew members were Filipinos. “The owner, he likes our work,” he said with evident pride.

Being a Wednesday, there weren’t many people aboard. I learned from a U.S. Customs agent that we were carrying about 250 passengers, which gave me hope that I’d actually have some time ashore to explore Genting’s newly acquired resort. The frustrated online reviewers who journeyed on weekends complained that it took so long to pack people onto floating shuttles from ship to shore that they had barely two hours on Bimini.

The passengers were a mixed crowd of tourists and South Florida residents representing just about every ethnicity and nationality. Many took to the slots as soon as we crossed the three-mile limit. Unlike in Las Vegas, complimentary liquor was not offered in the slot machine room. If you wanted a drink, you paid from $5 to $15 for a cocktail.

Drinking, lounging on deck chairs, dancing, or playing music trivia games with the hyperactive American entertainment officer, Susan Schleifer, seemed to be the preferred methods of entertainment. Many were here because they managed to score free tickets. Others paid $69 to celebrate the birthday of a companion, visit friends at Bimini, or on a whim.

A flight instructor said his student was using the Bimini trip as a means to renew his visa to the United States, so he decided to tag along. One grandmotherly lady, lounging with her family on the deck, drink in hand, said this was her third SuperFast voyage. “I love it!” she chirped.

The slot machines were, by design no doubt, easy to find at the ship’s entrance. The casino area with baccarat, roulette, blackjack, craps games, and sports-book wagering? That was tricky to find. You have to walk through a maze of cabin corridors before finally getting to it on Level 8 at the ship’s stern. Genting attendants were at attention, televisions were broadcasting sporting events, a panoramic view of the ocean presented itself, and maybe ten people were gambling.


NBimini SuperFast tender shuttles you from the ship to the islandorth Bimini is the largest of several islands that constitute the District of Bimini, home to 1600 full-time residents, who depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods, and a growing number of part-timers.

North Bimini is narrow, seven miles long and at many places just 700 feet wide. It’s also the Bahamian island closest to Florida, about 54 miles from Miami.

Many a famous American has visited Bimini. Ernest Hemingway lived there for a few years in the 1930s. The fishing attracted him, and a 500-pound marlin caught there supposedly inspired his Old Man and the Sea.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reportedly wrote his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech there in 1964. President Richard Nixon visited a few times. In 1984, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart sailed to Bimini from Aventura’s Turnberry Isle Resort aboard the Monkey Business. His companion: aspiring Miami actress Donna Rice. The ensuing scandal ended Hart’s presidential run.

What was it that attracted them to Bimini? Fine weather, blue water, a laid-back ambiance, great fishing, a few decent restaurants and bars -- and that’s about it.

“You don’t have a lot of things to do over there if you don’t have a boat,” says José Vigil, owner of Miami Boat Charter, who divides his time between Miami’s Upper Eastside and Bimini. “After a few days, it gets kind of boring.”

Last year the Genting Group became Capo’s partner. Then on March 18 of this year, ten days after Genting bought the Bimini Superfast, Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie announced that Genting “had taken over the operation of Bimini Bay itself” and was investing $150 million in Bimini to build a 350-room hotel and to expand the airport on North Bimini.Today Bimini is changing rapidly. A growth spurt began in the late 1990s, when Gerardo Capo, a Miami-based businessman whose family owns the El Dorado furniture chain, developed Bimini Bay Resort, a community of 480 luxury villas.

Genting’s plans might also include the construction of a 1000-foot dock for the Bimini Superfast as well as the creation of a golf course. Or they might not. Biminites and environmentalists complain that the Bahamian government won’t release Genting’s plans or the project’s environmental studies.

“Everything that Bimini stands for is being destroyed,” he told The Tribune, a Bahamian newspaper, on September 22.Fred Smith, an attorney representing the Bimini Blue Coalition, an organization of Bimini residents and business owners, has threatened to seek a “judicial review” to stop overdevelopment.

Resorts World Tram hauling guests on Bimini, Bahamas islandSome Biminites say they have reason to worry. Bahamian media reports and blogs are filled with complaints that the jobs they were promised are instead being taken by people living in Nassau and Freeport. Instead of using Bimini residents to build Bimini Bay, Capo hired cheap labor from Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Some independent business owners are feeling shut out because Genting does not make it easy for Bimini Superfast passengers to shop locally. The ship loads people onto its ferries and herds them directly to its resort and casino.

Meanwhile, the island’s infrastructure is being overwhelmed by Genting’s visitors, according to Smith. During busy days at the resort, Smith told The Tribune, water pressure is nonexistent in nearby towns, supplies are scarce, and sanitation is deplorable.

Then there’s the disruption to the environment. Capo added 50 acres to North Bimini by dredging 2.5 million cubic yards out of a lagoon, digging a channel that was 150 feet wide and 20 feet deep, says Samuel Gruber, director of the Bimini Biological Field Station and a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“He cracked the aquifer and allowed sea water to penetrate the water table,” Gruber says. “So the people no longer have free access to fresh water. They have to buy it from a big desalinization plant that Capo built.”

(Neither Capo nor anyone affiliated with his company, RAV Bahamas, could be reached for comment by deadline.)

Bahamian Beach Scene is idylllic

Besides drinkable water, says Gruber, Capo’s dredging decimated the mangroves of Mosquito Point, where more than 100 species of marine life dwelled. The effects disrupted the food chain, sickened juvenile lemon sharks, and killed off scores of conch, fish, and lobster larvae.

Gruber says marine life eventually adapted to the new environment, but he’s not sure that will be the case if Genting builds a golf course that will require large amounts of fertilizer, which will pollute the water. “They do that,” Gruber says, “and that’s the end.”

Lloyd Edgecomb, general counsel for the Bimini district, cautions that Genting still hasn’t formally applied to build either a cruise ship dock or a golf course. “Some people are jumping the gun,” he says. “No permits have been pulled and no agreements have been signed off on.”

However, when the prime minister, his cabinet, and Genting do make a decision regarding the project, there won’t be much anyone can do about it, Edgecomb says. Under Bahamian law, it’s the prime minister and his cabinet in Nassau who have final say over large projects funded by foreign interests.

“You can kick and scream until Christ comes,” Edgecomb says, “and it won’t mean anything.”

Genting did not reply to written questions by deadline, although publicist Aaron Gordon says Genting is “awaiting final approvals on the jetty.” Dana Leibovitz, president of Resorts World Bimini, told the Associated Press last month that the golf course is still being considered, but only if it’s environmentally sound.

“We’re not here to ruin what Bimini is,” Leibovitz said. “We’re not here to ruin the water, we’re not here to ruin the pristine mangroves, the quaintness of the island. We want to integrate. We want to be part of the island, and we want to continue for that to be the main draw to the island.”


APort of Miami t 11:50 a.m. the ship stopped moving, about a mile off the coast of Bimini. That’s when the herding began.

The way out was through the casino, where where we waited and waited as passengers were slowly funneled into a narrow corridor leading to the exit. Once at the exit, the Filipino crew passed us on to a Bahamian crew on a red-and-white boat. A woman ordered us down into the boat’s lower level.

“Do we have to go downstairs?” a passenger asked.

“Yes,” she replied sternly, “for your own safety.”

So we went downstairs, sweated, and waited. A Genting employee walked around with a tray of towels soaked in ice water.

Alone on this voyage, I was quickly adopted by a group of chatty women from New Jersey. Debbie, a hairdresser, was chipper thanks to downing five drinks and winning a few hundred dollars at the slots, but the heat was trying her patience. I told her the weather service forecast 96 degrees today, with a heat index of 106. “Who are you?” she griped. “The Grim Reaper?”

Finally the boat began moving, slowly.

By the time we made it past Bahamian customs and were seated on an electric tram, it was 1:30 p.m. We had to be back at the pier by 3:30.

My first stop was the resort area. On one side of the road was a closed restaurant and an elaborate pool with a gazebo bar that was open for business. On the other side was the casino, which was so unimposing I almost missed it. “Oh, it’s bigger on the inside,” said a young employee, adding that Genting planned to build a larger casino at its future hotel.

The hardcore slots players from the Bimini Superfast were already filtering into the casino. I played a game of video poker just long enough to get a potent rum-and-Coke. Unlike the Bimini Superfast, drinks are gratis for those gambling in the casino. A rum-and-Coke at the bar was $8. After losing $3 at video poker, and a $1 tip for the waitress, my drink cost $4.

Now I wanted to see the beach. Another tram navigated the winding street, driving past construction workers laying the foundation for Genting’s Marina Hotel, and past a series of white wooden houses, some of which were being leased by Genting to Bimini Superfast passengers wishing to stay overnight: $159 per person.

When I saw the beach, I patted myself on the back for wearing swim trucks under my khakis. The calm water felt fantastic. Most of my shipmates were content to lounge in the water with drinks in hand. Some rented jet skis or rode oversize floating tricycles on the water.

In all, we had about a half-hour at the beach before it was time to head back. Bahamian customs agents didn’t bother to search us as we departed. That honor was reserved for Genting.

When we returned to the Bimini Superfast, we were guided down into the hot cargo hold. During the ship’s Superfast VI days, this area carried up to 140 cars across the Mediterranean.

Now it housed a screening operation where passengers were quickly and politely checked for drugs and other contraband. There was even a security guard with a German shepherd. Also on hand were Genting’s attentive Filipino workers, ready to assist heat-stroked travelers with water and chairs. Air circulation was provided by several humming fans.

Our time in the Superfast’s hold lasted maybe 15 minutes. Then it was back to the top levels for music, food, drinks, and gambling.


UBimini SuperFast cruise decknder Bahamian law, it’s illegal for a Bahamian citizen or a work-permit holder to gamble at a casino. A proposal to legalize Internet cafés, known as web shops, that acted as illicit casinos for locals was rejected by voters in January, thanks to an aggressive campaign by Bahamian churches.

In spite of the victory for the anti-gaming side, some Bahamians are grumbling about the current casino law, believing it makes them second-class citizens in their own country, according to media reports. But John Kindt, a professor of business at the University of Illinois and a fierce opponent of gambling, says the local gaming ban actually protects the Bahamian economy from casinos.

Several nations around the world with casinos either forbid their residents from entering or, in the case of Singapore, where Genting operates a casino called Resorts World Sentosa, require a hefty admission price, Kindt explains.

Measures like that are in place to prevent citizens from losing all their money at casinos. “They know that slot machines can kill the local economy,” Kindt says. “It’s all about suckers coming in from the outside.”

Kindt contends that the real goal of casino operators like Genting is to get people addicted to slot machines, what he calls the “crack cocaine of gambling.”

Kindt also believes that the ultimate objective of the Bimini Superfast is not just to ferry Miami residents and tourists to Resorts World Bimini, but to pave the way for a casino at a future Resorts World Miami.

“The real trick is a downtown Miami casino,” Kindt says. “They will do whatever strategy it takes to get that.”

Genting has been more successful expanding elsewhere in the United States. Since 2009, the company has helped finance four gaming operations in the Northeast. In August 2010, Genting built a casino at the Aqueduct racetrack in New York City, now known as Resorts World New York.

Genting’s most recent gaming endeavor might be its most dramatic. In March, the same month it was solidifying its presence in Bimini, company executives took over the Echelon Las Vegas project from Boyd Gaming and declared their intent to invest up to $7 billion to build Resorts World Las Vegas, a 3500-room, Asian-themed resort.

“They seem to have an insatiable appetite for penetrating the U.S. market,” says Alex Calderone, senior vice president of the Fine Point Group, a Las Vegas-based gaming consultancy.

The speed with which Genting launched the Bimini Superfast may be aiding that penetration. Among the vessel’s features is a reception desk where passengers are offered Genting Rewards Cards, which offer incentives based on how long someone gambles.

In exchange, customers allow Genting to track their gaming preferences and also provides the company with home addresses and e-mails. “The benefit to them is that this gives them a head start in growing a database,” Calderone says. “They can tap into that big database and use it to entice customers to come and gamble at their properties.”

Once Resorts World Miami is able to open a casino, that database will allow Genting immediately to tap into South Florida’s lucrative gambling market. If not, the database collected by the Bimini Superfast will enable Genting to tap into it anyway. “Southern Florida in particular is a densely populated region where the historical records have shown us that Floridians gamble, as do tourists who come to Florida,” Calderone says. “Genting’s way of carving out a piece of the pie for itself is to be able to offer people to take a day trip on a high-speed boat to an exotic location.”

Last year Dana Leibovitz of Resorts World Bimini told the Miami Herald that Bimini had little if anything to do with Miami. “This is a totally separate project,” he said, “and has nothing to do with Florida and what we’re doing there.”


It was 6:00 p.m. by the time Bimini Superfast docked at Port Miami. The slot machines shut down. Soon the casino bar would be closed as well. Yet it would be more than an hour before passengers were allowed to disembark

Part of the problem: There were fewer than five U.S. Customs agents available to process 250 passengers.

“This isn’t worth it,” sighed one woman. “I liked the cruise. I liked Bimini. But I didn’t get to spend much time there. And all this waiting all the time. It just isn’t worth the $69.”

When I finally left Terminal H, it was after 7:30. I bumped into some of the hardcore slots players. Even though they rarely ventured beyond the casinos, they said they had a great time.

They didn’t have to pay for tickets. This trip was a gift from their Broward church congregation, a reward for their volunteer work.

 

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