"The plan basically allows us to redevelop the tourism… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
Baltimore and the Bahamas' Freeport have a lot in common. They're both cities with a mix of tourist areas and heavy industry, and both often play second banana to a national capital.
Now the two cities are linked by a direct air service that began Thursday.
Vision Airlines, a U.S. carrier known for its occasional role as a charter contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency, will offer twice-weekly service between Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Freeport, a vacation destination that in recent years has been eclipsed by bustling Nassau.
C.A. Smith, the Bahamian ambassador to the United States, said Thursday that his government hoped the Vision air service would help rekindle interest in Freeport, the main city on Grand Bahama Island and the second-largest in the country.
"The plan basically allows us to redevelop the tourism sector of the economy, and in order to do that you have to be able to have inexpensive airline seats," he said. "You have to make it convenient for people to travel."
Vision is making the trip inexpensive in the short run, with promotional offers including $79 one-way fares between BWI and Freeport. The airline also is offering some $2 round-trip fares, but those are contingent on booking stays at certain hotels in Freeport. The promotional rates are expected to continue on flights through March 4, but they must be reserved by Dec. 11.
For flights booked after Dec. 11 or for those departing after March 4, one-way fares will range from $99 to $189, with the lower fares going to those who book early. The fares do not include the Bahamas' relatively hefty airport tax, which adds about $60 to each one-way fare.
Flights will depart from BWI at 12:25 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays. Return trips will depart from Freeport at 9:15 a.m. the same days.
Bryan Glazer, a Vision spokesman, said that even with taxes and luggage fees of $15 for each item of checked baggage — carry-on is free — Vision flights to Freeport will cost less than most airlines' flights to Florida.
The new service could make Freeport a more attractive destination for Baltimore-Washington travelers than it is now. For instance, round-trip airfare for a weeklong New Year's holiday for two — from Dec. 29 to Jan. 5 — booked on a national ticket service Thursday would have cost $717 on Vision and $1,235 on the next-cheapest airline.
Also, the Vision flight is nonstop and takes 2 hours, 20 minutes each way, while the other flight makes a stop in Miami and takes about six hours each way. Even after March 4, Vision flights appear to be hundreds of dollars cheaper than the next-lowest-cost flight that makes only one stop.
Smith said Freeport was devastated by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 and has been eclipsed by Nassau in recent years, after the opening of the Atlantis mega-resort helped set off a hotel-building boom on New Providence Island. New Providence, where Nassau is located, is linked to Paradise Island — site of the Atlantis — by a causeway.
Meanwhile, Smith said, travel to Freeport also took a hit from the economic downturn — a big blow on an island where 50 percent of the population works in tourism.
"There [haven't] been any new hotels built in Freeport recently, but the thrust is now to attract new visitors into Freeport-Grand Bahama Island," he said.
Smith said that while Freeport's hotels might not be spanking new, they include many attractive resorts. He described "laid back" Freeport as a happy medium between the capital and the many far-flung Bahamian islands that can be reached only by small aircraft or boat.
Freeport, he said, is "much more bustling than the Out Islands but less so than New Providence or Nassau."
Smith pointed out that Freeport is also the Bahamas' industrial hub, anchored by a deep-water port capable of handling large container ships. One of Freeport's biggest businesses, he said, is one that used to flourish in Baltimore: ship repair.
Smith said many of the cruise lines that serve the East Coast use Freeport's repair yard as their maintenance center.
Smith said Freeport also hoped to spur interest among American companies that might want an offshore presence. He said that, by Bahamian law, Freeport is a tax-free zone until 2054 — a deal businesses can't get in Nassau. Freeport's commercial rents are cheaper, too, he said.
Smith said the fact that Baltimore is home to a major cruise terminal serving the Bahamas creates marketing synergies for his country.
"You should see a presence of the Bahamas' marketing arm in the Baltimore region," he said.
The ambassador said his government hoped to see Vision eventually offer more flights.
Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman, said the Freeport service was the first of three recent international deals to get off the ground. He said AirTran will soon launch service to Aruba, while Germany's Condor Airways recently announced plans to fly between Baltimore and Frankfurt twice a week starting next year.
BWI's deal with Vision — unlike that with flagship international carrier British Airways — did not call for incentive payments if passenger goals are not met, Dean said. But Vision said it was receiving incentives, including marketing help and the waiver of airport fees, from the Bahamian government.
Grand Bahama is not an entirely new destination for BWI flights. Dean said Laker Bahamas served the BWI-Freeport route in the 1990s.
Vision's launch in Baltimore is part of a larger expansion that also includes Freeport flights to and from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Louisville, Ky.; and Richmond, Va.