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The Bahamas is one of the Atlantic's most geographically complicated nations. A coral-based archipelago, its hundreds of islands, cays, and rocky outcroppings became politically independent in 1973 after centuries of colonial rule.

Great Britain actually granted The Bahamas internal self-rule in 1964 and the fledgling nation adopted its own constitution, but chose not to sever its ties with its motherland. It has remained in the Commonwealth, with the British monarch as its head of state. In the British tradition, The Bahamas has a two-house Parliament, a ministerial cabinet headed by a prime minister, and an independent judiciary. The queen appoints a Bahamian governor-general to represent the Crown.

As The Bahamas moves deeper into the millennium, the government and various investors continue to pump money into the tourism infrastructure, especially on Paradise Island, across from Nassau, and toward Cable Beach, which adjoins Nassau. Cruise-ship tourism is increasing, and the upscale crowd is coming back after abandoning The Bahamas for many years in favor of other Caribbean islands such as St. Barts and Anguilla.

When Hubert Ingraham became prime minister in 1992, he launched the country down the long road toward regaining its market share of tourism, which, under Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, had seen a rapid decline. Polls revealed that some first-time visitors vowed never to return to The Bahamas under the administration of the notorious Pindling, whose government had taken over a number of hotels and failed to maintain them properly.

When Ingraham took office, however, he wisely recognized that the government wasn't meant to be in the hospitality business and turned many properties back over to the professionals. Tourism in the post-Pindling era is booming again; more than 1.5 million visitors from all over the world now flock here annually. In Nassau, it's easy to see where the government's money is being spent: on widened roads, repaved sidewalks, underground phone cables, massive landscaping projects, a cleanup campaign, and additional police officers walking the beat to cut down on crime.

Perry Gladstone Christie, prime minister from 2002 to 2007, continued to carry out those same policies to better Nassau. Ingraham was reelected to the position in 2007.

Unlike Haiti and Jamaica, The Bahamas has remained politically stable and made the transition from white-minority rule to black-majority rule with relatively little tension.

Economic conditions have slowly improved here as well. There's not the wretched poverty in Nassau that there is in, say, Kingston, Jamaica -- though many poor residents do still live in New Providence Island's Over-the-Hill section, an area to which few tourists venture (although the neighborhood is gritty and fascinating).

The biggest changes have occurred in the hotel sector. Developers vastly expanded the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, turning it into a virtual water world. In addition, Hilton has developed the decaying old British Colonial in Nassau, restoring it to life. Cable Beach is slated for massive redevelopment. And Grand Bahama Island is in an interesting state of flux as hotels along the entire Lucayan strip get upgraded.

If there's a downside to this boom, it's the emphasis on mega-hotels and casinos -- and the corresponding de-emphasis on the Out Islands, which include the Abacos, Andros, Bimini, Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, and San Salvador. Large resort chains, with the exception of Sandals and Club Med, have ignored these islands; most continue to slumber away in relative seclusion and poverty. Other than the Sandals mega-resort that opened in the Exumas, development has been minor. Little change in this Out Islands-versus-the-rest situation is anticipated soon, except for Eleuthera, which will have several new boutique hotels in the near future.

There's another trend to note in The Bahamas: The government and many citizens here have awakened to ecotourism. More than any government in the Caribbean except perhaps Bonaire, this nation has started to try to protect its ecology. Government, private companies, and environmental groups have drawn up a national framework of priorities to protect the islands. One of their first goals was to save the nearly extinct West Indian flamingo. Today, about 60,000 flamingos inhabit Great Inagua Island. Other programs aim to prevent the extinction of the green turtle, the white-crowned pigeon, the Bahamian parrot, and the New Providence iguana.

Although tourism and the environment are bouncing back, many problems remain for this archipelago nation. While some Bahamians seem among the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world, others -- particularly those in the tourist industry -- can be downright hostile. To counter this, the government is working to train its citizens to be more helpful, courteous, and efficient. Sometimes this training has been taken to heart; at other times, however, it clearly has not. Service with a smile is not assured in The Bahamas.

Drug smuggling also remains a serious problem, and, regrettably, there seems to be no immediate solution. Because the country is so close to U.S. shores, it is often used as a temporary depot for drugs shipped from South America to Florida. The Bahamas developed a tradition of catering to the illicit habits of U.S. citizens as well; during the heyday of Prohibition, many Bahamians grew rich smuggling rum into America. Things have improved, but you'll still see stories in the newspapers about floating bales of marijuana turning up just off the country's coastline.

Though this illicit trade rarely affects the casual visitor, it's important to know that it exists -- so don't agree to carry any packages to or from the U.S. for a stranger, or you could end up taking a much longer vacation than you had ever imagined.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.