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Image: Brent Symonette
Tim Aylen  /  AP
Bahamian Deputy Prime Minister Brent Symonette speaks during the Baha Mar groundbreaking ceremony Monday in Nassau, the Bahamas
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updated 2/22/2011 10:06:05 AM ET 2011-02-22T15:06:05

Chinese and Bahamian dignitaries celebrated Monday as workers broke ground on what is being billed as the largest project of its kind in the Caribbean — a megaresort that will be financed and largely built by Beijing.

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Baha Mar, a $3.4 billion complex on Nassau's Cable Beach, will employ some 8,000 workers and is projected to generate a 10 percent boost to the Bahamas gross domestic product, according to development company Baha Mar Ltd.

The development plan calls for four hotels with a total of about 2,250 rooms, as well as a golf course, retail space, a convention center and what the developer says will be the largest casino in the Caribbean.

It is scheduled to open in December 2014 and is aimed largely at North American consumers, who make up the vast majority of tourist visitors to the Bahamas, said Don Robinson, president of Baha Mar Ltd.

In overall size, it will be comparable to the Atlantis resort on nearby Paradise Island. But that project was built in stages over a number of years, not all at once like Baha Mar. Robinson said the resort's ambitious scope is part of its marketing plan, an effort to capture the public's imagination and attract tourists who have abandoned the Bahamas for other destinations.

"The vision was a large destination resort that would drive visitation," he said in an interview with The Associated Press before the ceremony. "Anything smaller became less of an ability to increase the market. It needed to be large enough on the world stage that it could significantly drive demand."

Caribbean tourism took a steep dive with the global economic downturn, but there have been signs of life: Hotel room revenue in the region rose about 3 percent and occupancy edged up nearly 1 percent last year, compared with 2009, according to travel industry watcher STR of Nashville, Tennessee.

The crisis forced some developers to scale back plans made in rosier times, but Baha Mar appears to be wagering that it can create a destination resort and keep people spending money at stores and shops within the walls of the complex, said Jan Freitag, vice president for global development at STR.

"The question is: Is that a good enough driver in this economic environment?" Freitag said.

For the resort's concrete and steel main structure, Baha Mar hired China State Construction Engineering Co. Ltd., which brought in the Export-Import Bank of China to finance the project when a previous partner dropped out. This is the first tourism project outside China for either of the state-owned enterprises, Robinson said.

As part of its agreement with the Bahamian government, Baha Mar will import about 7,000 Chinese construction workers in stages. The project is also expected to create about 4,000 construction jobs for local workers, the developer said.

"The great geographical distance between our two countries has not impeded our friendship," Chinese Ambassador Hu Dingxian said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "This project is evidence.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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