Graced with extensive beaches bleached white by the year-round sun and surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters filled with varied and colourful sea life, the islands of the Bahamas are a major destination for divers, sailors and sun-worshippers. Although often thought to be part of the Caribbean, the Bahamas is actually an archipelago of 700 islands with thousands of small ‘cays’ strung out in the ocean, starting 55 miles (89km) from Miami in the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands’ first inhabitants were the Lucayan Indians who lived here from the 9th century until after Columbus discovered the islands in 1492, making his first step into the New World. The resulting exploitation led to the native population being virtually wiped out. For two hundred years, until independence in 1987, the Bahamas was a British Crown Colony and a strong British influence can still be seen in the architecture and culture.
The population of the Bahamas now consists mostly of Bahamians of African descent, who are mainly descended from freed slaves. The strong African cultural influence is evident in everyday life, and in events like Junkanoo, a traditional street festival held every year on Boxing Day. There is also a strong American cultural influence, particularly in the capital, Nassau.
Due to its proximity to the US, the Bahamas has become an offshore banking and financial centre. Tourism, however, remains its most important industry. The long stretches of empty beaches, clear waters and excellent facilities have made the Bahamas a popular destination throughout the year and the varied attractions of each of the islands ensure that there is something for everyone.