NASSAU, Bahamas -- A fire here on Sept. 4 destroyed the Straw Market, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism headquarters, several adjacent stores and restaurants and a building housing offshore banks.

The fire broke out around 3:30 p.m. in the market and spread quickly to the west on Bay Street before being contained.

The Straw Market, which has been around since the early 1930s and has been located in its current site since 1974, housed vendors selling straw hats, handbags and souvenirs from wooden stalls.

There were no reported injuries and a cause has not been determined, according to Wayne Miller, an inspector with the Royal Bahaman Police. However, he said authorities are investigating reports of an alleged arsonist.

The Ministry of Tourism predicted there will be no impact on tourism to the island, other than the relocation of the more than 500 market vendors. Traffic also is being diverted away from Bay Street until the area is cleaned up.

"This is a great loss for the island," said a spokesman for the tourism ministry. "The Straw Market was very well organized and a popular tourist attraction."

Tommy Turnquest, tourism minister, said, "The fire may have left a scar, but it also has ignited a spark to build a newer and more vibrant downtown Nassau."

Until the market can be rebuilt on the same site, vendors will relocate in temporary booths around town. Some will be near the Welcome Centre and Hair Braiding Pavilion near the cruise terminal while others will join vendors along Woodes Rogers Walk across from the original site.

Signage along Bay Street and on the cruise pier will point tourists in the direction of the vendors.

"We want agents to know that Nassau is open and in business, despite the fire," the spokesman said.

The British Colonial Hilton, located about 200 yards from the market, denied published reports that guests had to be evacuated from the property.

"The British Colonial Hilton Nassau remains open for business as usual," said Michael Hooper, general manager.

The Ministry of Tourism has temporarily relocated to other offices.

To reach the ministry, call (242) 356-4231 or (242) 356-5216. The fax number is (242) 356-5904.

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