By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government yesterday pledged it would monitor the $5 million Blackbeard’s Cay project to ensure there was an “equitable distribution” of cruise visitors with Bay Street, emphasising that it wanted to bring downtown Nassau “alive”.
Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, told Tribune Business that any concerns Bay Street businesses may have had over the upgraded cruise passenger excursion destination had been “assuaged” at a meeting he and Prime Minister Perry Christie attended yesterday.
Noting that there were plans to employ 200 persons at Blackbeard’s Cay, Mr Wilchcombe said the Prime Minister was adamant that cruise tourism benefits had to be spread equally among all Bahamian businesses and vendors.
And, in what appears to be an attempt to dampen concerns/criticisms of the project, Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business that Blackbeard’s Cay’s operators had floated the idea of “creating shopping coupons” that could be used both on their island and Bay Street.
The Minister said the proposal involved cruise passengers “staying on the island for two-three hours, and still shopping on Bay Street. It will cause for business opportunities to be extended beyond the island”.
The meeting, which took place on Monday, was attended by representatives from Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line, and Samir Andrawos, the St Maarten-based operator who has spearheaded Blackbeard’s Cay’s redevelopment and will head its operations. The original Bahamian investor group, which has leased their portion of the island, just off the coast opposite Sandals Royal Bahamian, to Mr Andrawos, was represented by former PLP Cabinet Minister, Charles Carter.
“I think that all the concerns Bay Street had have been assuaged,” Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business, adding that under their agreement with Carnival, the Blackbeard’s Cay operator would be running 11-15 excursions to the island from Prince George’s Wharf daily.
“It was a relatively good meeting. The Prime Minister sat in, and was very firm about opportunities for Bahamians at all and every level.
“When business comes to the island, there are opportunities for all Bahamians, not just a select group.”
Mr Wilchcombe added: “We’re going to be monitoring it [Blackbeard’s Cay] very closely. The previous government approved it, and we’re just going to make sure it’s not going to cause any outcry on the one hand, and not restrict the movement of visitors to Bay Street on the other.”
The Minister told Tribune Business that the Government’s main goal was “an equitable distribution to all vendors” of the cruise ship industry’s benefits.
“We want to bring Bay Street alive. We don’t want visitors to go somewhere else. We want to make sure Bay Street is a vibrant place once again,” he said.
Pointing out that no agreements had been reached between Mr Andrawos and the other cruise lines, Mr Wilchcombe added: “At the maximum, they expect to do 300-350 persons per day, simply because the island cannot handle more than that.”
Tribune Business previously reported that Bay Street businesses were concerned that Blackbeard’s Cay’s redevelopment included construction of a high-end shopping experience akin to Atlantis’s Marina Village.
However, Mr Wilchcombe said “the most” that the island’s operators planned to develop was a coffee shop, souveniur shop and Welcome Centre. Some 200 persons, the Minister said, would be employed when Blackbeard’s Cay re-opened.
Tribune Business understands that the concerns of Bay Street retailers included rumours of a possible partnership between Blackbeard’s Cay’s investors and Diamonds International, the luxury goods retailer that already has a Bay Street presence; that the $5 million project was really being financed by Carnival; and that all tours would be booked on-ship, with the money largely remaining outside the Bahamas.
Mr Wilchcombe said he and the Prime Minister “specifically asked that question” about the level of Carnival’s involvement, to which they were told that the cruise line had no ownership or investment relationship - it had merely partnered with Mr Andrawos, with whom it has strong links elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The Diamonds International link was also denied, and the Minister told Tribune Business: “Carnival is going to provide the visitors; that’s the way it works.
“Carnival’s position was that they’re continually looking for additional tours and attractions for visitors to the Bahamas. And we want to add more.”
The more attractions and excursions the Bahamas offered cruise visitors, the more likely they would be to leave their vessels in port and spend more money with Bahamian businesses, Mr Wilchcombe added.
Noting that he had met all the cruise lines on this issue two weeks ago, with a follow-up meeting scheduled for end-May, Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business: “There is a concern with visitors coming to the capital city that there needs to be more.
“They need more excursions and more activities, and we need more tours generally.”
A revitalised Blackbeard’s Cay will fit into this strategy.Mr Wilchcombe said Carnival was planning to continue selling tours to its passengers for Blue Lagoon and Atlantis, not just restrict them to Blackbeard’s Cay.
With 3,000 Carnival passengers coming into Nassau per day, the Minister said there were enough visitors to be spread around between what the capital had to offer.