By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Freeport’s cruise economy will suffer “the kiss of death” if the Government approves Carnival Cruise Lines’ proposed private port in eastern Grand Bahama, an outspoken QC warned yesterday.
Fred Smith, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner, told Tribune Business that companies dependent on cruise tourism would see their business volumes “nose dive” if the world’s largest cruise line received the go-ahead from the Christie administration.
He added that the proposed location was much different from the prior cruise port proposal, which envisaged such a facility at Williams Town - a site at the heart of the Port area.
This location, Mr Smith said, would have ensured that cruise-dependent businesses continued to benefit from the sector, but Carnival’s proposal would likely result in a major reduction in vessels calling at Freeport Harbour.
“The cruise ship facility out east is going to be the kiss of death to businesses in Freeport, where we have so little business anyway,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business.
“As a businessman in Freeport, how will the construction of such a private cruise port experience benefit the economy of Freeport?
“Quite the contrary. It will cause Freeport’s cruise ship economy to take a nose dive, as ships will no longer be coming to Freeport Harbour.”
With Carnival instead sending its vessels to its own private port/beach experience, Mr Smith said Freeport-based taxi and tour bus operators would experience an immediate fall-off in passenger numbers transported to the Port Lucaya Marketplace and other tourist attractions in the city.
He warned that these facilities, along with bars, restaurants, retailers, beach experiences, and tour/excursion providers such as UNEXSO, would all suffer should Carnival’s private port be approved.
“The Freeport Harbour Company will have dramatically less harbour fees and reduced income; the tug boats will have reduced income; the pilotage companies will have less income, and it will simply cut a huge percentage out of the business that would otherwise normally be coming to Freeport,” Mr Smith said of the proposed Carnival venture.
“This is quite different from the Williams Town proposal, which was smack dab in the middle of the non-industrial area of Freeport. It was in the Port area, and all of the normal support facilities and business from the cruise ships arriving there would have continued for Freeport.
“I don’t see how it makes any sense to cater to the cruise industry clamouring for a private beach experience.”
Prime Minister Perry Christie recently confirmed that the Government was in negotiations with Carnival over the project, and that both sides were studying a draft Heads of Agreement.
Tribune Business understands that the proposed site for the private port is to the west of Statoil’s facility, on land that is privately owned by the Bain family.
Carnival has made no secret of its desire to have its own private port/passenger getaway in the Bahamas, a senior executive confirming its intentions to a Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) gathering at Palm Cay last year.
It is just about the only cruise line without its own Bahamas private facility, with rivals such as Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines already possessing their own getaways such as Coco Cay in the Berry Islands and Half Moon Cay near Cat Island.
However, Tribune Business has long reported concerns among cruise ship industry insiders that few economic benefits filter down to Bahamians and locally-owned businesses and entrepreneurs from such private facilities.
These insiders have in the past revealed that most of the revenues and profits generated by such private facilities stay with the cruise lines, which effectively control all the excursions and activities offered to the passengers.
Bahamian-owned businesses allowed to operate in these private ports also rent their facilities from the cruise lines, who in some cases have been able to dictate the mark-ups charged to passengers.
K P Turnquest, FNM MP for east Grand Bahama, yesterday acknowledged to Tribune Business that such issues were a “concern” for his constituents, given that they hoped to capitalise on entrepreneurial as well as employment opportunities arising from the planned cruise port.
“We’re looking further than that,” he said in relation to potential job creation. “We’re hoping that whatever is negotiated, it opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs in that area to take advantage of the traffic.”
Mr Turnquest also expressed concern that the Government had released few details about the proposed Carnival project, warning that this left his constituents in danger of being unable to properly prepare themselves to exploit spin-off opportunities.
“We are particularly keen to know what is going on, what the status is,” he told Tribune Business.
“What I would hate to see happen is the opportunities come, we are left out of the picture because we have not prepared ourselves, and people from Freeport and outside the area come and take advantage.
“Any development out east we see as a benefit because it will provide the stimulus, the employment for the area that is very lacking.”
Mr Turnquest said eastern Grand Bahama had previously been unable to exploit its “very rich natural resources” for eco-tourism because of the distance to Freeport. This meant that cruise ship passengers often only reached the area around midday, and soon had to return to the ship.
Mr Smith, meanwhile, called on the Government to disclose full details of what it was negotiating with Carnival, describing the situation as another “secret Heads of Agreement”.
“This is another example of the Government not respecting Family Islanders’ rights, and of the Port Authority and at the local licensee level,” he added.
“Who is benefiting from this? Not Freeport licensees, not Bahamian entrepreneurs and business people. These are secret deals being cut again over Family Island resources without reference to Family Islanders.
“There is a complete lack of appreciation for the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, and licensees are being left high and dry.”
Mr Smith also questioned whether any Carnival deal would violate Hutchison Whampoa’s alleged “exclusivity” on all ports and harbours on Grand Bahama, and if the Port Authority’s partner would be receiving harbour dues from the cruise line.
If the answer to the latter question was ‘yes’, Mr Smith said it would impact Freeport’s infrastructure and harbour maintenance, as dues would be going to Hutchison - not the Port Authority, as they currently do at Freeport Harbour.