By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism has slammed a major cruise ship operator for trying “to blackmail the Government of the Bahamas” over negotiations for a longer term deal for its Freeport service.
Obie Wilchcombe hit out at Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, operator of the Grand Celebration vessel, for disclosing to the media that it might pull out of Freeport and the Bahamas if it could not strike a favourable agreement with the Christie administration.
Suggesting that it was using the media to pressure the Government into agreeing what it wanted, Mr Wilchcombe said the Celebration’s operator was offering no guarantees to the Bahamas in return.
He added that the Celebration had been responsible for “driving down” hotel room rates in Freeport to just $60 per night, prompting complaints from both the Grand Bahama Island Promotion Board and the Grand Lucayan.
Disclosing that the Promotion Board and Ministry of Tourism were investing $7 million annually into co-marketing with the Celebration, Mr Wilchcombe implied that the cruise operator was suddenly seeking a longer-term deal to make itself more attractive to potential purchasers (see other article on Page 1B).
When contacted by Tribune Business, it took just the mention of the Celebration’s name to set Mr Wilchcombe off, the Minister immediately saying how he “heard some stupid story” regarding the cruise ship and its potential pull-out.
“Celebration has two years remaining on its contract with the Government at the present time,” he told this newspaper. “I don’t know what their issue is, apart from coming up with a proposal that they’re changing ownership and want an extension beyond two years.
“The Government is saying: Send us the information, we’ll do due diligence and get back to you.”
Tribune Business contacted Mr Wilchcombe after hearing that the Celebration, and its owners, were becoming increasingly frustrated about their lack of progress in sealing a new agreement with the Government.
This newspaper had been told that the cruise operator wanted to bring a second ship to Grand Bahama, this one sailing from Port Canaveral, but had been unable to obtain a response from the Government.
Mr Wilchcombe, though, described this proposal as “just a lot of talk” by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which had yet to submit any detailed, ‘set in stone’ plans to the Government.
When asked whether his, and the Government’s, position was that Celebration was seeking a longer term agreement without offering guarantees on passenger numbers and other definitives in return, Mr Wilchcombe replied: “You’ve got it.”
He then blasted: “At the end of the day, they’re trying to cause the media to blackmail the Government of the Bahamas.
“None of this [what Celebration is offering] is on the table. It’s all talk. That’s the bottom line; don’t talk it, do it. They’re trying to put pressure on the Government to sign something beyond five years.”
Mr Wilchcombe said the Celebration’s operator was already enjoying $7 million per year in marketing support from his Ministry and private sector partners, but added that its ‘overnighting’ passengers had been responsible for depressing hotel room rates.
“Celebration brought down hotel room rates to $60,” the Minister said. “The Promotion Board and the hotel are protesting. We’re trying to work out a solution.
“We’re looking at it, and will see where we go from here.”
Mr Wilchcombe then reiterated his belief that Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has been “wrong to discuss this in the media”, given the sensitivity that often accompanied such commercial negotiations.
Based on the Minister’s comments, it appears that relations between the Government and the Grand Celebration’s operator are at an extremely low ebb, if not rock bottom.
This will especially alarm Freeport’s already-beleaguered tourism industry, given that the vessel’s regular calls on Grand Bahama have formed an essential component of both its day and stopover visitors.
The Celebration’s passengers have been a key customer source for Grand Bahama’s solitary casino, which is now closed, plus the island’s largest hotel, the Grand Lucayan.
With Grand Bahama’s hotel and tourism industry now struggling for survival in Hurricane Matthew’s wake, the island needs every visitor it can get, and many in the sector will likely regard Mr Wilchcombe’s criticism of such an important investor as the last thing they need in the circumstances.
The ongoing closures of Memories and much of the Grand Lucayan have already deprived Grand Bahama of 1,000 much-needed hotel rooms, and cost Celebration’s ‘overnighting’ passengers their accommodation, forcing the ship to temporarily relocate to Bimini.
Given the current state of relations with the Government, there is likely to be concern that Celebration’s relocation may become permanent - even to a location outside the Bahamas - thereby costing Freeport and this nation’s economy around $43 million in lost business.
K P Turnquest, the FNM’s deputy leader, told Tribune Business it was “inconceivable” for the Government to “play” with more Bahamian jobs, given Grand Bahama’s current economic and tourism distress.
“He obviously knows something we don’t,” Mr Turnquest, the east Grand Bahama MP, said in response to Mr Wilchcombe’s comments, questioning how the Minister planned to replace Celebration’s business if it moved.
“If you think about it, if it was not for the Grand Celebration, what would those stopover visitor numbers be? What would it look like now?” Mr Turnquest continued.
“We are talking incremental business here. Every passenger they bring in is one we did not have. You can also look at our airlift. Outside of Memories, what’s driving those numbers?”
Arguing that any sale of the Grand Celebration was “irrelevant” to Bahamians, so long as any new owner passed all due diligence tests, Mr Turnquest questioned why Mr Wilchcombe had not responded to the cruise operator’s proposal.
He told Tribune Business he understood Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line officials had held just one “contentious” meeting with their Ministry of Tourism counterparts, and formal negotiations had yet to commence.
“Celebration, as I understand it, has provided $43 million worth of business to the island annually,” Mr Turnquest said. “Removing that kind of business from the island spells disaster for us.
“We need that business, so I’m very concerned. They not only provide the cruise component but the overnight, as their passengers cruise and stay.
“With all the jobs lost in the last couple of weeks, it’s inconceivable that anyone would play with those jobs. From what I understand, what the Grand Celebration is asking for is nothing different from what it’s getting with the current ship,” the FNM deputy leader continued.
“Unless they can tell us there’s other business coming to pick up the slack, it’s irresponsible for the Government not to respond to these people. They’ve not had the courtesy to respond. It’s just unacceptable.
“The Minister ought to be made to answer the question: When did you know, and what are you doing about it?”
Mr Turnquest said the loss of the Celebration, if it were to occur, would have a “significant” affect on Bahamian GDP, jobs and government revenues.
He added of the Government: “If this is indicative of the way they do business, it’s no wonder the Bahamas and Grand Bahama are not growing.”