By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The Minister of Tourism yesterday said the major cruise lines “without question” remain committed to the Bahamas, with the industry preparing more than $500 million worth of investments for this destination over the next two years.
Obie Wilchcombe again sought to allay fears over the impact of Cuba’s US ‘economic liberalisation’ on this country’s tourism industry, even though a Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) paper last year noting suggested this will immediately threaten more than 20 per cent of the Bahamas’ stopover visitor market.
On Monday, Carnival’s Adonia docked in Cuba after sailing from Miami with 700 passengers. It was the first cruise ship to visit the island nation in more than 50 years.
Mr Wilchcombe, who is in Cuba attending the Regional Commission for the Americas International Seminar on Tourism and Culture, held by the United Nations’ (UN) tourism body, expressed optimism “the cruise business in the Bahamas will be there for a long time.”
“Throughout the Caribbean, the cruise lines have been developing ports,” he said. “We have some who are now engaged in major discussions for further development in the Bahamas.
“They are committed to the Bahamas without question, but we know that competition is competition, and we have to ensure that we are constantly working on improving the product.”
The Minister added: “We have major players such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Mediterranean (MSC) all now in the middle of completing major negotiations for further development that would mean hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in the Bahamas; in fact, well over half a billion dollars of investment over the next year or two.
“The Bahamas is in a good position. What we have to constantly do is think of the leakages and the linkages. I do appreciate that Cuba is a market that will continue to be appealing because of the mystique of Cuba, because it offers a tremendous set of new opportunities, particularly for the business community.
“We expect that, but we in the Bahamas must look at our product. Their principal market at the moment is Canada. Our principal market is the United States, but we have seen growth from the Canadian market.”
Mr Wilchcombe’s investment figures likely include MSC’s $100-$200 million Ocean Cay private island project, plus the Carnival port proposed for east Grand Bahama.
The Minister reiterated that the Government is working with Cuba on a multi-destination marketing arrangement.
“We will never be Cuba and Cuba will never be the Bahamas,” said Mr Wilchcombe. “We are distinctive brands, and each brand will be able to attract their markets. We have to make sure that we are competitive and stay competitive, and bring down our cost.”
Apart from the cruise sector, the US and Cuba have also struck a deal to allow as many as 110 regular airline flights a day, paving the way for a surge of Americans to travel direct to Cuba rather than transit through the Bahamas, and use airlines such as Bahanmasair.
In December 2014, US president Barack Obama announced major changes in US policy towards Cuba, moving to normalise relations with the island after more than 50 years.
The announcement regarding the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US was said to have followed more than a year of secret talks between the US and Cuba, including meetings in Canada and at the Vatican, and personal involvement from Pope Francis.