By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday said the Bahamas must reset its relationship with the cruise lines, adding: "They make all the money, and we have nothing."
Dionisio D'Aguilar told Tribune Business that this nation needs to "be a little more aggressive", and ensure it earns a greater share of the economic activity generated by millions of cruise visitors to its shores annually.
In return, he acknowledged that the Bahamas needed to "improve its product" - especially on New Providence - and provide cruise passengers with new, innovative tours and attractions.
Mr D'Aguilar said this was essential to increase per capita spending and yields, suggesting that the Bahamas had to its detriment focused on 'volumes' - the number of cruise visitors per annum - rather than total economic returns.
"We've got to be a little more aggressive," he told Tribune Business. "We have a duty to improve our product, but when we do we want the cruise ship lines to be a little fairer in terms of a little more of the GDP effect coming into the economy.
"The situation as it is now is unsustainable with the way it is structured. The cruise ship companies come in now and make all the money, and we have nothing."
Mr D'Aguilar spoke out after Tribune Business reminded him of the concerns frequently expressed to this newspaper by Bahamian-owned shore excursion, tour and attraction providers about cruise industry practices.
These complaints, usually made privately to this newspaper out of fear of losing the cruise lines' business, frequently revolve around the on-board marketing programmes that direct passengers to patronise certain land-based businesses when the ships arrive in the Bahamas.
Another outcry has been that cruise lines sometimes dictate the margins and mark-ups that Bahamian-owned businesses can earn, impacting their ability to generate profits and survive.
The cruise industry's increasing use of Bahamian private islands is also a concern, as the lines typically run and control the attractions there themselves, leaving little opportunity for Bahamian entrepreneurs and creating just a few local jobs.
On the flip side, the cruise industry has long complained about the condition of Prince George's Wharf and the lack of attractions for passengers, while New Providence's crime issues have also been a sector concern.
"That's got to change," Mr D'Aguilar said in response. "You're not going to come to this destination and be greedy, and get it all for yourself.
"Once we come up with something new, innovative and different, our people have the right to access these passengers. Give us some hope, as they say."
The Minister, meanwhile, said data showing the Bahamas has endured one of the lowest tourism growth rates in the Caribbean over the past five years "speaks volumes" as to why gross domestic product (GDP) has expanded so little.
Central Bank figures showed Cuba enjoyed the strongest 2016 growth with a 13 per cent expansion in arrivals, due largely due to the US easing travel restrictions under the Obama administration.
More revealing was the cumulative performance since 2011, the Central Bank saying: "Over the last five years, the growth rates were strongest for Cuba (8.1 per cent), the Dominican Republic (5.1 per cent) and Jamaica (4.6per cent), while for the Bahamas the average was 2.4 per cent."
With its Caribbean counterparts again seemingly expanding faster than the Bahamas in its most important industry, Mr D'Aguilar said: "The report speaks volumes that we are not exciting enough people to come to our destination and to vacation here.
"If you drill down deeper into those numbers, the scary thing is stopover visitors are not growing at all. What growth we're getting is from cruise passengers.
"While the number of cruise passengers has increased significantly over the years, giving us this growth, they're spending less and less, the GDP effect is marginal, and that's why the economy is not growing."
The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association's (FCCA) last tri-annual survey of the sector's impact revealed that per capita passenger spending in the Bahamas had actually increased, from $64.81 in 2012 to $82.83 in 2015. But combined passenger expenditure in Nassau and Freeport remained stubbornly flat.
Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business that while cruise passengers accounted for 75 per cent of the Bahamas' visitors, they are "only spending 25 per cent of the money". He added that it was key to grow stopover, or hotel-based, visitors, and improve yields/per capita spending from both these visitors and cruise passengers.
"I would challenge anyone to drill down and focus on stopover visitors, as they spend the money in our economy, and whether that's improving," he said. "That's what I'm focused on."
While Baha Mar's net 2,300 room increase is the hoped-for catalyst to increase stopover visitor numbers, Mr D'Aguilar said the Bahamas needed its private sector to "step up" and provide new experiences for both land-based and cruise passengers.
"We've got lots and lots of cruise passengers," he added, "and it's not important to grow that number. We have to find out ways for them to spend more money when they come here. That's the challenge.
"We've been focused on on growing volumes, and when they come here there's less and less interesting things for them to do. It's a product we should not be proud of.
"We want Bahamians to come forward. These are entrepreneurial opportunities. We have 4.5 million people dropping into our port, and we have to come forward with creative ideas, and get people engaged and spending money when they come here."
Mr D'Aguilar said per capita cruise passenger spending yields were $100 higher in Aruba when compared to the Bahamas.
Issuing a call to action, he added: "Instead of sitting around and waiting for tourists to spend money, we have to find ways to get them to spend money, and that's where I need the private sector to step up.
"This is a people business. We have to engage with the people, and show we're creating something of value, interest and is experiential. This is a huge opportunity for Bahamians that we're not tapping into.
"Make something interesting, make something fun, and they will spend the money. Let the Ministry assist you in getting the passengers. That's where we come in. That's our job."