By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A major cruise line yesterday announced it was swapping regular calls on Nassau and Freeport for an overnight stay in Havana, a move that underscores the increased competitive threat to Bahamian tourism from warmer US-Cuba relations.
Norwegian Cruise Line, in a statement issued to the media, said 25 four and five-day cruises during the 2017 second half will now enjoy “an overnight stay in Cuba’s historical and culturally-rich capital of Havana”.
However, Tribune Business has obtained additional information showing that all-day calls on Nassau and Freeport have been dropped to make way for Havana, dealing a major blow to all Bahamian industries that depend on cruise passengers.
Those sectors that will be impacted by the potential loss of customers, revenues and profits include Bay Street’s retail and restaurant industries, taxi drivers, straw vendors, hair braiders, tour operators and attraction/excursion providers.
Documents obtained by Tribune Business show that the Norwegian Sky’s four and five-day cruises from Miami to the Bahamas typically spend Tuesday’s docked in Freeport from 8am to 5pm, followed by a Wednesday call in Nassau that lasts from 8am to 6pm.
However, the revised itineraries show the Norwegian Sky as arriving in Havana at 8am on Tuesday and not leaving until 3pm the following day, with both Nassau and Freeport dropped from the schedule.
The only ‘Bahamas portion’ retained is the Thursday call on Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island in the Berry Island, before the Norwegian Sky returns to Miami.
Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, could not be reached for comment before press time last night. And Norwegian Cruise Line’s media spokespersons did not respond to this newspaper’s request for comment.
However, the cruise line did little to hide its enthusiasm for its new Havana call, with the 25 cruises referenced in its press release added to five earlier sailings in May 2017. The Norwegian Sky was described as the “largest vessel sailing to Cuba”.
“We are thrilled to be the first cruise line able to offer weekly sailings from Miami to Cuba through the fall of 2017, all with overnights in the beautiful city of Havana,” said Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line’s president and chief executive.
“We have seen great demand from our guests for sailings to Cuba, and we look forward to providing more opportunities for them to experience this incredibly culture-rich destination on a weekly basis.”
Lauding Havana’s many assets, the cruise line’s statement added: “The ship will dock right in the heart of Havana, offering guests the opportunity to visit historical sites such as Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; view incredible art and listen to the vibrant local music scene; and visit with Cuba’s warm and friendly residents through people-to-people exchanges.
“Norwegian will offer a selection of 15 half and full- day shore excursions, where guests aboard Norwegian Sky will have the opportunity to have a farm to table dining experience, explore the flora and fauna of Soroa, see modern Havana in an American classic car and much more.”
While the Norwegian Sky is just one vessel, its shift to Cuba underlines that the Bahamas can no longer count on its dominance in the three, four and five-day cruise markets as a result of the ‘thaw’ in relations between the US and Havana.
The Jones Act, which refers to section 27 of the US Merchant Marine Act 1920, requires that foreign-flagged cruise ships (many of which are flagged by the Bahamas) have to call on a foreign port before they can return to their home base in the US.
With Cuba previously off limits, the Bahamas was the only nation that could allow the cruise industry to satisfy the Jones Act requirements with its variety of island destinations.
While it remains to be seen whether the new Trump administration will reverse the openings created by Barack Obama, the Norwegian Cruise Line move emphasises that the Bahamas no longer has a monopoly on the competitive advantages flowing from the Jones Act, as there is a new player in the game.
Should other cruise lines divert more of their ships to Cuba, the Bahamian tourism industry, its entrepreneurs and employees, will certainly feel an increasing pinch to their bottom lines and incomes.
Cuba will also be seen as a new, exciting destination with a rich history and culture, attributes that the Bahamas often neglects to play up in its tourism product.
Per capita cruise passenger and crew spending is relatively low in Nassau and Freeport compared to other destinations, given that these cities often feature towards the ‘tail end’ of sailing schedules and are ‘familiar’ locations to many.
And, while the Norwegian Sky will still continue to call on Great Stirrup Cay, the economic benefits from cruise tourism on private islands tend to be weighted more to the cruise lines themselves, rather than local entrepreneurs.
Norwegian Cruise Line described Great Stirrup Cay as “recently enhanced to offer guests exciting new ways to enjoy the island, with additional features to be added through summer 2017”.