By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The DNA’s leader yesterday urged the Bahamas to “up its tourism game” as a result of Norwegian Cruise Line’s decision to divert 25 sailings to Cuba, warning: “If that’s not an eye opener, I don’t know what is.”
Branville McCartney told Tribune Business that the Bahamas was already “out of time” to prepare for Cuba’s opening to mass market US tourism, with the cruise line’s move another warning sign to this nation.
Arguing that this nation should have been ready “yesterday”, Mr McCartney said the Bahamas had failed to address weaknesses he had identified almost a decade ago while minister of state for tourism in the former Ingraham administration.
Apart from crime, high costs, cleanliness and service, the DNA leader added that the Bahamas also need to “improve on the product itself’, suggesting it had failed to incorporate its own culture into tourism’s offerings and give it a distinctly Bahamian flavour.
Mr McCartney said there were “enough tourists to go around” to blunt the impact of Cuba’s potential US opening up, but this depended on the Bahamas “getting it right”.
Responding to Norwegian’s decision to switch 25 four-day cruises to an overnight stop in Havana, eliminating calls on Nassau and Freeport during the 2017 second half, the DNA leader told Tribune Business: “If that’s not an eye opener for us as a country, I don’t see anything else being so. But the Minister of Tourism almost brushed it off.
“The bottom line is that we have to recognise that Cuba is in the tourist market. They are getting more tourists than us now, and the fact they are now more open will cause more tourists to go there to experience Cuba. We have to up our game in the Bahamas.”
Tribune Business revealed Norwegian’s decision to switch the 25 cruises from Nassau and Freeport, to Havana, last week, in a bid to both alert Bahamians to the increasing competitive threat posed by Cuba and the potential for other cruise lines to follow its lead.
Mr McCartney said the challenge presented by Cuba had been exacerbated because the Bahamas had failed to address weaknesses he had identified in his last speech as minister of state for tourism.
“I said we will continue to lose our place in the tourist market if we don’t clean up crime; reduce our rates, as it’s too expensive to come here; if we don’t ensure we have a clean environment,” the DNA leader told Tribune Business.
“Look at how dirty we are. Every time you drive to the airport you see the KFC boxes dumped by the sides of the road.
“We must also improve our service. We must realise that we are not doing the tourists a favour by serving them. They are doing is a favour by coming here and spending money in our economy. Our service has to improve.”
Agreeing that other cruise lines may now follow Norwegian’s trail to Cuba, Mr McCartney emphasised: “We must get our act together. We must also improve on the product itself.
“What do we have to offer? We have sun, sand and sea. So does Cuba. We’ve had the same tourism product since the 1960s and not enhanced it.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines talked up Cuba, and Havana’s, cultural, historic and other attractions in the statement announcing its 25 cruise-switch. With Cuba having been closed for more than 50 years, many Americans are likely to be attracted to the prospect of exploring a new destination.
Asked how much time the Bahamas has left to prepare for Cuba’s growing threat, Mr McCartney added: “The time has gone already. We are always reactionary as a people, and probably more so as a government.
“The time was yesterday when we needed to start working on this thing. We’re out of time. We needed to start yesterday.”
Still, the DNA leader acknowledged that where Cuba was concerned, all was not lost for the Bahamas yet.
“If we get it right, there’s enough tourists to go around,” Mr McCartney added. “But we need to get it right. The Bahamas is unique in itself, and if we get it right we will cause people to come here.
“We have our culture, which no one else has, and we ought to enhance it through tourism.”
Mr McCartney added that the Bahamas also needed to target niches such as sports, medical and religious tourism, strategies that have been adopted by successive PLP and FNM administrations in the past.
“We need to get on it, and get on it quickly,” he reiterated of the Bahamas’ weaknesses. “Getting here should not be so expensive. The cost of living is a turn-off for people.
“It’s less expensive to go to Miami from Nassau than it is to go from here to the Family Islands. Keeping our country clean and the service. These things must be acted upon.”
Mr McCartney added that “crime is already killing our tourism product”, with cruise lines warning passengers about the dangers of Nassau and to avoid certain areas, and the US Embassy issuing numerous warnings.
Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, lambasted Tribune Business’s revelation about Norwegian Cruise Line’s switch to Cuba, saying it did a “disservice” to all the work the Bahamas was doing to enhance its cruise tourism product.
Mr Wilchcombe referred, in particular, to the investment by Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) at Ocean Cay, and Carnival’s upcoming cruise port in east Grand Bahama, as evidence of the Bahamas bolstering its competitive position.
Both these facilities, though, are own ports/private islands located well away from large population centres. While they provide some employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for Bahamians, the majority of the benefits from private ports go to the cruise lines, who often control the mark-ups and margins charged to passengers by providers.
Mr McCartney agreed, saying: “The benefits go to the cruise lines, and the funding goes out the country. There’s hardly any benefit to the Bahamas.”