By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE expansion of the MSC Bahamas brand continued yesterday as the world-renowned cruise and shipping company broke ground on its multi-million dollar Ocean Cay development, which is expected to bring in 369,000 stop-over cruise passengers to the Bimini chain annually.
During a ceremony to mark the occasion, Prime Minister Perry Christie declared that God had again smiled on the island chain of Bimini, touting the economic stabilisation brought to the area under his current administration.
Leading a delegation that encompassed half of his Cabinet, commanders of several of the nation’s law enforcement branches, a host of Permanent Secretaries and other government officials, Mr Christie said the deal signals a new concept of development he hopes will become the norm as The Bahamas looks to expands its tourism and cruise product.
MSC Ocean Cay development, costing an initial $55m, calls for the construction and operation of wide range of amenities that when completed would transform the once condemned and quarried island into “paradise in paradise”.
The project is expected to employ at minimum 1,000 Bahamians throughout its phased construction.
Once completed, the private island development will expect to employ in excess of 120 fulltime Bahamians, a number MSC Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago said he looks to exceed with his personal goal being to outfit the project with a full complement of Bahamian employees.
Proposed for a 18 to 24 month development plan, officials will look to construct a cruise ship berth; a 10 to 15 slip mega yacht marina with future plans, based on demand, for a total 45-slip marina; a heliport; a small harbour; a welcome centre; a Bahamian village; information kiosks; restaurants and bars; beach bungalows; a lighthouse; retail space amphitheatre; straw market; basketball court; water sports activities; tennis and volleyball courts; and other similar experiences.
Touting the scope of the project, Mr Christie said the project positions the Bahamas to ascend to the top of the cruise industry, a sector he noted has grown by 69 per cent in the last decade.
“MSC is the fastest growing cruise line in the world, the world’s second largest container liner and the world’s largest, privately owned cruise company. It operates around 500 ships with 350 offices and about 65,000 people worldwide, and is positioned for delivery to market of the most ultra-modern, ‘smart’ ships which represent a tangible economic opportunity for cruise destinations in this region,” the Prime Minister said.
“The growth in cruising is being reflected in product demand and corresponding capital investments as Europe’s shipyards currently have on order 48 superliners for delivery to international cruise lines by 2019 and 75 by the year 2026.
“Since the global recession of 2008, cruising as a sector of the tourism industry has also consistently outpaced the growth in general leisure travel. In many ways, therefore, the opportunities in cruising have never been better and the experiences more interesting, more enjoyable, more safe and affordable.
“The sector caters to a global customer base of 24 million with an average daily passenger spend of $135 and global economic impact of over $120 billion. In 2015, Bahamas cruise expenditures generated $373 million and provided 4,000 direct jobs and $ 81million in direct annual wages.”
Mr Christie added that, under the Heads of Agreement negotiated between the government and MSC, the company will join a distinctive club of cruise liners that own exclusive private islands serving as dedicated cruise destinations.
According to Mr Christie, MSC has made a commitment to Bahamian entrepreneurial development through the offer of financing of construction and equipment in respect of restaurants, retail shops, water sports, entertainment and attractions to be operated by Bahamians.
He added that MSC has also committed to establishing a Seafarers Technical School in Freeport, Grand Bahama, and has been working with a Cabinet sub-committee to facilitate planning, infrastructure development and screening of candidates, with the first 55 recruits to begin training next month in food and beverage, guest services, deck and engineer ratings and entertainment for placement on MSC’s cruise ships.
Mr Christie further noted that an additional 55 recruits per quarter will undergo training, leading to a total of 220 graduates by end of this year.
MSC signed a heads of agreement with the government in December, 2015. It took over operation of the island a short time later. To date, MSC said it has invested $10m to redevelop Ocean Cay.
With plans in place to begin construction efforts today, officials now say they expect their investment into the project to balloon to between $200m and $250m.
“Expectations are very high,” Mr Vago said. “We can’t let (our clients) down. They know where the MSC product stands and they are used to a very high quality. So we want to give that experience to our passengers and that is why we will be importing 8,000 plants, 80 different species. There is a lot of work transforming the space from industrial site to a marine reserve. The potential, the marine life is there. But we have to clean the sea around the area so it will be an interesting, but very high quality result.”
MSC Shipping Ltd, the sister company of MSC Cruises, is the major stakeholder in the Grand Bahama Container Port.