By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Freeport’s tourism service providers are worried that Carnival’s proposed $200 million cruise port will be “the final nail in their coffin”, the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce’s president has confirmed.
Mick Holding told Tribune Business that he and the Chamber were trying to find out from the Government “how far the deal” with Carnival has progressed, and the likely terms, so that it can best address its members’ concerns.
Promising that the Chamber would represent the private sector “to the best of our ability”, Mr Holding acknowledged the fears of tour and excursion providers, such as Pirates Cove principal, David Wallace, that “a large chunk of their market will disappear” with the proposed port.
“I’m trying to establish the status of that proposed project. I’m trying to get information from the Ministry of Grand Bahama as to what it’s all about,” Mr Holding told Tribune Business of the Carnival facility. “This is not the first time that has been talked of; a Carnival terminal in Grand Bahama.
“There was talk some 10 years ago of such a facility being built off Williams Town. That never came to fruition.”
That proposed port, which would have been constructed closer to Freeport and required the active involvement of the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and its affiliates, eventually foundered because of environmental concerns.
“Because you have the reef off Williams Town, they either had to cut a hole in the reef or bring passengers ashore by launch,” Mr Holding recalled. “That was not logistically acceptable, and the proposal failed and went away.”
The Chamber president, though, was surprised when Tribune Business told him that, based on Prime Minister Perry Christie’s recent pronouncements, the east Grand Bahama port project was much further advanced.
Mr Christie has said publicly, both in the House of Assembly and at PLP rallies, that the signing of the cruise port agreement between the Government and Carnival is imminent.
Last Friday, he told his party’s candidates ratification rally that his administration was working out the final details prior to the signing with Carnival, something the Government will likely be eager to conclude ahead of the upcoming general election.
“I didn’t realise it was as close as that,” Mr Holding replied when this information was relayed to him by Tribune Business. “I understood there were environmental issues out at that proposed location.
“I believe, but it has not been confirmed, that environmental studies were being carried out before it goes any further.”
Mr Wallace earlier this week told Tribune Business that the cruise port will be “the kiss of death” for himself and other Bahamian entrepreneurs, with the project threatening to suck away 90 per cent of his customer base.
Suggesting that he and his fellow all-Bahamian investors, who have invested more than $1 million to create Pirate’s Cove, would be left to “wither and die” by the new port, Mr Wallace estimated that hundreds of jobs - and thousands of dependents - would have their livelihoods put at risk.
He estimated that 200 taxi drivers, and at least 400-500 employees in businesses ranging from tour operators, excursion providers, straw vendors to Port Lucaya retailers may be impacted, and urged the Christie administration to “rethink and reconsider” the Carnival project at the 11th hour.
Mr Holding confirmed that the three business categories becoming increasingly concerned over the proposed Carnival project were the retailers at Port Lucaya and by Freeport Harbour; the taxi drivers; and the tour operators and attraction/excursion providers, all of whom rely heavily on cruise passengers for a huge percentage of their business.
The Chamber president told Tribune Business that the tour operators and destination providers, in particular, “feel a large chunk of their market will disappear if Carnival goes out east, and provides a lot of those services in their own enclave”.
Mr Wallace previously that with the Carnival port located an hour to one-and-a-half hour’s drive from Freeport, there would be little to no incentive for passengers to visit the city as they will have to spend three hours out of an eight-hour stay in port on the road - an assessment backed by Mr Holding.
“These are the concerns of our members and the people here; that they’re suddenly going to lose their livelihoods,” he added.
“Couple that with the closure of Memories and that sort of thing, and it’s just another nail in the coffin for those people.”
Mr Holding said the lack of communication with, and involvement of, the private sector with the Carnival project was again contributing to business concerns due to the information vacuum.
“We’re left to guess what’s going on as rather than being informed what’s going on,” he added.
“These are the concerns expressed to me at a meeting last Sunday. We intend to find out the facts and see what resolutions there are. The Chamber will represent the interests of its members to the best of our ability.”
Mr Holding said the way forward would depend on “how far this deal has gone”, and the nature of the terms and provisions involved.
Mr Christie and his government have said the agreement with Carnival provides for retail, restaurant and tour/excursion activities at the new cruise port to be owned and operated by Bahamians.
However, with no deal finalised, and its contents yet to be disclosed to the public, it is impossible to determine whether the agreement will be beneficial to Bahamians - both from an employment and entrepreneurial perspective.