The concept of cruise ports of call being extended to outposts of Family Islands has been viewed as either a welcome blessing or an unmitigated disaster since Norwegian Cruise Lines created the world’s first private island cruise experience at Great Stirrup Cay in the Berry Islands in 1977. More than 40 years later, as more and more private island experiences lure ever greater numbers of cruise passengers and become an increasingly valuable attraction and revenue stream for cruise business, the practice come under new scrutiny as cruise lines target more precious and fragile beaches.
It is easy to see why cruise lines like private island experiences. A cruise ship can offer just about anything, an array of dining options, pools, fitness centres, shopping, casinos, entertainment, art, spas, lectures and cabins that these days rival fine hotel suites.
The one thing they cannot offer is a natural beach.
From their perspective, finding the perfect beach and transforming it into a private fantasy island experience makes good sense. Who can blame them for wanting to provide the best all-round guest experience for their passengers? The better the experience, the more likely the passenger is to return and the more likely the ship is to attract new passengers who can spend more when they get to that private island.
The problem is that in their drive to provide the one experience they cannot provide onboard, they are threatening to destroy some of the most pristine beaches in The Bahamas and, indeed, in the world. And while they do so, they provide relatively limited economic benefit to the local economy. Most of the concessions on the beach and revenue generators including food and excursions belong to the cruise line which wants to maintain control, ensuring consistency of excellence in service delivery.
The passenger who has come to expect a certain quality of food or a spa experience aboard should not be relegated to a poorer hamburger or massage provided by a local Bahamian entrepreneur who the cruise line has no control over.
The fact that cruise lines believe Bahamians cannot live up to their standards is an insult that should evoke revolt in and of itself. Bahamians cannot prove themselves capable of providing that perfect burger or massage if they are not allowed to provide the service. Government after government continues to allow the cruise line waving the almighty dollar for every passenger head tax that no administration seems to be able to do without. By blaming it on the lack of certainty of consistency of service, the cruise line escapes having to say they want the revenue every bit as badly as they want the passenger to enjoy the experience.
Very clever, indeed.
So no one can blame the cruise lines. What they are doing is carrying out a business plan with a vision that works for them. But in addition to little local economic benefit, the enterprises on once pristine islands are ratcheting up to mammoth proportions.
Royal Caribbean’s plans to create a $200m attraction at CocoCay in the Berry Islands has beach preservationists up in arms and rightly so. Each of the three ships that would call at Coco Cay weighs more than 225,000 tons, carries more than 6,000 passengers and is 30 percent larger than their competitors. That is a burden too great for a beach in the Berry Islands to bear. Trash, garbage and grey waste disposal alone are so daunting as to be incomprehensible.
In South Eleuthera, there is fear that Disney, having been rebuked and doing the right thing by dropping a plan to develop a private island elsewhere in Eleuthera, is now eyeing Lighthouse Beach. This is one of the most historic sites in The Bahamas and one of Eleuthera’s most enchanting beaches. This should never be allowed to be developed as a private island for thousands of cruise passengers whose allegiance to the history and sanctity of The Bahamas is as fleeting as their few hours of fun in the sun.
Carnival is reportedly negotiating for an area of Grand Bahama that conservationists urge be left natural and not turned into a quasi theme park for thousands to trample on.
MSC has purchased Ocean Cay and is converting that into a massive island experience that includes a resort-like component.
Cruise lines are big business and we are not suggesting they be snubbed or disrespected. But The Bahamas is not for sale and protecting our islands and our fragile beaches is one way to show we care about what makes this country so attractive.
If ever there was an even greater than normal incentive to rejuvenate Nassau and Port Lucaya, Grand Bahama to make those city areas capable of handling large crowds desirable ports of call, leaving our fragile Family Island beaches in their natural state is it.