By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former downtown Nassau retailer yesterday expressed concern that many remaining businesses may not “survive” if the cruise line-backed bid to take over the port is successful.
Sarah Hug, proprietor of Sarah’s Secrets, told Tribune Business that she moved out of downtown two-and-a-half years ago to focus on her Cable Beach store due to a lack of “quality tourists” and spending by cruise passengers.
Recalling the “huge change” in tourist numbers and spending that occurred when the cruise ships were allowed to keep their retail stores, restaurants and other attractions open while in port, Ms Hug said she felt such pressures will only get “worse” if the cruise lines and their Bahamian partners are given the contract to operate and manage Prince George Wharf.
She expressed particular concern over the cruise lines’ onboard marketing programmes, which inform passengers about which attractions and stores to visit when in a particular port. Ms Hug said stores had to pay to be featured, and “recommended”, placing small businesses such as hers at a competitive disadvantage because she could not afford to do so.
She added that current merchants on Bay Street, and the wider downtown area, likely shared her concerns and fears over the cruise lines’ involvement in one of the three Nassau cruise port bids, but were unlikely to speak out for fear of retribution.
“I left downtown because we didn’t get any of the business from them,” Ms Hug told Tribune Business of the cruise lines. “If you’re not paying money to advertise on the ship, they don’t recommend your store, and the quality of tourist diminished.
“We were not getting the quality tourists downtown coming off the cruise ships. There was a huge change when they allowed the cruise ships to have stores open in port. I can’t remember when, but there was a significant difference. I remember noting it.”
Ms Hug recalled how cruise shop personnel approached her and the store “offering me the option to pay to be talked about. Being a very small business, and not having a chain like the jewellery stores, I couldn’t afford to do it because it was very expensive.
“The small businesses, none of us could afford to promote as it was too costly. They’d recommend your business, and others they wouldn’t recommend. They were pretty much saying it was safe to go to this business because we recommend them, but with those we don’t recommend you’re on your own.
“One of the girls mentioned my shop because she liked the stuff I sold, but she didn’t do it often as she’d get into trouble because I was not paying. You have to pay big bucks. I was downtown for 25 years. With both businesses I had that happened on a consistent basis.”
Ms Hug said she feared such practices, and the cruise lines’ dominance and control of the sector and its benefits, would only become worse if the bid they are backing succeeds.
“I would feel very bad for the people around downtown. I think it would tip the scale,” she told Tribune Business. “I’m grateful I’m not there, but for those that are I feel very bad for them as I think it could put them out of business.
“That’s what they did for my shop. I had to move my business out of downtown. Many other small businesses closed down at the same time as me. They [the cruise lines] have the same brands and shops we have downtown and on Bay Street, and the same customers.
“It would hit those local businesses and impact employment - it already has, but I think it will be worse,” Ms Hug continued. “I don’t think a lot of people will speak up on it because they’re scared their businesses will be impacted.
“I don’t mind because I’m not there. I think it will clean them up, and I don’t see how they could survive that.”
The cruise lines are likely to vehemently dispute Ms Hug’s assertions, and argue that there is no connection between their bid for the port and treatment of downtown Nassau merchants and retailers, although they have long called for the city’s tourism product offering to be upgraded.
Indeed, Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s top executive, recently argued that Nassau’s cruise port would benefit from the industry’s direct involvement because of its great expertise and experience in knowing what cruise port infrastructure is required. He added that the cruise lines also have no interest in operating Prince George Wharf, and would likely turn this over to a third party.
The involvement of the four cruise lines - Carnival, Disney, Norwegian & Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines - was also billed as a strong vote of confidence in the future of The Bahamas’ cruise prospects.
However, there are likely to be concerns over what some will perceive as the cruise lines’ “conflict of interest”, since they would be both operator and customer if the group was selected as Prince George Wharf’s manager. And the port would also directly compete with their multiple Bahamian private islands, with some likening their involvement to “the fox guarding the hen house”.
The cruise lines have also recently come under increasing scrutiny by many Bahamians amid the perception that they retain the vast majority of the industry’s economic benefits, while this nation gets the crumbs, especially given their increased reliance on the same private islands where they control the majority of attractions and activities.
The cruise industry, though, will likely point to recently-released data to refute such concerns. A recent economic impact survey on behalf of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) found that cruise passenger spending in Nassau and Freeport soared by 59 percent over the past three years, making The Bahamas the third highest-yielding destination in the Caribbean.
The study attributed the rise to increased luxury goods purchases, with per capita spending rising from $82.83 in 2015 - a low to average sum in comparison to the rest of the Caribbean - to $131.95 just three years later, an almost $50 increase.
And, when it comes to further increasing spending and getting passengers off-ship, the cruise industry will point to its partnership with the 50-strong Bahamian investor group, Cultural Village (Bahamas), headed by former Family Guardian president, Gerald Strachan, in the port bid.
Mr Strachan, in a previous statement to Tribune Business, said the group’s “reimagination” of Nassau’s cruise port and downtown will fulfill demands “that we move away from cookie cutter proposals with no sense of place”.
He added: “To date we have been fairly quiet about our submission because, as far as we can tell, it alone captures the culture, history and heritage of the Bahamas, which will give visitors to the redeveloped Prince George Dock a sense of place while solving the most critical problems expressed by our residents, our visitors and the cruise companies,” Mr Strachan said.
“Beyond that, we see our proposal as a critical catalyst for the redevelopment of the downtown area, and its elements will provide an invitation for our residents and for our visitors from both Cable Beach and Paradise Island to frequent a far less congested city centre.”
Besides Mr Strachan, Cultural Village (Bahamas) team also includes former Central Bank of The Bahamas governor, Julian Francis; Craig Tony Gomez, the Baker Tilly Gomez accountant and principal; and Robert Pantry, former director or retail banking at Scotiabank (Bahamas). Ex-tourism minister, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, is an adviser to the group.
Other concerns relating to the Nassau cruise port include the fact that in evaluating the rival Global Ports Holding bid, the Government will effectively be assessing themselves given that the Government holds a 40 percent equity ownership interest in its partner, BISX-listed Arawak Port Development Company (APD).