By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Nassau cruise port bidder yesterday pledged that the “majority” of its $250m investment will be spent outside Prince George Wharf to help bring Bay Street “back to life”.
Colin Murphy, Global Ports Holding’s business development head for the Americas, told Tribune Business that its plans extended beyond “putting lipstick or a lick of paint” on the port to becoming the “transformative catalyst” that sparks the long-awaited revitalisation of downtown Nassau.
He added that, if selected by the Government as the port’s operator/manager, the Global Ports Holding group will convert the facility from “a port of convenience” into a location that is “cool, hip and attractive” enough to entice more cruise passengers off their ships.
Besides increasing passenger volumes, Mr Murphy said Global Ports Holding’s initial goal of increasing per capita visitor spending yields to in line with the Caribbean average would - based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation - inject nearly an extra $100m into the Bahamian economy annually.
Among the bidder’s planned upgrades is the development of a waterfront amphitheatre and park, with the former hosting musical acts and events such as “movies under the stars” in a bid to make downtown Nassau a 24/7 destination that attracts locals and resort-based tourists as well as cruise passengers.
Mr Murphy added that Global Ports Holding aims to add two new berths at Prince George Wharf to accommodate both the increasing number and size of cruise ships, giving the port the ability to handle up to an extra 12,000 passengers daily.
A tram service, similar to that employed at Disney World, will be installed to transport passengers from the furthest berths to the port’s entrance. And two marinas, one immediately adjacent to the port, will be developed to facilitate the rapid movement of visitors from cruise ships to vessels belonging to water-based tour operators.
Mr Murphy emphasised that Global Ports Holding would work closely with all Bahamian stakeholders in downtown Nassau so that the economic benefits of its port management initiatives are maximised for the country and its people, adding of the two rival bidders: “No one else comes close.”
“Our goal is not to put lipstick on it or a lick of paint,” he told Tribune Business of Global Ports Holding’s plans. “Our goal is to transform downtown. That majority of that $250m is being spent outside the gates of the port.
“It’s an attempt to put Nassau not only among the top ranks of cruise ports in the Caribbean, but the world. We’re really doing everything we can by investing outside the port, creating opportunities for local people. It’s not just about the port. We want to the the transformative element, be the catalyst that brings downtown Nassau back to life in partnership with Bahamians.”
Global Ports Holding triggered the Government’s issuance of a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) for a cruise port operator with its unsolicited bid that was submitted in summer 2018. In that then-$200m offer, it predicted that its proposal would give the Bahamian economy a $16bn boost spread over the 30-year period to 2049.
Suggesting that the economic impact will only increase as a result of the company’s proposed investment increase, Mr Murphy told Tribune Business: “There’s billions of dollars of impact, and we can do it.
“This is money not flowing into our pockets; it’s money flowing into Bahamian pockets. We’ve said we don’t want to bring in big retail stores like others currently do. It [the port] will be reserved for existing stores operating in spectacular surroundings.”
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, jumping 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.
Several observers have expressed scepticism over the timing and magnitude of such an increase, and Mr Murphy yesterday suggested the average cruise passenger spend in Nassau was closer to $63.
Taking this figure, he argued that raising Nassau’s spending to the Caribbean average of $86 per head would generate a near-$100m annual economic boost for Bahamian businesses in the downtown area, their employees and self-employed vendors.
“If we get The Bahamas up to the average of the Caribbean that’s nearly $100m a year,” Mr Murphy said, basing this on the $23 per head increase and 4m passengers. “That’s our goal. It’s been going down, down, down every year.
“We want everyone to benefit. We want the distribution of passengers to be enhanced, we want the tour operators to benefit. The passenger count is expected to grow 5 percent year-over-year through 2027, and at 2.5 percent after that. It will stabilise at 2 percent year-over-year.
“It’s massive influx of money to the Bahamian people and not to us through passenger growth combined with higher spend. Hopefully, we will be helping to create jobs for retailers, tour operators. If those people are getting a pay cheque, that will flow through the whole economy.”
Mr Murphy said Global Ports Holding would take on all those employed in current port operations that wanted to join it, should its bid be successful, while “98 percent of the construction workers will be from The Bahamas”.
While a “small number of expatriates” would be brought in to ease the transition, and oversee project management and financial administration related to construction, he added that all building work would be performed by Bahamian sub-contractors.
Global Port Holdings’ unsolicited bid forecast that the project would generate up to direct 1,182 construction jobs, and up to 70 permanent posts in port operations by the fourth year.
It added: “The first year of the operational phase is expected to add an estimated $216m to the economy as a result of expected increases to cruise passenger arrivals, onshore rates and cruise tourist spending. Over a ten-year period (2022-2031), the cumulative effect is projected to be $3.7bn.”
Global Ports Holding will have to fend off competition from two rival bidders, the Nassau Port Partners consortium and the alliance between the cruise lines and the 50-strong Cultural Village (Bahamas) group, if it is to realise a near two-year ambition to take over Prince George Wharf’s operation and management.
The UK-listed port operator, which manages 15 cruise venues in nine countries, including the ports at Barcelona, Lisbon, Venice, Singapore and Malta, has recently broken into the Caribbean market by securing Havana and now has Nassau in its sights.
Mr Murphy said that while “98 percent” of the Caribbean ports spoken to had expressed an interest in Global Ports Holding’s involvement, the UK-listed company “can’t be everywhere” and needs to be “selective”.
Besides its proximity to the US, and value to the cruise lines’ three-four night cruises because of US laws that require foreign-flagged vessels to call abroad before returning to their home ports, Mr Murphy said Nassau’s status as “the biggest cruise port in the world” catering to between 3.5m-4m passengers annually was especially attractive.
“There’s an opportunity to improve it and bring tremendous value,” the Global Ports Holding executive told Tribune Business. “Nassau is a port of convenience really because of its proximity to the US. We want to change it to a place where Nassau is cool and hip and attractive, and provides all the attributes that make passengers come.
“We want bigger, modern ships coming with higher-yielding passengers. The first thing is we think we can add two new berths for ships bringing 5,000 to 6,000 passengers. That’s the first thing we can do. We are definitely going to increase the number of passengers.”
Along with increasing cruise passenger volumes, Mr Murphy said Global Ports Holding would seek to eliminate “bottlenecks” at Prince George Wharf’s entrance and ensure “a better distribution of passengers and flow” throughout downtown Nassau so more merchants, taxi and surrey drivers, hair braiders and other professions benefit.
It also plans to tackle the distance between Prince George Wharf’s external cruise berths and the port entrance, with Mr Murphy saying that “people struggle with having to do long walks over rough surfaces”. A tram-based transportation system will be introduced, with Global Ports Holding also planning to “get rid of” old containers and trash receptacles from the dock.
It also intends to build two marinas, one immediately adjacent to the port. That will cater to pre-booked tours, with the other set aside for independent water taxis and tour operators. “We understand how important it is for the cruise lines to get people off ship and on to tour boats as quickly as possible,” Mr Murphy added.
“Nassau has great assets like Fort Charlotte and Fort Fincastle. We look forward to working with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC) to publicise them and make them great venues for tour operators to bring guests to.”
Mr Murphy said Global Ports Holding had been exploring Nassau’s cruise port since 2016-2017, and added: “We’ve invested a lot of money in this opportunity, and spent a lot of time and effort, and think we understand this opportunity better than anyone else. We think by far Global Ports Holding has the best plan for Nassau. No one else comes close.”