By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A major cruise line has agreed to withdraw a crime warning that threatened to “unduly bring fear to passengers coming to Nassau”, a Cabinet minister has revealed.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that “gentle nudging” by his ministry had prompted Royal Caribbean to drop the “unwarranted” passenger advisory that branded the Arawak Cay Fish Fry as a “particular area of concern” for crime.
The cruise line, in a message sent to the minister, said the advisory would be replaced “effective immediately” with a generalised warning to Royal Caribbean passengers that does not mention Nassau by name and could be taken as referring to any of its ports of call.
“Effective immediately, the travel advisory letter to all Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines guests will be replaced with the following text in the Cruise Compass newsletter,” the cruise line wrote, referring to language that encouraged passengers to “use the same common sense you would in any major city”.
Referring passengers to US and other government websites if they needed more information, Royal Caribbean added: “We will begin with replacing the letters in all Royal Caribbean International ships calling on The Bahamas, and review for the remainder of the global fleet beginning early 2019.”
Mr D’Aguilar said it was unclear how long Royal Caribbean had been issuing warnings similar to the one provided by its Anthem of the Seas vessel on December 26, which sparked the controversy when it was published on a well-known cruise industry website.
But it appears likely, based on the cruise line’s response to the Minister, that the letter - or similar versions - has been widely circulated to passengers on all ships calling at Nassau.
Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business there was no way to measure the impact of the cruise line’s advisory and other crime warnings on The Bahamas’ tourism performance. While expressing optimism that few visitors were deterred by official government warnings, he acknowledged that they posed a significant reputational risk for the country.
And, while the Government may have succeeded in persuading Royal Caribbean to reconsider, it remains very much a case of “one down, another to go” on crime advisories. For the Canadian government, just prior to Christmas, updated its own travel advisory on The Bahamas by expressing similar crime concerns relating to the Arawak Cay Fish Fry.
Mr D’Aguilar said he “simply does not agree” that the Fish Fry, a Bahamian food, cultural and entertainment hub, was unsafe for either Bahamians or visitors.
He added that his ministry will now ensure it meets with the Canadian High Commissioner to The Bahamas, who is based in Jamaica, when they next visit Nassau to press its case that much of the contents of Ottawa’s latest advisory are inaccurate and/or unnecessary.
Praising Royal Caribbean for its swift response, the Minister said of the cruise line: “I was slightly blindsided by their letter since the crime statistics record the city of Nassau as being as safe as Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
“Once cruise passengers exercise common sense levels of precaution about what they do and where they go, Nassau is as safe as any city Royal Caribbean calls on. I suggested that they rescind this letter and am delighted they did so.
“They will issue what they said in the message to me, and make it a more generic warning and not unduly bring fear to cruise passengers that come to Nassau. I don’t think it [the first letter] was warranted and I’m delighted they’re convinced of that.”
Mr D’Aguilar, conceding that private companies had a right to publish what they saw fit, said Royal Caribbean’s withdrawal came following conversations between its head of government relations and the Ministry of Tourism.
“All we can do is put forth a case,” he told Tribune Business. “We tried to make the case that this level of warning, concern is not warranted and, to their credit, without much pushing but gentle nudging they saw fit to reverse it.”
The controversy was sparked by Captain Srecko Ban’s Boxing Day letter to his Anthem of the Seas passengers, in which he warned “that Nassau has been experiencing an increase in crime”.
While acknowledging that “thousands of visitors routinely travel to Nassau without incident”, he then wrote: “We recommend guests not venture too far from tourist areas and consider participating in an organised tour. Particular areas of concern include the Sand Trap, the Fish Fry and other areas of Nassau referred to as ‘Over-the-Hill’ by locals, which should be avoided after sunset.”
The Royal Caribbean warning immediately fuelled suspicion among Arawak Cay and downtown Nassau vendors, and other professions that rely on the cruise industry for their livelihood, that it was intended to deter passengers from leaving the ship while in Nassau and keep them on board where the cruise lines can maximise the economic benefits from their spending.
The timing of the Anthem of the Seas letter could also not have been worse from the perspective of downtown Nassau retailers, restaurants and others as it coincided with the key after-Christmas shopping period.
And it came as Royal Caribbean is one of four cruise lines involved in the bidding to take over management/operations at Nassau’s cruise port, the industry-grouping having partnered with Cruise Ports International - the Bahamian group formerly known as Cultural Village (Bahamas), headed by ex-Family Guardian president Gerald Strachan.
The Royal Caribbean advisory was one part of a double blow for the Fish Fry, as the same language was also repeated in the Canadian government’s revised December 20 travel advisory to its citizens.
“Avoid Nassau’s ‘Over the Hill’ (south of Shirley Street) and Fish Fry (Arawak Cay) areas, especially at night,” the Canadian advisory warned, while also cautioning its citizens about renting jet skis and dealing with the water sports industry.
Mr D’Aguilar, pledging to address this with Canadian officials as rapidly as possible, said the downward trend in Nassau’s crime statistics meant “this level of warning” was not warranted.
While agreeing that visitors to any city must take all necessary precautions to prevent themselves becoming victims of crime, he added: “I simply don’t agree with the warning that the Fish Fry is unsafe.
“We need to speak with the Canadians about updating them on that fact. The Fish Fry is frequented by many, many foreign visitors and many, many Bahamians, and there’s a police presence on the ground there. It’s as safe as any place frequented by foreign visitors to our country.
“The vendors and community at the Fish Fry see that it’s in their interests to keep it that way and make sure it’s safe. We have police and vendors working together to make sure it remains safe and a pleasant place to go and enjoy some good Bahamian food.”
Mr D’Aguilar agreed that the Royal Caribbean and Canadian advisories appeared to be “piggy backing off” the US State Department warning, issued in January 2018, which also singled out the Fish Fry for attention.
“I’m definitely going to make it a position that, when the High Commissioner for Canada next visits The Bahamas, he makes a courtesy call on the Ministry of Tourism,” he said. “Tourism has to make a special effort to meet and talk with them, and open up a channel to get information to them before they put warnings on their website.”
While believing that the “vast majority” of travellers are not deterred by such warnings, Mr D’Aguilar added: “Needless to say it’s not good. I have no way to measure the effect on people coming to The Bahamas, but it will affect some and cause them not to come.
“It behooves the Ministry of Tourism to work through all the issues that arise to limit these types of advisories, but also work with local police officers to make sure the basis of these warnings is unwarranted.
“We have work to do on our side, as well as ensuring that information that Nassau is safe, and crime is decreasing, is passed on to persons who put together these warnings in their countries.”