By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
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.
Such findings, which showed per capita cruise passenger spending rise at a rate more than double that of all other nations bar the Dominican Republic, are likely to be greeted with scepticism by many in the tourism industry - not least because they come from a report commissioned by the cruise lines themselves.
The survey, which measures the industry's economic impact on the Caribbean every three years on behalf of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), said the huge leap in The Bahamas' average cruise passenger spend was driven by increased luxury goods purchases.
Comparing 2015 results with those for this year, the report said: "The change in the average per passenger spend ranged from an increase of 59 percent in The Bahamas - heavily driven by watches and jewellery purchases - to a decrease of 26 percent in St Maarten."
It is unclear what would drive such a major increase in luxury goods spending by cruise visitors to Nassau and Freeport, but the FCCA report - produced by Business Research and Economic Advisors (BREA) - showed per capita spending rising from $82.83, a low to average sum in comparison to the rest of the Caribbean, to $131.95 just three years later - an almost $50 increase.
The total per capita yield is also more than double the $60-$65 per passenger yield cited by many observers for Nassau and Freeport. Only the Dominican Republic's 32.9 percent spending growth rate over the same period came close to matching the runaway Bahamas, which now only lags St Maarten and the US Virgin Islands when it comes to per capita cruise passenger outlay in the Caribbean.
The increased per capita yield also resulted in a near one-third increase in total cruise passenger spending in Nassau and Freeport, with this sum said by the FCCA report to have grown from $243.5m in 2015 to $322.57m this year - a rise of almost $80m.
The rosy FCCA survey findings, released at the organisation's annual conference last week, have been published at a time when the cruise industry and its economic benefits have come under increasingly close scrutiny and pressure from both the Government and ordinary Bahamians alike.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but only last month he spoke about how the Government had "scrapped" the cruise industry's tax incentive regime because it was rewarding the lines for passengers who never left the ship in Nassau and Freeport.
The minister's remarks, which suggested the Government could save $12m per year in departure tax rebates, came as the fight over Disney Cruise Line's plans for Eleuthera's 700-acre Lighthouse Point property drew Bahamians' attention to the industry's private islands scattered throughout this nation.
There is a growing perception among many Bahamians that the cruise industry's increasingly frequent use of private islands, with calls there before reaching Nassau and/or Freeport, are resulting in the lines retaining the vast majority of the sector's economic benefits and spin-offs with very little filtering down to Bahamian entrepreneurs and employees.
The focus on the industry then reached new heights when the Government launched the bidding process seeking a private sector manager for Nassau's cruise port - a contract that the cruise lines have made no secret of their interest, and willingness to participate, in.
The FCCA report, meanwhile, showed The Bahamas had not fared so well on per capita cruise crew spend, which by 8.5 percent over the three-year period to 2018 - dropping from $60 per person to $54.90. Total crew spending dropped from $59.7m to $28.94m as a result, a fall of 51.5 percent.
"The Bahamas was second of all Caribbean destinations with just nearly 2.9m onshore passenger and crew visits," the report said. "With an average per passenger spend of $131.95, The Bahamas had the second highest total of passenger spending, $322.6m.
"The Bahamas also had the second highest level of total crew spending, $28.9m, and the highest level of cruise line spending ($54.2m). Combining all direct expenditures, the cruise sector generated $405.8m in expenditures. These expenditures, in turn, generated an estimated 5,256 direct jobs paying $91.3 million in direct wage income during the 2017-2018 cruise year."
The FCCA report added that the cruise industry was estimated to support 9,004 direct and indirect jobs in The Bahamas, "paying wage income of $155.7m, with total wages being the highest among the 36 destinations.
"Thus, in The Bahamas, every $1m in direct cruise tourism expenditures generated 22 jobs throughout the island's economy which paid an average annual wage of about US$17,300."