By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Royal Caribbean's top executive yesterday confirmed that the industry has discussed submitting a bid to manage a Nassau cruise port that is "sadly among the Caribbean's bottom".
Michael Bayley, president and chief executive of Royal Caribbean International, described to Tribune Business a fluid situation where the cruise lines were talking to each other - and also other groups - about the possibility of joint bids to take over the operations/management of Prince George Wharf.
His comments came as he pledged that Royal Caribbean was "very willing to work" in a "non-threatening" way with the Government and Bay Street stakeholders to improve the passenger experience in downtown Nassau.
Mr Bayley disclosed that Royal Caribbean's passenger satisfaction surveys showed Nassau was ranked near-bottom among 35 Caribbean destinations, and said a partnership approach between the cruise lines and destination was the best way to resolve this.
"We have had discussions on this topic," he told Tribune Business. "We obviously receive satisfaction surveys from guests... that tell us an awful lot about their experience."
Royal Caribbean transports 5.1m passengers annually on its 60 ships, which visit almost every region in the world, and Mr Bayley said: "It's true that in the Caribbean, when you rank the Caribbean destinations, sadly Nassau comes in among the bottom.
"We do need to work together to improve the experience, and we're very willing to do this. It requires dialogue. We're more than prepared to come to the table and talk about how to improve the guest experience in Nassau; not in a non-threatening way but a partnership."
The Royal Caribbean chief said that, if successful, this would generate more revenue, profits and jobs for Bahamian businesses by bringing more cruise visitors to Nassau and increasing their per capita spending.
The major cruise lines are understood to have been dissatisfied with the Nassau passenger experience for years, with one of the major concerns being the relative lack of new attractions, shore excursions and activities for guests to do. This is often exacerbated by the fact the city is such a frequent call, especially on three and four-night cruises, meaning that repeat passengers feel they have often seen everything here.
Speaking after Royal Caribbean donated $25,000 to kick-start the Bahamas Feeding Network's expansion plans, and its drive to cut hunger among the one in seven Bahamians living below the poverty line, Mr Bayley said this nation needed to ensure the cruise port's outsourcing "truly benefits The Bahamas" and local community.
"Currently there's a process in place for people to enter into the tender for the management of the port," he said of the Government's plans to issue a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) to solicit bids. "We're a part of that story."
Mr Bayley added that different groups were assessing the Nassau cruise port opportunity, "including a group of cruise lines talking to each other about how they can get together to develop a proposal". He did not say Royal Caribbean was part of the discussions, though, and revealed the industry was also talking to port operators and non-lines.
"We need an efficient, well-run port," the Royal Caribbean chief said. "We think we know how to do that. We operate ships throughout the world."
His comments confirm Tribune Business's report last month that the major cruise lines which call on Nassau are indeed interested in the prospect of taking over the port's management themselves when the contract is put out to public bid.
The prospect of a cruise industry bid has attracted some criticism, though, with some observers suggesting that granting it a contract to manage Prince George Wharf will be equivalent to "putting the fox in charge of the hen coop".
This is because the operators and major customer will effectively be one, with some going as far to suggest such an arrangement would likely end any prospect The Bahamas has of maximising the economic returns and benefits from the industry's frequent calls in this nation.
But Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, previously told Tribune Business that the cruise lines "will not be barred" from bidding to take over Prince George Wharf's management, saying: "All offers will be judged on merit."
He told Tribune Business that all-comers were free to submit proposals for taking over operations and management of Nassau's cruise port, with no contenders "pre-judged".
Mr Bayley said the key for The Bahamas, regardless of who won the contract to manage and operate Prince George Wharf, was to ensure the arrangement maximised the benefits for Bahamians and the wider community.
"What will truly be the benefits to The Bahamas? How will the community be positively impacted?" he added of the key questions.
Among the likely rivals to any cruise line bid is the consortium headed by Global Ports Holding, which operates multiple cruise ports in Europe and the Far East, together with BISX-listed Arawak Port Development Company (APD) and CFAL (formerly Colina Financial Advisors).
That group's 49-page proposal, obtained by this newspaper, said its plans to transform Nassau's cruise port will give the economy a $16bn boost spread over 30 years. It added that a $285.7m upgrade of Prince George Wharf through a waterfront entertainment park would inject an extra $216m into the Bahamian economy in the first year alone.
Mehmet Kutman, Global Ports Holding's chairman, wrote in a letter to the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) that this nation urgently needed to improve a "greatly underperforming" infrastructure asset if it was to capitalise on the cruise industry's anticipated growth and increase passenger spending yields to the benefit of local businesses.
"Currently, the Nassau cruise port greatly underperforms as a national asset," Mr Kutman wrote. "Its infrastructure ought to be significantly improved to ensure the growth of the cruise business by providing a more fulfilling passenger experience in Nassau..."
That consortium, though, itself faces competition from Culture Village (Bahamas), the 50-strong Bahamian investor group headed by former Family Guardian president, Gerald Strachan.
Their proposal for reviving both Prince George Wharf and the surrounding area would focus on development consistent with this country's heritage.
"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 told Tribune Business recently.
"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."