By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Disney yesterday said Lighthouse Point will be transformed into its top global cruise destination through a $350-$400m "mutually beneficial" investment for Bahamians and passengers alike.
Jeff Vahle, Disney Cruise Line's president, told Tribune Business the company feels it can "do more" with the 700-acre South Eleuthera site than its present Bahamian destination, Castaway Cay in the Abacos, which is rated as its premier global stop by customers.
He added that approval of the Lighthouse Point plans would increase the volume of Disney Cruise Line's calls to The Bahamas by "just under 40 percent per year", as it will then have two destinations plus Nassau as ports to visit.
Pledging to create a "unique experience" with Bahamian culture central to the product, Mr Vahle said Disney would also work closely with Eleuthera-based tour operators and excursion providers to develop off-property attractions for passengers.
Unlike many cruise line private islands, the Disney Cruise Line president said it would not restrict passengers solely to its Lighthouse Point property, but instead seek to exploit eco-tourism and Eleuthera's history to create the experience its family-oriented customer base is demanding.
Disney's plans call for the creation of 150 permanent posts at Lighthouse Point, with a further 100 jobs involved in the construction phase, and Mr Vahle yesterday said "as many as possible" would go to Eleutherans.
He added that he had been "touched by the emotion" shown by South Eleuthera residents at meetings to discuss the Disney project, with many "pleading" for such investment to reverse the area's economic decline and population loss as persons move elsewhere in search of work.
Explaining why Disney wanted a second Bahamas destination of its own, Mr Vahle said it wanted to "build on the business model" developed at Castaway Cay and expand a cruise itinerary that is already heavily focused on this nation.
"Much of our business is Bahamas-based," he told Tribune Business. "Forty percent of our cruises are Bahamas-only. Seventy-five percent of our ships stop in The Bahamas, although they may go to other places.
"Part of what's been so successful for us in The Bahamas is the destination we have called Castaway Cay; a relaxing day on the beach. That's the single highest rated location stop anywhere around the world.
"As we look to expand, we're looking to build on that business model and are looking for a second unique destination in The Bahamas that will allow us to build something comparable to or better than Castaway Cay."
Developing Lighthouse Point as a second beach break destination will allow Disney to offer three different Bahamas' calls. Mr Vahle estimated that there would be between 200-250 cruise vessel visits to the south Eleuthera location annually, meaning it could receive 540,000 to 1m total visitors depending on whether Disney employs its 2,700 or 4,000-passenger capacity vessels.
"If we get Lighthouse Pointe, this will roughly double the number of calls we have in The Bahamas by just under 40 percent per year," he added. "We will keep the same number of calls at Castaway Cay, Lighthouse Point will have 200 to 250, and Nassau will have a 40 percent increase."
The cruise line, in a presentation on its Lighthouse Point plans, says its parent, The Walt Disney Company's Board, has already "authorised funding" at Board level for the property's acquisition and development.
Mr Vahle said the total investment required is currently pegged at between $350-$400m, a figure that may raise questions given Disney's pledge to have a minimal footprint to protect the environment.
He explained, though, that around 50 percent of this sum will be required to construct the pier linking the docked cruise ship to Lighthouse Point. "We've not done the full estimate as we're waiting for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to say what that looks like, but that's the current projection," the Disney Cruise Line president revealed.
"Only 20 percent of the area will be developed. It's pretty low density." Some 170 acres of land will be donated to the Government for conservation, according to Disney's plans, with another 100-plus acres of salt ponds left untouched.
Disney's own presentation bills the project as "an opportunity to create a new model for how companies collaborate with the Government and local communities to protect the environment and create jobs".
It adds: "We are nearly doubling our business by 2023, which will result in 40 percent more calls to Nassau in addition to calls on Castaway Cay and Lighthouse Point if our project is approved."
Disney says it has "a sales agreement in place" with the current owner to purchase Lighthouse Point, meaning the property is under contract. Closing the deal, though, is likely to be subject to obtaining all the necessary government permits and approvals, and the company is still working through that process inclusive of completing a full EIA.
Kim Prunty, Disney Cruise Line's vice-president of public affairs, revealed that the company only selected Lighthouse Point for its second Bahamas destination after an exhaustive search that scouted numerous locations for a low-density, minimal environmental impact project.
She explained that Egg Island, and Morgan's Bluff in Andros, were both rejected after Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) suggested that the dredging required to provide deep water access for the cruise vessels would negatively impact nearby coral reefs and marine life.
Preliminary environmental and marine/navigation studies, though, had shown "little to no dredging" is required at Lighthouse Point, Ms Prunty added, with the fact the 700 acres is privately owned proving a further attraction for Disney.
"We're sensitive to whether its Crown Land or privately owned," she explained. "It's been on the market since 2010; it's been available for some time. We were able to do a preliminary EIA and navigation study that found it to be an appropriate location."
Ms Prunty, who disclosed that Disney was "not comfortable" with the study results for Egg Island and Morgan's Bluff, also moved to challenge the perception that the cruise industry's economic model is all take and no give when it comes to sharing the benefits with The Bahamas.
She revealed that, unlike other cruise lines, Disney does not participate in the departure tax rebate incentive programme which returns a portion of taxes collected to the ship owners if they exceed certain passenger targets. Disney also collects VAT at Castaway Cay, and Ms Prunty and Mr Vahle pledged that the same model will be employed at Lighthouse Point.
Besides giving Bahamians full, continued access to the 700-acre site, the duo also said Disney would replicate "the significant amount of business" it does with local tour operators/providers in Nassau and Castaway Cay.
With 80 percent of Disney's family-oriented customer base looking to experience new places, Ms Prunty said: "Eleuthera has a lot of unique places. We feel we can work with Bahamian tour providers." Mr Vahle pledged that passengers would be able "to go off-property" to see sights such as the Caves.
"We've also got to understand what the demand is in terms if Bahamians wanting to sell goods," the Disney Cruise Line chief added. "We want to integrate that into the site design, so that they won't be left selling goods by the gate."
Asked whether Disney would work with the likes of the One Eleuthera Foundation, which has submitted a rival proposal for Lighthouse Point, Mr Vahle replied: "We're willing to talk to anyone. Our plans and assessments are changing as we do that, and we will continue to do that to build the best project for The Bahamas and Disney.
"It's 150 jobs for Bahamians, 100 construction jobs, for people to do adventure tours, jobs for people with businesses in Eleuthera; hardware stores, grocery stores, accommodation. Judge us by the impact we have. We're proud of the impact we've had at Castaway Cay, and feel we have the opportunity to do more in Eleuthera."
Disney's presentation touts Castaway Cay's $40m annual economic impact and provision of jobs for around 150 Bahamian workers. Ms Prunty said the average weekly wage at Castaway Cay was between $600-$700, which the cruise line will replicate at Lighthouse Point.
She added that Disney had zeroed in on the south Eleuthera property from October/November 2017, initiating talks with the likes of the Government and Bahamas National Trust (BNT) and developing its plans.
"We wanted to create a project that was mutually beneficial; beneficial to those living in south Eleuthera and the guests looking for a unique experience," Ms Prunty told Tribune Business.
"People in Eleuthera have shaped the project from the beginning. We had thought of public access differently, but realised it was very important. This is an experience that's going to be rooted in The Bahamas, so it makes sense Bahamians are there.
"They said they'd this land to come back to being Bahamian, so we said 170 acres will come out of that to make it public land." Ms Prunty also pledged that Disney will not develop the area around the lighthouse and southern tip, and its passengers will not be allowed there, although Bahamians will still have access.
Mr Vahle added: "We'd want to be known for several things if we get the proposal approved. The first would be to sustain the natural beauty of Lighthouse Point. It will be a model of environmental development people will be proud of.
"We'd want to be known as a good economic partner for the community, driving a lot of economic opportunities in south Eleuthera and The Bahamas.... We will build a place that is unique and celebrates the culture of The Bahamas for our guests."
"feel we have an opportunity to do more in Eleuthera"