By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday said he is “not worried” that the ITM/Royal Caribbean joint venture wants a government guarantee the airport will be fixed before they close the Grand Lucayan deal.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business he did not see this “becoming a problem” because the government will not permit Grand Bahama International Airport to “drag on in its current” wretched condition.
He spoke out after multiple sources close to the negotiations revealed that the cruise line and its Holistica joint venture partner are seeking some kind of commitment from the Minnis administration that the airport will be completely rebuilt to the necessary standard by the time a redeveloped Grand Lucayan and Freeport Harbour are ready to open.
It is understood that ITM/Royal Caribbean are not concerned as to whether it is the government, or existing airport ownership duo of Hutchison Whampoa and the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), which makes the investment so long as it is completed in time to attract international commercial flights. Without such concrete assurances, it is thought the joint venture may not proceed.
“I’m hearing the Royal Caribbean project may be on hold until the Government makes a definite move to do what they’re going to do with that airport,” one well-placed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
“They want a written commitment as to the airport; that it will be rebuilt. They don’t care by whom. You’re not going to construct a hotel without the airport. I don’t know why they are dragging their heels. Government should take the action and do it. Send Hutchison and the Port Authority the bill, but the Government has got to do it themselves.
“I heard Royal Caribbean and ITM will not proceed without a commitment on the airport. They know it will take two years to do it. It doesn’t bother them, as their project will take two years. That’s good news for us otherwise the Government will kick that can down the road to the detriment of the Bahamian people.
“Royal Caribbean has all the leverage in the world. It’s getting worse by the day here. We’re in danger of becoming a village, so let’s hope it’s going to happen. It’s [the airport] so vital to Freeport. No new hotels will ever be built without a proper airport.”
However Mr D’Aguilar, when contacted by Tribune Business, said on the airport: “I don’t anticipate that being a problem because the Government of The Bahamas is not going to let that airport drag on in its current state.
“There’s a lot to do at the Grand Lucayan. They have to build water features, renovate the rooms. For the period it would take for Royal Caribbean and ITM to develop their project, all that is going to take time. I’m sure the airport will be addressed by the time they’ve completed and are ready to launch their project. I’m not worried.”
Yet Michael Scott, the Grand Lucayan’s chairman, yesterday conceded that such a request by ITM/Royal Caribbean would “not be unreasonable” given the current uncertainty surrounding Grand Bahama International Airport’s future.
While he was unaware of any binding commitment being requested, he added: “I’ve had no confirmation of that but it would not be unreasonable. I would say it would not surprise me, and not be an unreasonable request, but I’m not privy to those details. If I was an investor/developer I’d be asking the same.
“The Government is trying to sort that out now and is motivated to get it done because Freeport will stagnate unless and until it happens.”
Given that the ITM/Royal Caribbean project’s projected build-out will take 21-24 months, the Government will effectively have around two years to ensure Grand Bahama International Airport is rebuilt after it was devastated by Hurricane Dorian’s storm surge.
Securing sufficient international airlift will be vital to the success of a $275m development, which is promising to create 2,000 jobs and bring two million extra passengers to Freeport per year in a “game changer” that could rescue the city’s stopover tourism industry and wider economy.
While a temporary terminal and associated facilities have been out in place, international airlines - especially American Airlines and its connectivity to Miami - have yet to resume service to Grand Bahama, which is currently reliant on a combination of Bahamasair, Silver Airways, Sunwing and Western Air for domestic and international airlift. There is also no indication when US pre-clearance will return.
Multiple observers have argued that Freeport’s industrial sector and whole economic model will be undermined without a restored airport, and suspicion and mistrust persists about its owners’ intentions notwithstanding their public pronouncements.
There are fears that neither Hutchison Whampoa nor the GBPA are interested in investing what is required, with the Hong Kong conglomerate having form for pocketing insurance proceeds and failing to use them to rebuild loss-making assets, as happened at the Grand Lucayan. This prompted the Government to publicly signal its interest in acquiring Grand Bahama’s main international gateway.