By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Nassau Cruise Port's top executive yesterday warned that downtown Bay Street is "unlikely to see any cruise passengers" before year-end 2020 regardless of whenever the industry resumes sailing.
Michael Maura, its chief executive, told Tribune Business that the cruise lines will likely maintain tight control of their passengers' onshore activities to ensure they remain COVID-19 free and do not bring the virus with them when they return to the ship.
As a result, he suggested that passengers will be directed to specific tours or excursions whose providers have satisfied the cruise lines they have implemented the necessary health and safety protocols during the first phase of the industry's return.
This, Mr Maura added, will mean that downtown Nassau merchants, restaurants, taxi drivers, straw vendors, hair braiders and all others that rely on the cruise ship industry for their livelihoods will not see "passengers independently wandering" along Bay Street or any surrounding areas prior to year-end.
Acknowledging that "it's going to be a hard 2020" for those sectors of the tourism industry that draw a significant portion of their business from the cruise sector, Mr Maura said: "There ain't no way around it. It's going to be very, very difficult."
The Nassau Cruise Port chief added that cruise ship traffic volumes were likely to be 40-50 percent below pre-COVID levels once the industry sets sail again, with passenger numbers down by half.
His comments will likely make further grim reading for businesses, entrepreneurs and employees in the downtown Nassau/Bay Street area in particular given that they were last Friday greeted by the cruise industry's announcement that it has again pushed back its restart to September 15, 2020, at the earliest.
That means cruise-dependent businesses face having to survive another two to three months with minimal to zero revenue while fixed costs - utilities, rent etc - must continue to be paid. Mr Maura's statements now indicate they will have to hang on even longer, with the Nassau Cruise Port chief reiterating that business levels - both for the port and other businesses - will probably not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2023.
Suggesting that the cruise industry had signalled a "cautious, conservative approach" to its return, due to the uncertainty over when its COVID-19 health measures will satisfy the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mr Maura said it was likely that the sector's relaunch may be delayed beyond September 15.
"From our perspective, the cruise industry will return but return slowly and gradually," he told Tribune Business. "The fact they have extended their re-opening until mid-September provides some insight into how they may return in that I think there's a real possibility they will come with fewer ships and have fewer ships sailing.
"But it's what their itineraries look like and what the cruise passenger experience looks like when they return. We are without a vaccine for COVID-19, and when the cruise industry returns they are likely to maintain strict controls over their passengers and ensure they remain in a sterile environment as much as possible.
"The cruise lines will have gone through extra measures to screen those passengers as they board their ships in Miami, Port Everglades and Canaveral, so I think it's a fair assumption that the initial experience upon their return to Nassau will be one of pre-approved excursions where the cruise lines have been satisfied by a local excursion provider or tour operator that they meet very stringent safety protocols to ensure their passengers remain COVID-free," Mr Maura continued.
"I think it's very reasonable to assume the cruise lines are going to stay away from cruise passenger interfaces with the general public. I think it's safe to assume the cruise lines won't let their passengers independently roam downtown Nassau.
"There's no way way to ensure that the interactions those passengers are having with locals in New Providence, and that they are taking place with businesses and persons that are COVID-19 free and enforcing appropriate safety measures and social distancing. It's a logical progression with its return for the industry to be very conservative."
Mr Maura, though, argued that such an approach would enable both the cruise lines and the Government to safely manage the industry's return and minimise as much as possible the transmission of COVID-19 between cruise passengers and Bahamians.
"From the Government's perspective this kind of return is the right way to receive the cruise lines as they gradually bring persons back, and have this gradual interface with the local community," he explained. "It gives the Government an opportunity to manage and evaluate the way in which the cruise industry returns.
"I think it's a sensible, reasonable approach that satisfies The Bahamas' concerns and the cruise industry's concerns." Describing the tightly-controlled excursions and tours as akin to "phase one" of the cruise industry's re-opening, Mr Maura said success here would give the Government and likes of Carnival and Royal Caribbean "confidence and comfort" they could move to phase two.
This, he suggested, could involve cruise passengers being able to interact with businesses and their staff in a "controlled commercial environment area in town". However, Mr Maura conceded that such a phased re-opening will have consequences for tourism-dependent businesses and their staff.
"What we don't know is how long phase one will last," he told Tribune Business. "If you take September 15, as the industry communicated on Friday, while it's possible that date could be moved further back, if you take it as the phase one start where we have a controlled environment, it's very unlikely you will see cruise passengers wandering Bay Street this year.
"Cruise passengers, when they get off the ship, will be bussed for an appropriate excursion or tour that satisfies the health and safety requirements of the cruise lines but provides a degree of comfort and satisfaction to the Government.
"It's going to be a hard 2020. There ain't no way around it. It's going to be very, very difficult," Mr Maura said of the impact on Bahamian businesses, self-employed workers and employees. "I don't think anyone downtown is going to see any cruise passengers. They'll be disembarking and going on special tours.
"I don't think this year they'll be wandering downtown after the cruise lines the cruise lines have spent all that time screening passengers to make sure they are COVID-19 free. We're going to get over it in 2023. I'm very, very confident that we're going to be a much stronger destination by then, both on Bay Street and in our port."
Cruise passengers, of whom some 5.4m arrived in The Bahamas last year, represent the tourism industry's volume business. Even though their relatively low per capita spend, which lags well behind stopover visitors and many other Caribbean ports, is often viewed cynically by many Bahamians, they still represent a significant source of income, jobs and government revenues.
Mr Maura, though, yesterday also warned that the cruise industry's global fleet will not put to sea at once whenever the all-clear to resume sailing has been given. With social distancing mandatory in all ports of call, he explained that the sector would "not necessarily" want five ships docked at the same time as often happened pre-COVID-19.
The Nassau Cruise Port chief suggested the sector might instead settle for three ships to be docked at the same time so that passengers from the different ships do not intermingle and spread the virus among themselves.
"There are a lot of moving parts to this," Mr Maura told Tribune Business. "From a commercial perspective, businesses that rely on cruise ship passengers are going to find the return of business is gradual. We don't expect in our projections to get back to 2019 levels until 2022 or 2023.
"I would say initially we're probably going to ship calls at 50-60 percent of pre-COVID traffic volumes, and I think we're going to see ships calling with half as many passengers while we just get through this period with no vaccine."