By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday conceded all cruise tourism-dependent jobs have "simply evaporated for the time being" as he revealed that one major line suggested the industry might not relaunch until mid-November.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that "no one in their wildest dreams could have forecast this total catastrophe" as he acknowledged the "devastating" impact of the cruise industry's continued shutdown on downtown Nassau, Bay Street and all businesses and employees who relied on it for their livelihood.
He disclosed that Arnold Donald, Carnival Corporation's president and chief executive, had informed him last week prior to the industry's announcement that its re-opening has been pushed back to September 15 that the earliest it had hoped to return was in late August/the beginning of September.
Mr D'Aguilar added that the Carnival chief said "early November" was the latest return being targeted by the industry, with the likes of Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line now currently targeting the resumption of voyages in mid-September or early October.
"They really don't know," the minister said, adding that the cruise industry was still working to meet the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) demands for stringent on-board COVID-19 countermeasures.
"In his opinion," Mr D'Aguilar said of Mr Donald, "the CDC is striving for a position that leads to the complete elimination of any chance of contracting COVID-19 on a cruise, and that was a position that requires a lot of study and analysis to get to that point.
"As you can imagine, the cruise industry thrives on very large crowds that are closely compacted together going to crowded destinations, and participating in a lot of events that bring many groups and crowds together in close contact whether boarding the vessel, disembarking or at events.
"How best do you take what was the norm and try to reconstruct that into the new normal and a much lower density of persons? It takes a while to completely revamp your business model to accommodate this new normal. I understand their [the cruise lines] conundrum. It's difficult."
Mr D'Aguilar said he had told Mr Donald that the cruise lines needed to make sure all passengers boarding their ships are not carriers of COVID-19. "The question was how you do that, and we discussed the issue of coming into a port that thrives on a lot of interaction with locals," the minister added. "All of that is difficult to solve, and this is an industry that brings large crowds and ever-larger ships.
"It's a very complicated scenario. How do you deconstruct and reconstruct this industry taking into account social distancing? Until there's a vaccine, it's very difficult to adjust your business model as needed. How do you come back to a destination such as Nassau? That will require a lot of collaboration and co-ordination to ensure their visitors have a safe and COVID-19 free vacation."
The continued delays and uncertainty over the timing and strength of the cruise industry's return are already forcing many businesses that rely on its passengers for the bulk of their business to make uncomfortable decisions.
Roberta Garzaroli, Graycliff's general manager, yesterday said its chocolate factory, cigar factory and wine cellar attractions remain closed because cruise ship passengers account for 90 percent of their customer base. "That definitely affects us. Those departments aren't going to be reopening next week," she added."
Mr D'Aguilar said of the economic fall-out for The Bahamas: "It's devastating...... The whole of downtown Bay Street has become extremely dependent on the cruise industry supporting retail, restaurants, straw vendors, street vendors, scooter rentals. All of that, and the jobs it has created, have been simply evaporated for the time being."
The minister, though, said he did not necessarily agree with Michael Maura, Nassau Cruise Port's chief executive, that not cruise passengers will "independently be wandering down Bay Street" before year-end 2020 as the lines will likely direct them to pre-arranged tours and excursions that satisfy their health protocols.
"You are obviously able to exist in the current environment exercising social distancing, wearing a face mask and sanitising your hands, and not have an issue," Mr D'Aguilar said. "I don't want to rule out the ability of cruise passengers to act responsibly and still come into the destination and walk down Bay Street and have a COVID-free holiday."
He pointed out that, with 5.4m arrivals last year and an estimated $100 per head spend, cruise tourism injected between $500m-$600m into the Bahamian economy annually. Mr D'Aguilar said cruise visitors ultimately accounted for 8m stops in The Bahamas per annum, as some stopped at two or three destinations in this nation on one trip.
"We have to make sure what we're experiencing now, the catastrophe we're experiencing now, is mitigated in the future," he added. "We have to learn from it. The cruise industry will bounce back quicker and faster than most industries."