By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Royal Caribbean is aiming to start construction on its Paradise Island “beach break” destination by July 2021 so it can receive guests by January 2023 to catch the expected post-COVID tourism revival.
The cruise line’s accelerated developments plans were revealed in correspondence released by the Department of Physical Planning ahead of the upcoming April 28 virtual public consultation on its bid for site plan approval for the Royal Beach Club project.
Lambert Knowles, principal of Engineering and Technical Services (ETS), the Bahamian “engineer of record” for Royal Caribbean, had initially informed Charles Zonicle, acting director of physical planning, in a November 11, 2020, letter that the cruise line was aiming to start construction work near the Colonial Beach area before year-end.
“We are seeking your department’s preliminary site plan approval so that we can proceed with the detailed designs for the site plan approval and building permit applications,” Mr Knowles wrote. “Royal Caribbean anticipates starting construction in the 2021 fourth quarter and welcoming our first guests in the 2023 second quarter.”
However, a subsequent March 1, 2021, letter from Mr Knowles to Mr Zonicle revealed that this timeline has now been accelerated. “Royal Caribbean anticipates starting construction in July of 2021 and welcoming guests in January of 2023,” he wrote.
While this development is positive in one sense, given that it suggests Royal Caribbean remains confident about the strength and timing of the cruise industry’s rebound despite its own multi-billion COVID losses and the industry’s continued wait for permission to resume sailing from South Florida, it is equally likely to concern Bay Street merchants and all businesses that rely on the sector for their livelihood.
For it raises that prospect that thousands of Royal Caribbean passengers, immediately upon arriving in Nassau, will be transported across the harbour to the cruise line’s own private beach break experience - depriving the likes of retailers, restaurants, tour and excursion operators, straw vendors, taxi drivers, hair braiders and the like of much-needed customers and revenues.
The planned January 2023 opening will also likely coincide with the anticipated return to pre-COVID visitor arrivals numbers, which represents a critical moment for cruise-dependent Bahamian businesses and their employees in their bid to recover from the financial ravages of the pandemic.
Toby Smith, the Bahamian entrepreneur behind a neighbouring $2m “beach break” destination focused on the lighthouse at Paradise Island’s western tip, yesterday argued that Royal Caribbean’s proposal will simply “suck the revenues from Bay Street, from Bahamians and future generations of Bahamians”.
Mr Smith, who is embroiled in ongoing court battle with the government over a crown land lease agreement that covers several acres also sought by Royal Caribbean, argued that while foreign currency earnings generated by his project would remain in The Bahamas with a variety of merchants, suppliers and employees, those produced by the cruise line’s project would inevitably be sent abroad.
However, Russell Benford, Royal Caribbean’s vice-president of government relations for the Americas, told Tribune Business last year that the Royal Beach Club’s impact will be the exact of opposite of what Bay Street merchants and tourism-related businesses fear.
Pledging that its $50m Paradise Island investment will generate an extra $26m per year in visitor spending and “re-energise” downtown Nassau for the benefit of all stakeholders, Mr Benford said that rather than creating an exclusive enclave where the cruise line will take all its passengers and retain 100 percent of their spending, it would instead act as an “engine to get people off the ship”.
With the Royal Beach Club able to accommodate 3,500 persons maximum once it is completed in 2022, Mr Benford explained that this number was equivalent to just 20-25 percent of the up to 14,000 passengers that Royal Caribbean brings to Nassau daily.
He said Royal Caribbean’s research indicated that passengers would spend a maximum four to four-and-a-half hours at the Royal Beach Club, giving them five hours to participate in additional activities given that its cruise ships are typically docked in Nassau for nine to nine-and-a-half hours.
Mr Benford disclosed that the cruise line envisioned the Royal Beach Club as being at the centre of a water and land transportation loop that will ferry its passengers to attractions such as the Arawak Cay Fish Fry, Junkanoo Beach, The Pointe, Baha Mar and Graycliff, thereby ensuring their spending impact is distributed widely among Bahamian-owned businesses.
Documents filed with the Department of Physical Planning confirmed that the maximum capacity remains 3,500, with the 13-acre Royal Beach Club’s amenities including two 35,000 square foot dining pavilions capable of accommodating 1,500 passengers each.
Other features include a 26,000 square foot pool; 4,000 square foot “splash pad” for children; 14 beach bars; restrooms and cabanas; and support infrastructure that includes a reverse osmosis plant, waste water plant, waste management facility, storage building and fuel storage all contained on two acres.
However, the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP) has raised objections to Royal Caribbean’s plans to include ten “over-the-water” structures in its plans for the Royal Beach Club.
Rochelle Newbold, the DEPP’s director, in an April 1, 2021, memo to Jehan Wallace, senior planner at the Department of Physical Planning, wrote: “In keeping with the position paper put forth to the Office of the Prime Minister in 2012, the department does not support such structures.
“Additional recommendations are being sought from your department as well as the Port (Department) as it is intended that these structures would extend into the harbour channel on the south side of Paradise Island.
“As with all matters of this nature, the department does not support such structures and desires to work with the Department of Physical Planning in this regard before any approvals for these structures can be considered.”