• Three-quarters refused to book tour pre-COVID
• Says ‘very little product’ to get passengers off-ship
• Fact ‘No.1 tour is hotel amenities tells you a lot’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior Carnival Corporation executive yesterday warned Nassau needs to improve more than just its port facilities given that three-quarters of passengers declined to book excursions pre-COVID.
Giora Israel, the cruise group’s senior vice-president for port and destination development, told Tribune Business the Bahamian capital must do far more to overhaul its “product” post-pandemic as the identity of its most popular tour, visits to locals hotels and their amenities, “tells you a lot”.
While praising the private-public partnership (PPP) with Global Ports Holding for Prince George Wharf’s $268m transformation, Mr Israel said he and other Carnival executives had repeatedly urged the government to constantly refresh Nassau’s attractions, excursions and tours offering if it was to rebuild its reputation as a leading tourism destination.
He explained that this was especially important as many of the passengers on Carnival’s three, four and five-night cruises through The Bahamas were repeat customers who had visited the city before, and therefore needed new and exciting activities to entice them off the ship.
“I think that the maritime improvements that are being done, adding strength to one of the piers and expanding another, are welcome,” Mr Israel told this newspaper of Nassau cruise port upgrades. “Enhancing the arrivals experience is welcome as well. We are encouraged these things are being done.”
Acknowledging that Carnival was part of a rival bid, with other major cruise lines, which lost out to Global Ports Holding for the cruise port contract, he warned that the cruise line’s praise came with “caveats” and that just enhancing the port by itself will not be enough to improve Nassau’s status as a cruise destination.
“One of the issues we’ve stated to the Bahamian government is what Nassau needs more than the maritime facilities is the enhancement of the destination for activities,” Mr Israel said. “Over the years there has been very little product to offer people coming again and again.
“It’s not the port itself, it’s the product; the availability of” new attractions and excursions for passengers on short-haul cruises who have visited Nassau before on previous trips. In the absence of new and upgraded products, Mr Israel added: “Prior to COVID-19, we were only able to sell 26 percent to 28 percent of passengers a tour.”
This, he added, meant that only 700-800 passengers on a 3,000-person cruise ship went on a tour or excursion, limiting the income and revenue earned by the Bahamian-owned tourism operators that typically populate this space.
“Some don’t get off the ship,” the Carnival executive added, as some perceived there was little to do in Nassau beyond shopping while others went off on their own sight-seeing.
“What a great destination needs, and it is true anywhere in the world, is that people come to a destination wanting things to do, tours and so on,” Mr Israel said. “There are some ports in the Caribbean that reinvent themselves and add new attractions.”
Emphasising that he spoke from personal experience, having spent four years in The Bahamas while developing the Coral World attraction that launched in 1984, he reiterated: “There’s very little product for hotel guests, tourists, and the fact the number one tour in The Bahamas is to go to the amenities of a hotel tells you a lot.”
Atlantis, in particular, developed a significant revenue stream from cruise passengers visiting its water park and other facilities on day passes prior to COVID-19. That will likely rebound once the cruise industry resumes sailing again, although such income may have to be split with Baha Mar once its $200m Baha Bay facility comes online this summer.
Mr Israel’s comments articulated long-standing cruise industry concerns and calls for The Bahamas’ to upgrade its product offering in both Nassau and Freeport, and will reignite fears that passenger spending and yields will not improve even with the new $268m cruise port.
That facility, besides food and beverage and retail offerings, will also include an amphitheatre acting as an entertainment venue for live concert and music events in a bid to entice the cruise ships to stay in port overnight.
While the weaknesses in the downtown Nassau/Bay Street tourism product have long been known, some in the Bahamian tourism industry will likely respond to Mr Israel’s comments by asserting that the decline has not been helped by the absence of a true partnership with the cruise lines.
They will point to the industry’s increased use of private islands ahead of Nassau and Freeport; the lines leaving their retail, restaurant and other facilities open while in port; restrictions on the mark-ups local operators are allowed; and the cruise sector’s move into this space with their own attractions such as Royal Caribbean’s proposed Paradise Island ‘beach break’ destination.
Meanwhile Marie McKenzie, Carnival’s global ports and Caribbean government relations vice-president, said the company and rest of the cruise ship industry were “not quite sure yet when we will start sailing” as they continue to work with the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on obtaining all the necessary COVID-19 health protocols.
Acknowledging that the process was “a little slow”, she added that the cruise industry and Caribbean nations had formed a working group to ensure that regional health protocols were uniform, aligned and did not vary between countries when the industry returned.
The Bahamas was part of this group, and Ms McKenzie said Carnival has engaged in direct talks with Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, and local health professionals on the protocols that will be followed. However, these measures will only be finalised once the CDC issues its own set of regulations to ensure there is conformity with the US.