By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Harbour Island resort owners yesterday hailed Crystal Cruises’ decision to drop plans for a weekly call as “lifting the cloud that could have radically changed the destination’s appeal”.
Tom Sherman, owner and partner in the Coral Sands resort, told Tribune Business the cruise line’s decision to switch to Spanish Wells had removed a threat that would have taken “the lustre off the shine of the jewel of The Bahamas”.
Branding the cruise line’s decision as “great news”, he said: “I think it serves to lift the cloud off what could have been a radical change to the appeal of our destination. It’s the right decision, and I applaud the government for urging Crystal to go in a different direction.
“A lot of the feedback we gave them, we’d done a survey and the like, indicated what a negative impact it would have on the island, it’s appeal and everything cultivated here is so unique and the opposite of having a cruise line over here.
“It’s good news for The Bahamas, and not just Harbour Island,” Mr Sherman continued. “I think it’s best for everybody. We’re not an island that can accommodate what they intended to do. Based on the survey we conducted it would have negatively impacted our tourist base, and appeal to investors attracted to the island and those who make it a second home destination.
“It would have taken the lustre off the shine of the jewel of The Bahamas. To the extent the minister of tourism and the Prime Minister were involved in encouraging them to go in a different direction, all of us.... applaud them in that regard for looking out for the best interests of everybody.”
Mr Sherman spoke out after Crystal Cruises, in a recent e-mail, confirmed that it plans to drop Harbour Island as a port-of-call on its seven-day Bahamas cruise schedule in favour of Spanish Wells.
Kevin Johns, the cruise line’s manager of destination experiences, in seeking bids from Spanish Wells-based tour operators to provide activities for its passengers, wrote: “We are planning to announce a change in the itinerary from Harbour Island to Spanish Wells where our ship will be anchored off Egg Island every Monday from 7am to 7pm.
“This is confidential until we make the announcement so we ask for your discretion so we can be the first to notify guests of this change.” Crystal Cruises in a subsequent statement confirmed it is mulling a Spanish Wells switch.
It said: “The partnership between Crystal Cruises and the Ministry of Tourism has jump-started both cruising close to home for our US guests and economic growth in The Bahamas, where we have already partnered with almost 30 local businesses for these voyages.
“During the last few weeks, we have met with local leaders to discuss business opportunities and to listen to any concerns. Our focus remains providing guests with the best experience possible and ensuring greater opportunities for local businesses.
“We are currently reviewing whether to add Spanish Wells to our itinerary and potentially remove Harbour Island. In advance of this potential change, we are reaching out to local businesses in Spanish Wells and are excited to receive proposals from those who would like an opportunity to work with us and provide services to our guests.”
Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties, acknowledged to Tribune Business that environmental sensitivities are associated with using Egg Island with Disney Cruise Lines having abandoned it as a potential private island for that very reason.
He added, though, that there was “a lot to be said” for using Spanish Wells as it had significant available dockage space, with a “robust boating and excursion base” and no competing tourism product. Mr Simmons said his only concern was “the bleed off” for attractions such as Preacher’s Cave and the nearby blue hole if they were overrun with large numbers of cruise ship passengers.
“I’m glad it’s not Harbour Island because that would have had severe economic repercussions for the country,” he added, “and not just Harbour Island because Harbour Island is a tourism juggernaut.”
Crystal Cruises became the first cruise line to announce it would home port in The Bahamas when it unveiled its multi-island schedule for summer 2021 earlier this year. The upscale, luxury cruise line, which offers butler service for 30 percent of its passengers, is using Nassau and Bimini as home ports for week-long cruises set to begin on July 3.
The Crystal Serenity was scheduled to call on Harbour Island, Great Exuma, Long Island and San Salvador via an itinerary designed to boost island economies, traditionally not on a cruise industry roster, that are still reeling from COVID-19’s economic devastation.
However, the plan was met with furious resistance from many Briland resort owners and operators, plus those involved in the second home market as well as residents and visitors. Their fears centred on concerns that mass market cruise tourism threatened to undermine the very essence of the island’s tourism model.
Besides an infrastructure that was unable to cope with the up to 900 passengers aboard the Crystal Serenity, they felt the absence of cruise tourism was one of the very reasons that had enabled Harbour Island to build up its high-end client base of boating visitors, hotel guests vacation renters and property owners in the first place.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, later admitted that Harbour Island’s tourism industry “has made a compelling case” for why it should not become a cruise destination. The survey referenced by Mr Sherman found that 99.4 percent of existing and potential Harbour Island visitors made it “crystal clear cruise tourism is a disaster waiting to happen” for the destination.