The Downtown Nassau Partnership’s (DNP) co-chair yesterday hailed the increase in cruise ship traffic as a “breath of fresh air” for business with close to 150,000 passenger arrivals forecast for Christmas week.
Charles Klonaris told Tribune Business that Bay Street merchants he has spoken to all disclosed that retail sales were matching pre-COVID levels or “even a little higher”, which they were attributing to the Nassau Cruise Port’s ability to accommodate larger and more ships.
Confirming that the cruise port expansion is already having “a huge” impact for downtown Nassau, even though its $300m transformation has yet to be completed, he added that this festive period is “very important” for retailers, restaurants and other downtown businesses that suffered a fearsome two-and-a-half year battering from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions.
With the first ‘normal’ Christmas for three years in sight, Mr Klonaris told this newspaper: “I’ve spoken to a few retailers, and what they’ve told me is things have much improved from the previous year, and they’ve back to 2019 or even a little bit above that. They’ve very optimistic.
“The big factor is even though the cruise port is not completely ready, the fact we are getting so many more cruise ships means they’ve had a very successful impact on retail downtown. There are so many tourists coming through at once on to Bay Street, it has an impact on retailing.
“Even though COVID has reached a point where we don’t need all the lockdown restrictions and masks etc, it still takes time to restock your store and get your consumer back downtown. It’s a near three-year period that has affected retail downtown. But the amount of cruise ships that are calling is having a huge impact. It’s a breath of fresh air for downtown.”
Mike Maura, the Nassau Cruise Port’s chief executive, yesterday disclosed to Tribune Business that some 55,957 passengers arrived in the Bahamian capital over the past three days since Monday. That number was achieved via 13 vessel calls and, based on an average passenger headcount of 4,304, the 34 cruise ships booked to call on Nassau between December 23 and New Year’s Eve could collectively bring as many as 146,349 visitors over the festive period.
Cruise passengers have traditionally been The Bahamas’ volume business, while stopover arrivals offering the higher-spending yields. However, Mr Maura yesterday argued that New Providence now has “a wonderful opportunity” to drive more passengers off the ship and increase per capita spending - areas where it has been weak - by capitalising on the increased arrivals through product improvements such as new tours and excursions.
“If you look from Monday through today [Wednesday], we had 13 vessels and those vessels brought in 55,957 passengers. Then, if you look at the occupancy, the average occupancy over the last three days has been 114 percent. That’s fantastic. So the ships are coming, and coming full, and apart from only two, those 13 ships were more than 100 percent occupied.”
For cruise ships, more than 100 percent occupancy is achieved when cabins are taken by more persons than there are berths. And the two that fell below three digits were still 95 percent and 98 percent occupied, respectively, with the other vessels achieving occupancies of up to 132 percent and 135 percent.
“It’s a very strong performance from those vessels that are coming,” Mr Maura added. “If you look at the bookings we have starting Friday, we have three vessels on the 23rd, three on the 24th, five on the 25th, which is Christmas Day, four on the 27th, six on the 28th, five on the 29th, four on the 30th, and four on the 31st.”
That adds up to 34 vessels over a nine-day period, which the Nassau Cruise Port chief described as “huge”. Multiplying that number by the average 4,304 passengers brought to Nassau by the 13 vessels over the past three days gives the 146,349 total arrivals estimate for Christmas week.
“We are still top of the transit destination list, and we have this wonderful opportunity to improve our destination’s product, our customer service, and improve our retail, shore excursions and food and beverage,” Mr Maura told Tribune Business.
“We have these people coming, downtown has started to see a good bump in business, a boost in business, and for us to see that spread throughout New Providence we need to see innovation in shore excursions throughout the island and the islands that surround us. The more we give people to do, the more they will come. It’s all about getting people off the ship and keeping them off the ship for as long as possible, spending money with local businesses.”
Prince George Wharf’s transformation was intended to enable Nassau to accommodate six cruise ships, including two of the largest Oasis class vessels, at any one time. This, in turn, will increase by around 50 percent the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking in the Bahamian capital daily - from 20,000 to 30,000.
Mr Klonaris, meanwhile, said “one more slow period” would have made it difficult for some downtown Nassau merchants to survive given that most were still recovering from COVID-19 restrictions. “They’ve been carrying themselves for the past three years,” he said, “whether it’s break even, even slightly below that or slightly above.”
Voicing optimism that the cruise port’s own attractions, including an amphitheatre, Junkanoo museum, retail and food and beverage options will not distract tourists from venturing on to Bay Street and elsewhere, Mr Klonaris said Woodes Rogers Walk “will play an important role in the future, and how that reinvents itself with all the tourists on that particular street is something to see going forward.
With other investments, such as the US Embassy and proposed new Central Bank and Supreme Court buildings, set to further revive downtown Nassau, the DNP said it was now up to individual property and business owners to play their part in the area’s transformation.
“We’ve done I would say a substantial amount of what we need to do,” Mr Klonaris said. “The individual stores and property owners, it’s up to them now. The DNP can only go so far. It can lay the foundation; it’s up to the individual stores.... We’re [the DNP] probably going to meet in the New Year and lay down a framework for going forward in 2023.”
The Government is also taking a keen interest in downtown Nassau’s revival, having demolished five derelict properties to-date. It also has plans to establish a business incubator in the area, focused on small start-ups and entrepreneurs, as well as using murals painted by local artists to improve its appearance.
Asked about how the area ‘east of East Street’ will be improved, Mr Klonaris conceded: “That’s a difficult one, although if you look carefully you will see more tourist traffic going that way. I’ve spoken to one retailer down there, and he’s happy. His sales are far greater than last year, or for a number of years, so he’s very happy east of East Street.”
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