By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Visitors to a cruise line’s Bahamian private island are forecast to increase by more than 427,000 per year once two piers are constructed to allow its vessels to properly dock, it has been revealed.
The revised Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) proposed harbour expansion at Great Stirrup Cay, which has been seen by Tribune Business, predicts the destination will receive 714,000 passengers per annum when “pre-COVID 19 sailing trends” return with that number growing by 10-15 percent annually moving forward.
Explaining the rationale for the piers, the document reveals that the inability for NCL’s cruise ships to dock at the Berry Islands location has forced it to transport visitors to shore using smaller ferries. During rough weather, though, passengers cannot be transferred between the cruise ships and the ferries, which is said to have resulted in “missed calls” and loss of income for both NCL and shore-based Bahamian visitors.
The EIA said a study had shown that three-foot high waves could result in almost 31 percent - nearly one-third - of cruise ship visits to be cancelled if they were calling on a daily basis unless the two new piers are constructed. The plans are due to be discussed at a public meeting on Great Harbour Cay on August 9, as required by the Environmental Planning and Protection Act, and which can be attended virtually or in-person.
NCL owns all of Great Stirrup Cay apart from 25 acres of Crown Land, and is said to have “increasingly invested in the evolution of the island experience from a destination stopover on a sparsely inhabited island to a site offering relaxing options such as dining and shopping, and a day of water sports and excursion for the adventure seekers”.
“Since NCL began utilising Great Stirrup Cay as a cruise ship destination facility in the late 1970s, passengers have been transported to the island aboard large passenger tenders from the cruise ship anchored offshore in deeper water to the embarkation/debarkation docks within the basin, or in earlier days direct via a beach landing,” the EIA said.
“NCL and its passengers have significantly missed calls to the port due to unfavourable weather conditions when ferries are not able to safely load and transport passengers due to strong winds and heavy seas, resulting in an unused experience for the cruise passengers and a loss of revenue for both the local Bahamians employees and vendors, and NCL, who rely on the island’s visitors.
“To reduce the number of missed calls and lost earnings, and to further NCL’s commitment to enhancing the visitor experience, as part of their master plan NCL is proposing to construct two permanent cruise ship piers on the north side of the island to allow for cruise ship berthing with direct access to the island.”
The EIA, produced by Bahamian firm, Islands by Design, with assistance from a Florida firm, Cummins Cederberg, added: “Using a wave analysis to determine the potential downtime reduction with the construction of the new piers, it was estimated that with a significant wave threshold of three feet, the downtime could be up to 30.9 percent under the assumption the island receives ships daily.
“The actual downtime could be higher or lower depending on the island’s call schedule. To reduce this number, NCL is proposing cruise piers to improve the safety of mooring ships and guest access to the island during unsuitable weather conditions.”
The pier construction and associated expansion are forecast to create 85 jobs during the build-out phase, with completion projected to increase annual visitor numbers by more than 149 percent. “Great Stirrup Cay, as a private island destination, employees some 150 persons on the cay,” the EIA said.
“The pier and expansion project expects to employee some 85 construction workers during the build-out. Additionally, Bahamian-owned and operated retail outlets service NCL’s guests on the cay. In 2019, Great Stirrup Cay welcomed 286,357 guests. Under pre-COVID-19 trends, NCL expects to see increased passenger volumes of 714,000 once the pier is operational.
“Due to increased efficiency of landing and boarding of passengers to the cay, it is expected guests will spend an additional two to three hours on the cay once the pier is operational. This additional time on the cay will allow additional patronising of the local retailers and the opportunity to expand tour excursions to meet increased guests demand.”
Based on the increased passenger numbers projected by NCL, the Government’s annual passenger tax revenues from Great Stirrup Cay could increase by $7.704m per annum if the project proceeds and 714,000 visitors arrive to produce a net 428,000 growth.
“The development of Great Stirrup Cay is in keeping with the national development plan to have an anchor project in every Family Island,” the EIA added. “In addition to visitors’ patronage of local entrepreneurs, the Government levies a passenger tax on visitors to the country.
“A passenger tax of $29 is collected from all airline passengers, and a passenger tax of $18 is collected from all cruise ship passengers. It is anticipated that upon a return to pre-COVID 19 sailing trends, Great Stirrup Cay expects to accommodate 714,000 visitors post expansion with a 10-15 percent increase in passengers per annum as passenger usage stabilises.”
The EIA does not, though, give specifics on how revenues and earnings for Bahamian vendors on Great Stirrup Cay will be boosted by the pier construction and improved passenger access. Many Bahamians remain suspicious of the cruise industry’s private islands, viewing them as locations where the sector reaps all the benefits while local entrepreneurs battle for a share of the left-over pickings.
“The project will result in immediate job creation and an increase in direct sales and service revenues during the dredging and construction phases,” the EIA added in general terms. “Additional economic benefits to The Bahamas include the continued arrival of tourists and increased Bahamian revenues due to the investment in capital infrastructure.
“Project implementation would also mitigate economic losses to vendors and shopkeepers resulting from missed ports of call, and lost pay due to closure of on-island facilities staffed by locals from Great Harbour Cay and nearby islands.”
The EIA, which has been updated to account for queries and modifications requested by the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP), as well as recent developments, indicates that the project was initially given the go-ahead by the former Minnis administration on January 2, 2020, but has been delayed for more than two years by COVID and the devastating impact that the pandemic had on the cruise industry’s finances by halting sailing for 15 months.
The Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA), in a letter to Erica Paine, the Graham, Thompson & Company attorney acting for NCL, said the National Economic Council (NEC) had approved “significant renovations and improvements to Great Stirrup Cay by the construction of a pier and dredging/excavation of a deep water basin, together with the construction of additional amenities and facilities” subject to the go-ahead from the relevant regulatory agencies.
A seabed lease for a yet-to-be-determined area, and on undisclosed financial terms, was also approved to accommodate the cruise ship pier and turning basin. The Government’s approval also extends the recommendation of eight work permits for the Great Stirrup Cay construction phase, and four for operations, with negotiations for a Hotels Encouragement Act agreement with NCL also to be commenced.