• Global Ports chief awaiting visitor spend impact
• '90-plus % satisfied' with $322.5m transformation
• Downtown revival critical as 'all will die otherwise'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The chair of Nassau Cruise Port's ultimate parent says he is "90 percent-plus satisfied" with its $322.5m transformation as he waits to see it drive increased visitor spend and more passengers exiting their vessels.
Mehmet Kutman, Global Ports Holding's chairman, told Tribune Business these promised impacts represent the "missing 10 percent" as he hailed the group's Nassau investment for establishing it as a major cruise port operator in the Western Hemisphere.
Describing the Bahamian capital as "a true number one", and the company's "biggest by far investment wise" to-date, he added that a key objective was to "integrate Bahamians with the port and the cruise passenger" in such a way that the economic impact is felt at the grassroots "Mom and pop" store level.
Expressing hope that Nassau will break the 5m cruise passenger visitor mark in 2024, Mr Kutman said he was also confident in Prime Minister Philip Davis' pledge to revive Bay Street and wider downtown as neither the city nor the cruise port can succeed without the other flourishing.
"This is 90 percent-plus of my expectation," the Global Ports chief said during Friday's official Nassau Cruise Port opening. "However, I keep dreaming, keep envisioning what we can do now. This [Junkanoo] museum is 100 percent; it's even 110-120 percent" of what was anticipated.
"I want more spirit of Nassau, spirit of The Bahamas, spirit of the Caribbean," Mr Kutman added. "When the passengers land, when they walk through, we need more touches like Junkanoo carts. Maybe there could be more food carts there, Junkanoo-type of things. It needs more colour, needs to be more vibrant, it needs integration with downtown Nassau, with Bay Street. It's a good starting point, let me put it this way.
"It takes time. You cannot do everything immediately. It's trial and error. The most important thing is the integration of the local tourist, people of Nassau, with this place. This is not just for cruise passengers to come through, walk through, shop and go. They have to integrate with the locals. That's the most important thing.
"Our approach, our challenge, is we want to integrate the locals with the port and the cruise passenger.... To me, that's the most important thing. If the taxi driver is happy, I'm happy. If the shopkeeper says everything is wonderful, everybody is happy. To me, those are the important factors - the people of The Bahamas. The 'Mom and Pop' shops are the most relevant."
The Government's decision to outsource Prince George Wharf's transformation, management and operations to Global Port Holdings, which has a controlling 49 percent equity stake in Nassau Cruise Port, was designed to overhaul the city's waterfront and elevate the tourist experience by creating a first impression with new attractions and experiences.
It is also intended to act as a catalyst by enticing downtown Nassau business and property owners to elevate their own offerings through investing in a refreshed, revived product that will attract some of the 4.2m and 4.6m visitors expected to arrive at Prince George Wharf in 2023 and 2024, respectively.
Global Ports Holding, in a July 16, 2018, proposal to the Government, pledged to create a "new waterfront" that would give the Bahamian economy a $16bn boost over a 30-year period. Much of this was based on increased per capita cruise passenger spending, driving this to at least $150 per person, and attracting more persons to disembark their vessels while in port.
Mr Kutman told Tribune Business "that's the 10 percent" when it came to increased passenger spending and vessel disembarkations. "Remember, I said 90 percent satisfied," he explained. "Ten percent missing. My job is to ensure the minute that ship arrives, turns the corner by the lighthouse, people are awake and see it. People who are sleeping are woken up.
"It has to be inviting. Already I think the number of people leaving the ship has increased, although I don't have exact numbers, but that's the 10 percent. Once they go through there, they have Bay Street and Prince George Wharf." Mr Kutman acknowledged that downtown Nassau's revival, which many hope will be spurred by the cruise port investment, is "a big job" and "cannot happen overnight".
However, he added: "I think this prime minister has his mind set. I really believe he's going to get it done.... We try to help, but the Government is taking action. Downtown Nassau can really be the centre of everything in the Caribbean. It has so much; the Bahamian people have so much. We need to revitalise downtown for sure, otherwise the port will die. Without downtown, the port will die as well."
Pointing to the shared dependency that Nassau Cruise Port and downtown Nassau enjoy, Mr Kutman said the Bahamian capital will "always be number one in my heart" when it comes to Global Port Holdings' multiple port investments because of his family's more than three-decade connection to this nation via cruises and visits.
While Nassau Cruise Port represents the group's largest single investment to-date, he added that it will soon be exceeded by the $500m it intends to spend on similar cruise facilities in Puerto Rico. Together, Nassau and Antigua represent Global Ports Holding's expansion into the Caribbean and Western Hemisphere after it began to look beyond Europe after achieving dominance on that continent.
"Nassau is a true number one," Mr Kutman told Tribune Business. "Traffic wise by far, revenue wise probably again number one, EBITDA, number one. This is the biggest by far investment wise, but we will soon start in Puerto Rico, which will be bigger. That will be $500m.
"Antigua was the first one in the Caribbean, and people were surprised that we had crossed the ocean because we had become too big in Europe. Antigua was a surprise, and then Nassau came and everybody started taking us seriously....... Antigua was the key to open the door. Nassau was the door. We turned the key, and Nassau was the door. We opened the door. Then, of course, there is Puerto Rico, St Lucia and lots of other ports coming one by one."
Mr Kutman said Nassau Cruise Port will play a "complementary" role to the cruise lines' private islands, especially on the short-haul four to five-night cruises, while its amphitheatre will bring hotel guests as well as persons "from Lyford Cay and Old Fort Bay" back to downtown Nassau through the variety of music and entertainment options it provides.
Graeme Davis, Baha Mar's president, said the projected increase in cruise passenger numbers creates more potential day pass customers for its $200m Baha Bay water park as well as the opportunity to convert these guests into higher-paying stopover visitors who stay at one of its hotels.