Tourism leaders in The Bahamas don’t believe enough cruise ship passengers are getting off the big boats and spending money in locally owned businesses, a Nassau newspaper reported.
The Nassau Guardian last week quoted Bahamas Minister of Tourism John Dionisio D’Aguilar saying the government used to pay the cruise lines $12 million a year in incentives to dock at the country’s ports.
But not anymore, the story said.
“In the past we used to provide incentives for cruise passengers to come here,” D’Aguilar was quoted as saying. “But to be quite honest with you, we were paying for a lot of people who didn’t come off the boat.”
So those incentives have been eliminated, and the country now plans to invest in improvements to make tourists want to visit. Future incentives, if any are offered, would be in the form of rebates tied to how many passengers leave the ships while docked in the islands, the story said.
D’Aguilar suggested the cruise lines don’t really need the money the government used to pay them.
“The cruise companies are very, very profitable,” the Guardian reported D’Aguilar saying. “They make a lot of money. Why are we paying them to bring cruise passengers to our port, and then we’re finding that some of them are not coming off?
“So why are we giving incentives for people to come to Nassau and sit on the boat, eat their food and not spend money in our country?”
Recent studies, however, indicate that cruisers are disembarking in The Bahamas and they do spend money there, even if it’s not as much as the government would like.
According to research by the Miramar-based Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, a nonprofit trade group composed of 18 member cruise lines, The Bahamas welcomed the largest number of passenger shore visits — 2.94 million — out of 35 Caribbean and U.S. destinations in the region in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data was available.
But the country ranked fourth in total expenditures ($244 million) during those visits — behind St. Maarten ($355 million), Cozumel, Mexico ($304 million), and the U.S. Virgin Islands ($276 million). Meanwhile, The Bahamas ranked 16th in average expenditure per passenger, $83, compared with top-ranked St. Maarten, where visitors spent an average $191.
Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of the consumer-focused CruiseCritic.com review site, said user reviews of port visits in Nassau are “a mixed bag” on the site.
“Some cruisers enjoy the stop and take advantage of local beaches, shopping and [the] Atlantis [resort],” she said by email. “Others don’t have as favorable of an experience while in port and compared to other ports in the region, Nassau comes out lower in terms of ratings from visitors.”
Among the most common complaints by users who report negative experiences onshore is a feeling of being “a bit bombarded by vendors in port,” she said.
When cruisers choose to stay on their ship, it’s often because they’ve already visited the port, she said. “What we hear from cruisers is that Nassau is a port many have experienced before — so if there aren’t many new improvements of new features in port, some cruisers don’t find the need to disembark and explore the island again.”
Travel website Cruiseradio.net said anyone who reads online message boards should not be surprised that many passengers prefer to stay on the ship.
On the message boards, “people often complain about everything from the lack of interesting things to do in Nassau to the virtual army of cab drivers and vendors one must fight past in order to get anywhere,” cruiseradio.net said.
D’Aguilar acknowledged that The Bahamas has to try harder. “God has geographically blessed The Bahamas” because it’s the closest destination port to the largest ports in the world in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Cape Canaveral, he said in The Guardian, adding, “We just have to make it a wonderful place for them to visit and make it memorable so that they want to come back here and it refreshes itself.”
The government is soliciting proposals to redevelop and manage Prince George Dock in Nassau — a project that would take two years after a development team is selected. That project should entice more businesses to offer better goods, excursions, and food and beverage options to cruise passengers, who would respond by spending more money in the port, D’Aguilar told the paper.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.