A history of Nassau’s elite and the shipping businesses they owned may give us some context to understand the current cruise port RFP process.
Beyond the questions of political economy, there remain issues central to cruise tourism policy.
What would the cruise port RFP had looked like if sustainable tourism strategies were at its core?
According to noted Bahamian historian, Gail Saunders, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most male members of Nassau’s elite white upper-class were men of commerce, specializing in import and export businesses.
Among them, was prominent businessman R. H. Sawyer. Sawyer founded the Bank of Nassau, becoming its president and managing director. He was also involved in the usual import and export business while providing coal and water to visiting steamships. He consolidated wealth through a symbiotic relationship between his business interests and political influence, eventually being appointed to the Executive and Legislative Councils in 1869 and 1879 respectively.
Saunders and fellow historian Michael Craton explain, “the Nassau mercantile oligarchy was dependent on manufacturers in the capitalist metropoles (ever eager to exploit the unequal equation between Bahamian export produce and the needs for imports), it sustained its power by focusing on and controlling the flow of local imports and exports, domination local legislation, and exploiting the dependency of Out Islanders on Nassau.”
Back then, Saunders and Craton detail, “Clustered around the Bank of Nassau were twenty or so substantial mercantile establishments, their owners’ names almost a complete roll call of white Bahamian families…”
For example, Arthur and William Symonette fashioned themselves as ship brokers and commission merchants importing everything from coffee to glassware.
Jose Maura was a shipping and commission merchant who was also the recruiting agent for steamship lines and the Panama Railroad Company.
This history of Nassau’s elite and the shipping businesses they owned gives us some context to understand our current circumstances—the existence of the Arawak Port Development (APD) and the Request for Proposals (RFP) to manage the Nassau cruise port, which has been criticized by some business leaders and civil society organizations as being an unfair process.
The first piece in this series on the cruise port RFP focused on the nexus of economic interests and political influence that might not only affect the decision-making process but that recalls a time described only in the historical tracts mentioned above.
I argued that if APD was given control of the cruise port, they would be granted a monopoly to manage the import of goods, and now people in the form of cruise tourists, while also endeavouring to supply cruise ships with liquefied natural gas (LNG) to fuel their journeys, just like R. H. Sawyer did over 150 years ago.
It would herald the return of an import cartel.
Meanwhile, given that Minister of Tourism, Dionisio D’Aguilar, attributed the current dilapidated state of East Bay St. to the flight of shipping companies west, to the Arawak Cay Container Port, it would be these very same companies tasked with rehabilitating this area.
While these are questions of political economy—how political factors can determine economic outcomes—there are policy questions that remain.
D’Aguilar has openly admitted that it was APD’s unsolicited proposal for the redevelopment of the cruise port, in partnership with port conglomerate, Global Port Holdings (GPH), that was used to structure the cruise port RFP.
The RFP asked bidders to submit proposals that detailed the design, construction, operation, financing, and investment in the Nassau cruise port “to provide for the success and growth of the industry in The Bahamas.”
Beyond the cruise port, the RFP also calls for contenders to provide plans for redeveloping parts of Bay St to enhance tourists’ experiences by increasing the tourism offering, improving traffic and circulation, and engaging the merchants and vendors in the area to improve customers’ access to their properties.
D’Aguilar asserted that the government had entered this process with three main objectives: 1) the improved operation of the port, 2) to bring significant investment to the port, and 3) to allow significant Bahamian ownership in the port.
But, are the government’s objectives, as articulated by the Minister of Tourism, the right ones?
Is the RFP tailored to answer the most pertinent policy questions left unanswered by the current cruise tourism model?
We know that the condition of the cruise port and Bay St, in general, has been a point of major contention for years.
According to Larry Smith of Bahmian Pundit, the call to re-develop downtown started in the 1980s when a group led by Norman Solomon hired “a US-based community developer, the Rouse Company, to draw up suggestions for the revitalisation of Nassau.”
There were several false starts through the 1990s and 2000s, with the Christie administration launching the Sustainable Nassau initiative in 2014 supported by funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Smith, writing in 2016, quotes the widow of Jackson Burnside, Pam, who frames the challenge of downtown’s re-development perfectly.
She says, “…nothing we will be achieved [with re-developing downtown] until the needs of the people are met so that we have a reason to return to the downtown. Then we invite visitors to come and celebrate with us.”
When it comes to re-developing downtown, consistently the focus has been on the structures downtown. The question driving the re-development has been, “How can we fix up the cruise port to make it more attractive to tourists?”
Employing Pam Burnside’s perspective, though, there is another question that we can ask which would shift the conversation about downtown entirely.
How can we ensure that our model of cruise tourism provides the widest economic benefit for the greatest number of Bahamians first, while meeting the needs of our visitors?
Given global tourism trends, a focus on improving structures seems like secondary concern compared to improving offerings. These trends suggest that buildings, like large resorts and flashy cruise ports, have become auxiliary to cultural experiences.
Tourism trends assessed by Tripadvisor—the world’s largest online provider of bookable experiences, tours, and activities—suggest that tourists are now more interested in experiential travel like food tours, cooking classes, heritage experiences and landmarks, and outdoor experiences.
If this is true, we must also consider that our cruise tourism model is characterized by low per visitor spending concentrated along the Bay St corridor and in the hands of merchants who can afford to set up shop along that corridor.
Meanwhile, the average Bahamian taxpayer has subsidized these businesses by paying for cruise ship incentives, leaving the country $17 million in debt according to the 2018/19 Budget Communication by the government.
The government and Min. D’Aguilar should be applauded for ending the cruise incentives program. But the last thing downtown needs is for tourists to come off the ship and enter a gated port community—this is not the way to expand economic opportunity for Bahamians.
While the government has made it a priority to foster Bahamian ownership of the cruise port, most likely through the mechanism of shares, how many Bahamians understand how to go about purchasing these shares? How many Bahamians will be able to afford them and what real economic benefit will they provide?
Another way for us to think about our cruise port dilemma and in keeping with Pam Burnside’s perspective, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has called for the implementation of sustainable tourism strategies, and specifically for cruise tourism.
“Cruise tourism is characterized by bringing large numbers of people to concentrated areas of destinations for brief periods, thus multiplying and concentrating the impacts,” explained a 2016 UNWTO report on sustainable cruise tourism authored in partnership with Asia-Pacific Tourism Exchange Center (APTEC).
Instead, sustainable tourism centres the “unique natural and cultural heritage offered by a destination” and this is what generates its brand reputation, its value and what drives tourist demand, not a pretty new cruise port.
Rather than a focus on improved operations, investment and ownership in the port, the pillars of sustainable cruise port tourism would be 1) environmentally friendly practices; 2) support for protection of cultural and natural heritage; and 3) tangible economic and social benefits to local people in host destinations.
This is not to suggest that the cruise port and Bay St itself doesn’t need a facelift. We know that, but it should not be the primary focus.
What would the RFP have looked like if, instead of being structured based on the GPH/APD proposal, it took into consideration a thorough assessment of a Nassau’s cruise tourism value chain?
What if it engaged an empirical understanding of cruise tourism’s potential benefits, risks and impacts to form a foundation from which policymakers and destination managers could determine the optimal levels of cruise tourism development?
We can all appreciate the need to re-develop the cruise port and restore Bay St to its former glory. We can also appreciate that for far too long the talk about downtown’s re-development has gone on with very few tangible actions.
Instead of putting buildings and berths at the centre of this effort, let us make people the focus.
And the people at the centre of this effort shouldn’t be our visitors but the Bahamian people, whose “unique natural and cultural heritage” is what will generate the Bahamas’ brand reputation and value and drive tourism demand.