Cruising but losing
FREEPORT, Grand Bahama — “It’s a ghost town out here, miss, a ghost town,” a man shouts from across the way.
“Dead, okay? Dead. You see how it is out here, right?” asks a straw market vendor rhetorically.
It’s Saturday, but you would not know it walking through the Port Lucaya Marketplace, Grand Bahama’s only tourist-based shopping district which is home to various stores and boutiques, restaurants and bars and a marina that has seen better days.
Stores are full of merchandise but void of customers — a consequence, proprietors say, of too few stopover visitors and a funneling of many cruise passengers to a beach-based excursion miles away from the marketplace adjacent to the Grand Lucayan resort.
As Perspective spoke to long-suffering businesspersons and veteran workers in the hospitality industry on the country’s second-largest populated island, it was clear that cruise passenger headcount has not translated into economic boom for many in the island’s tourism and retail industry, particularly at Port Lucaya.
It is an ongoing concern as cruise lines further the trend of all-inclusive port and shore experiences that keep passenger spend substantially on board, limiting the potential of businesses outside that sphere to reap the financial benefits of increased sealift.
Business owners we spoke to offered a mixture of realism seasoned with hope for an economic turnaround, but they lament that for now the hardship that has forced the closure of stores and leaves proprietors unable to meet their expenses, does not have a known expiration date.
When, with much fanfare, the government announced that it would be purchasing the Grand Lucayan property last year, it raised hopes that the property’s storm-damaged hotels — Breakers Cay and the former Memories Resort — might soon reopen.
But a year has passed since then, and the hotels will not reopen in 2019.
Even if ongoing sale negotiations with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and the ITM Group can result in a deal by the end of this year, it is unclear how long it might take to repair both hotels.
Finance Minister Peter Turnquest told the nation through Parliament that the hotels would take between six and eight months to repair. But with the passage of time and given concerns about mold and structural deficiencies at the distressed properties, it could very well be some time yet before the Lucayan strip is fully open for business.
To be sure, sale negotiations do take time — but time stands still for no one, and for no bill.
Straw market vendors Phillipa Burrows and Dolly Palmer pulled up a chair to talk to Perspective, telling us this year has been the worst they have ever seen it at the marketplace. Together, both ladies have over a half century combined of work in the straw market industry.
“What makes it worse now is the tourists want to bargain you down on everything,” Burrows bewailed, and she was not alone in this complaint. “It is hard to make a dollar because of it but I still try to do what I can to make it.”
“My husband has been sick and it is hard to go home and tell him I haven’t even made a dollar,” a nearby vendor shared as she worked on her craft. “We need the hotel to open up.”
A few stalls down, Mrs. Russell sits quietly reading the scriptures and meditating, she told us, on the story of Joseph, who brought his brothers out of a famine in their land.
“The famine did not last forever,” she said with a hopeful smile as we asked her about business and how she has fared. “I hold onto faith and optimism because that is what I have to do; I have to.”
Russell left her job at the Grand Lucayan to run her mother Olga’s stall. Employed in the hospitality industry for decades, she previously worked at the Lucayan Beach Hotel, the Lucayan strip’s renowned predecessor to the Grand Lucayan.
Russell, like others including Cassibelle Missick, proprietor of Flovin Gallery, is hopeful that a reopening of the Grand Lucayan properties will signal a turnaround in the island’s fortunes.
“I don’t think it could get any worse now,” Missick surmised. “With the opening of the hotel I believe things will be better for Freeport.”
The creator of original arts and crafts said she took over the store following the death of her mother, and has had to get a job at one point just to pay the rent.
“We’ve been through it all, we’ve just got to hold on,” she continued. “Sometimes you’ve got to put about $200 to $300 out of your own pocket to pay the rent and light bill, but I live on hope; that is how I live.”
We don’t see the cruise passengers
“The cruise ships, when they do come, we don’t get most of the passengers because they all go up to Taino Beach,” vendor Antionette Smith shared, foreshadowing the complaint of all other businesspersons we would later speak to.
“For the year, I have been able to pay some bills at some times,” she added.
“Last year was a total flop. This year we had a group of students in at the hotel for about a month in March and April and it was okay, but the rest of it has been just like this,” Smith explained, referring to the virtual emptiness of the marketplace.
“Some days it’s good, some days it’s bad. It hasn’t gotten better — as [a] matter of fact it has gotten a little bit worse since last year.”
According to vendor Daphne Nixon, the lack of business from cruise passengers has been disheartening.
“Tuesday I went down by the mailboat and there were three big cruise ships, but when I came to Port Lucaya I put my hand on my head,” she recalled, noting that the shopping district was just as empty then as it was the day of our interview.
Nixon, meanwhile, insisted that the island’s tourism plant is in desperate need of a casino and the development of native shows and activities that would excite tourists.
She suggested that officials offer stipends to local Junkanoo group members — some of whom she said are unemployed — so as to incentivize a push to bring Bahamian cultural entertainment back to the shopping district.
Steps away at Goldylocks Jewelry, a mainstay in the Freeport business community, proprietor Frances Gee remarked of the empty marketplace, “It’s like this every day. Even if the boats are in they take them all down to Taino Beach; we don’t even see them.”
Gee remarked, “Half of the passengers, if they get off the boat, they stay at the harbor. They don’t even bother to come down here because they don’t want to pay the taxi fares.
“The thing is they sell these excursions on the boat so the boat is getting the money from these excursions. The other day I saw two full busloads coming back from the beach and heading back to the harbor; we are not seeing the people.”
Many businesses in the marketplace have had to rely on the patronage of local customers, but Gee argues that with so many people on Grand Bahama out of work, shopping for items like jewelry is a luxury most simply cannot afford.
“Somebody needs to do something to help us, because I really don’t see why they should be allowed to do all the excursions from the boat and we don’t see any people,” Gee said.
“If they are not careful, we will go like the [International] Bazaar.”
The world famous International Bazaar was the island’s premiere shopping district adjacent to the Bahamas Princess Hotel and Casino, later renamed the Royal Oasis Resort and Casino.
Damage caused by Hurricane Frances back in 2004 forced the closure of the resort property which never reopened and remains an abandoned relic of the island’s better days.
“Years ago, I was making money, now all the money I’ve made has gone back to pay staff and all my other bills,” Gee pointed out. “We are spending more than what we are taking in.
“And there is going to be a certain point where you just cannot do that anymore. We’re dying, and it’s not a slow death, it’s coming up fast.”
Over at the Corner Bar, veteran bartenders Jeff Hall and Paul Hanna, known to patrons as the “corner boys”, also honed in on the hardship caused by the routing of cruise passengers to pre-booked excursions that leave the rest of the island’s businesses losing despite the cruising.
“I’ve been here since Port Lucaya first opened and this is the worst it has ever been no matter what they say on the radio or the TV,” Hall asserted. “This is the worst we have ever seen — everyone is struggling for survival.
“The politician goes on TV and brags about how much people are coming to the island,” Hall continued, “but with the cruise ships, we get a couple of people and all of the people pay their packages and they all go to Taino Beach so everybody in this area is struggling.
“We are just barely keeping our nose above water.”
Hanna affirmed Hall’s viewpoint, stressing that while thousands of passengers might come in on any given ship, many do not actually disembark.
In his contribution to the 2019/2020 budget debate, State Minister for Grand Bahama Kwasi Thompson said the island recorded an increase in air arrivals in January, February and April of 2019; and that air and sea arrivals for 2018 were up by 9.1 percent.
But those figures have served as little solace for those who remain at the marketplace following a spate of restaurant and shop closures that Hall claims left many waitresses, waiters and bartenders without the severance pay due them by law.
“A solution” for Port Lucaya
In order to bring monied guests back to the island, Hall insisted that the island’s casino needs to be re-opened and the marketplace’s marina needs an upgrade.
“It’s a very simple solution to Port Lucaya’s problem,” he suggested. “The marina is in bad shape but the marina and the casino would solve the problem because people would sail in and gamble, stop here for drinks, go to the restaurants and have a good time.
“We have had people come here on their yachts and when they saw there was no casino, they left.”
When the government first announced plans to purchase the Grand Lucayan, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told reporters the reopening of the property’s casino — the only casino on the island — was not on the government’s radar.
“Right now, I am trying to save jobs, and I am trying to save an economy; I am not concerned about gambling right now,” he told reporters. “Right now, Grand Bahama is suffering, from the early ‘90s, and I want to relieve that pain at this particular time.”
But the casino plays a key part in relieving that pain as it provides the kind of attraction that lures monied guests and it is a desired amenity for stopover visitors. It is not yet known whether the hotel’s prospective purchasers have a casino on the drawing board of re-development plans.
“We used to have big fishing tournaments here at Port Lucaya that we do not even have anymore,” Hall noted. “Every spring break we used to have the biggest Bacardi billfish tournaments here.
“Almost everybody in our field has left the island; I know people from here who are in Abaco, Bimini and Exuma now; everyone is pretty much gone.”
It is a painful reality for many Grand Bahamian families who have been forced to split up as breadwinners travel to other islands and other countries in search of stable employment.
For a boat captain who wished not to be named, the low volume of business is causing untold hardship for those trying to take care of their loved ones.
“The economy for tourists in this area is negative,” he said. “Without the casino and without the hotel across the road, Port Lucaya is nothing. When we do get a little trip to go out it might be once a week on a fishing trip or maybe a snorkeling trip.
“We need the Ministry of Tourism to realize that the people in Port Lucaya need help because we are all in the tourist business, but it is not going the way it should be going,” he maintained.
“Back in the early ‘80s and ‘90s this was the magic city. We have no casino, no hotel and at the marina we have a few boaters that come in but it is not enough to keep your family going.
“Hopefully they find a way to bring the economy around.”