Many people are waiting to see how a brewing conflict over prime Crown land on the western portion of Paradise Island will play out.
Will the Minnis administration empower a Bahamian entrepreneur to develop his planned $2 million cultural and historical project on the several acres that have already been approved, or will it see greater value in granting approval to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCL) to develop its planned $50 million beach club for cruise visitors on the land it has requested?
Will a compromise be reached before the government gets another public relations black eye? What message will the government send about its commitment or lack thereof to Bahamian businesspeople?
And what is the best decision for the Bahamian people in general?
Captain Toby Smith, principal of Paradise Island Lighthouse and Beach Club Company Limited, said he has been eyeing the land near the dilapidated, 200-year-old Paradise Island lighthouse for years now and has a plan to restore it as well as develop a beach club on property along the nearby pristine Colonial Beach.
“They (Bahamians and visitors) will be able to have a cultural and, more importantly, historical experience,” said Smith in an interview with National Review with the lighthouse as the backdrop and the waves slapping against his boat.
Not too far away, in Nassau Harbour, Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas was one of only two ships in port on Monday.
In total, Smith has received approval for five acres of Crown land, which reportedly is a 17-acre site. Royal Caribbean wants all the land, National Review understands.
The area is only accessible by boat.
Smith said he applied for Crown land eight years ago, secured a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from the Bahamas Investment Authority in 2018 and in January this year got formal approval from the government.
The Department of Lands and Surveys sent him a Crown land lease agreement to sign.
The January 7, 2020 document seen by National Review states: “Approval for crown lease five acres (two and three) at the west end of Paradise Island, Paradise Island Lighthouse and Beach Club Company Limited.”
Smith signed and returned the document as requested, but Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, the minister responsible for lands, has not executed the lease agreement.
“I asked the prime minister the status of my Crown land lease and he told me, ‘Toby, I’m not about to compromise the terms of your deal with Carnival or RCL or any other cruise line for that matter. Just be patient’,” Smith said.
“Within the next week or so, I understood that perhaps the Crown land in question has also been requested by Royal Caribbean, so when I first got wind that Royal Caribbean was interested in it was after I had already signed the lease and before [the issue] was basically out in the public domain, which was about three or four weeks ago.
“And I asked the government exactly [what was going on]. I also asked for a meeting with RCL’s lawyer because I understood that perhaps it was 10 acres [that they wanted] and that perhaps it was contained in the MOU for Grand Bahama and I wanted to cover all my bases and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Last week, the government of The Bahamas signed a heads of agreement (HOA) with Bahamas Port Investments Limited – a joint company of Royal Caribbean International (RCI) and ITM Group – for the sale of the Grand Lucayan resort and the development of a cruise port on Grand Bahama.
The deal has not yet been tabled in Parliament.
Some are asking whether the pending Paradise Island approvals to Royal Caribbean would be a sweetening of the pot for the Freeport deal.
In a Tribune article last week, Attorney General Carl Bethel accused Smith of “extreme selfishness” for rejecting a compromise that was “in the interest of The Bahamas”.
“The government has amended its offer by moving him to the area where it is the best part of that beach and he persists in seeking to have the whole of it,” the attorney general told National Review yesterday.
“…Nobody has a right to put a fence across the beach, so people will have the right to walk up and down that beach and he is right — on his easternmost boundary — on the most desirable part of the beach.”
Bethel pointed out that the lease has not yet been executed.
“The government in disposing of Crown land whether by grant, lease or license, can only do so on the basis of what is in the national interest. The government does not have the right to just go and dispose of Crown land on a whim and a fancy,” he said.
“Crown land is a part of the patrimony of every Bahamian and the government in the disposition of it or the use to which it allows Crown land is duty-bound to have some public purpose, some benefit to the wider society.”
Royal Caribbean wants to develop a “Bahamian beach club”, its president, Michael Bayley, was quoted as saying in the Tribune last week.
“It’s a beach club experience and people want to have a Bahamian beach club experience,” he said.
“We expect it to be up and running by hopefully late 2022. We acquired the land over a period of a few years actually on Paradise Island, and we have been working on this concept for quite some time — the Royal Beach Club on Paradise Island.
“We think it is going to be yet again another wonderful attribute to tourism in Nassau. It is going to allow Royal Caribbean to increase the number of ships that we bring to Nassau and The Bahamas, even more than we do today.
“I think now in 2019 we are the number one cruise company bringing tourists to The Bahamas. We think it is part of the ongoing development of attractions and destination experiences that really are
critical if you want to be a world-class vacation company. And so, we are very excited about this opportunity.”
Speaking on Love 97’s “Issues of The Day” program on Sunday, Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar said the government is supportive of Royal Caribbean’s plans for western Paradise Island.
“We are of the view that there are not sufficient attractions for all of the persons coming to Nassau on a daily basis, not even close,” D’Aguilar said.
“The largest attraction is Atlantis…but they (visitors) getting tired of that. That’s been there since 1994… So they want something new and we feel that Royal Caribbean can create an attraction over there, maybe attract 2,000 to 3,000 people when their ships come into harbor. That’s still going to leave another 8,400 that are looking for something to do.”
He said there needs to be a menu of options for cruise passengers.
D’Aguilar said the government intends to structure the deal in a way where all of the ferry boats, water sports, food and beverage and retail options would be owned and managed by Bahamians.
“And we obviously would be collecting VAT (value-added tax) along the way,” he added.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), meanwhile, has said it would cancel the lease for Crown land on Paradise Island if the government approves Royal Caribbean’s request. It said any project of this type should be owned and operated by Bahamians.
This kind of talk is unhelpful in the discussion, however. The PLP should be careful not to scare investors away.
It should also be reminded of how critical it was of the FNM under Hubert Ingraham when the FNM pledged to restructure the I-Group deal in Mayaguana after the Christie administration approved 10,000 acres of Crown land to the foreign developers for the deal as part of a joint venture with the government.
Rejecting the criticism that the Minnis administration is not acting in the best interest of the Bahamian entrepreneur, the attorney general said yesterday, Smith had been “from pillar to post” and this is the first government that has decided to entertain him.
He said there has been no movement on the matter since Smith rejected the compromise offered by the government.
For his part, Smith said he is willing to compromise by agreeing to give up a portion of the parcel already approved for his development along Colonial Beach.
But he insists he won’t accept the short end of the stick.
“I’d like to sit down with the prime minister and we can square this away and get Bahamians to work and everybody resolve this for what’s in the best interest of Bahamians,” he told National Review.
“Really and truly, I don’t think the Crown land being given to a foreign entity where Bahamians won’t be able to have access to it is the best use of Crown land and I’m confident that the PM in his wisdom is going to see that.”