Minister Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace on Bahamian Tourism, Part 2
By Alexander Britell
Earlier this month, we talked to Bahamas Minister of Tourism and Aviation Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace about what trends he had seen in the past few years for Bahamian tourism. We followed up with Minister Vanderpool-Wallace to find out more about the ways the industry has changed, and what lies ahead. See below for the second part of the Caribbean Journal interview with the Minister.
What are the reasons for the increase in tourists this year?
Much of the increase in visitor arrivals is due to a huge increase in cruise arrivals. We are up 16.5 percent this year over last year in cruise arrivals. Meanwhile, we have seen only a 3.4 percent increase overall in air arrivals. With the average spend of air/stopover travelers ($1,375 per person) being much greater than the average spend of cruise visitors ($63.30 per person), obviously we are anxious to grow air arrivals so that it looks more like the growth we saw in cruise arrivals last year.
What is, in your view, the best strategy for helping tourism in a recession?
We adhere to the generally accepted belief by many economists that during a recession, the fall-off in private demand should be replaced to the degree that it can be by public investments in those infrastructural projects that have long-term benefits to the core part of the economy. Another project in which the government will invest is the Downtown Redevelopment Project. In this endeavor, we will reinvigorate the city and make it more aesthetically pleasing. This project is being directed by the Downtown Nassau Partnership – a prime example of the synergy created between government and private entities. Although we have begun many projects in Nassau, we are also bringing our other islands along. There are a total of 16 major islands and island groups of the Bahamas that must be further developed in the near future. On March 9, the government of the Bahamas signed a memorandum of understanding with China Harbor Engineering Company for extensive infrastructural work to be done in three of those islands – Abaco, Exuma and Eleuthera. The seaports and by-pass highways at Marsh Harbour, Abaco and Georgetown, Exuma will be redeveloped. In addition, bridges will be constructed at Little Abaco and at Glass Window, Eleuthera.
Are there any sectors that saw particular improvement?
One of the trends seen throughout the region last year was the significant growth in low-cost, all-inclusive destinations. In the same way that low cost, all inclusive destinations grew their business in the Great Recession, our low cost, all-inclusive sector – the cruise industry – grew even faster. We believe that the demand for Bahamas vacations outstripped all destinations since 70% of all Bahamas cruises are on a Bahamas-only itinerary. It also appeared that despite the very high cost of a Bahamas vacation, we held our room rates better than most destinations in our region according to independent reports. That is a most important point because the revenue that matters most to destinations is the total vacation revenue less the cost of air transportation. We also saw a trend that indicated that we needed to focus on our strength of proximity to North America by having that proximity reflected in the cost of travel to The Bahamas which led to the creation of the best ever selling promotion “Companion Fly Free.”
How important is sports tourism for the country?
As with basketball, we will be seeking similar NCAA exemptions in other sports. We see Sports Tourism as a very important category of business in the future, and our Sports Tourism unit is working on several initiatives: the Bahamas (Women’s) Tennis Open, was played at the National Tennis Center, ending March 19. The event is in its first year and already it has attracted players who are among the top 100 in the world. In total, almost 130 women competed in the event. More than 50 boats from the United States, Canada, South America and Europe will compete in the Mid-Winter Snipe Championship at the Royal Nassau Sailing Club, March 23 to 26. We have 400 riders from the United States, Canada and the Bahamas registered so far for the Ride for Hope on Eleuthera on April 9, and 11 teams will compete in the Caribbean & Central American Little League Baseball Championship on Abaco, from July 15 to 24.
Of course, we have several basketball events taking place in Grand Bahama and Nassau, culminating with the Battle for Atlantis in November. Beyond that, there is the Atlantis Crown Gymnastics Tournament in December that is expected to draw 2,000 competitors and spectators, and we have the Nike International Junior Masters Tennis Tournament, 8th – 13th December 8 – 13. That event will bring players from 34 countries to San Salvador. So, you can see that sports tourism is very important to us.
What is interesting about the tourism data that people might not realize?
Many people in our region are surprised, shocked and astonished by some simple statistics: If Nassau & Paradise Island were separated from the other islands of the Bahamas to form another country in our region, it would rank 5th in the number of stopover visitors, 2nd in the number of total visitors and 1st in the number of cruise passengers in the entire Caribbean. That, they find surprising. What they find shocking is that Nassau and Paradise Island, where nearly 70% of our population resides, represents less than 2% of the total land mass of the Bahamas. Yes, less than 2% of the Bahamas would be ranked 5th in stopover arrivals, 2nd in total visitors and 1st in cruise visitors in our region. So it is abundantly clear that in a region where islands are major assets for tourism development, we have substantially underutilized tourism assets in The Bahamas. The fact is that we are in a region where islands, clear waters and
beaches are major assets, and we have been focusing on only 2% of our assets. In focusing on only the resources of Nassau and Paradise Island, this 2% “country” would still be the 3rd wealthiest independent country in the western hemisphere in terms of per capita income, behind only the United of America and Canada. This gives us the greatest hope for the future because it is absolutely mindboggling what can be accomplished through developing a greater percentage of our natural assets.
What is the future for Bahamasair in terms of expansion?
It is clear that with the increase in rooms available in The Bahamas and the need for better internal air connections, the role of Bahamasair can only expand and we expect it to be in the forefront of providing the transportation to and throughout The Bahamas.
We are especially encouraged by the addition of COPA Airlines to the Bahamas. COPA will begin nonstop flights to Nassau from Panama City, four times per week on June 16. They are committing 20,000 seats to us in their first year, which is an incredible demonstration of their confidence in the Bahamas for Latin American travelers. However, COPA’s presence is also significant for Bahamasair.
COPA has agreements with Bahamasair that will feed travelers to islands of the Bahamas beyond Nassau/Paradise Island. Through their agreements, COPA is able to book passengers directly on Bahamasair flights to all the islands of the Bahamas.