At the House of Assembly sitting last week, Premier Andrew Fahie detailed the steps he said his administration will take to boost the cruise tourism sector and slammed the past administration for failing to do so.
“I do not understand how persons can profess to love these blessed British Virgin Islands and then conduct the business of the people in the territory with such neglect and contempt,” he said.
Mr. Fahie added that Norwegian Cruise Lines is reducing its ship calls to VI ports and will not meet its minimum passenger guarantee for the upcoming seasons, and he criticised the past administration for not disclosing this information to the HOA.
He also claimed that the berthing agreement executed by the BVI Ports Authority was poorly managed and that no measures were put in place to gauge its “key deliverables and performance elements.”
In November 2016 Norwegian informed the BVIPA of a pending shortfall of 18,200 passengers for the 2017-2018 season, according to Mr. Fahie. The BVIPA accepted the remedy suggested by Norwegian, which was to “pare the shortfall fee based on the passenger tax,” but did not take action to ensure that shortfall would not continue, he said.
The premier acknowledged that the 2017 hurricanes “negated the notice,” but he still took aim at the “glaring lack of corrective or compensatory actions by the previous administration.”
He said the 2019-2020 tourism season now has a projected shortfall of 180,000 passengers, and Norwegian will not be able to meet the minimum passenger guarantee for the foreseeable future.
This shortfall, he said, translates to an estimated loss of $14 million in revenue based on studies conducted by the United States-based firm Business Research Economic Advisors suggesting that passengers spend an average of $78.11 each.
Vanterpool fires back
Yesterday former Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool called Mr. Fahie’s comments “ridiculous” and said his own relationship with the cruise industry and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association was “absolutely excellent, very cordial and very friendly.”
He added that he even introduced Carnival Cruise Line officials to Mr. Fahie after his tenure ended.
Mr. Vanterpool also said the National Democratic Party government was responsible for bringing the sector back to the VI after cruise industry officials expressed disinterest at the Miami conference in 2012, and for increasing spending among cruise passengers.
“We changed the picture completely and got them interested in the BVI again,” he said. “I was responsible to bring the industry back to the BVI.”
Mr. Vanterpool added that in the past year or two he had begun negotiating with Norwegian to allow other cruise ship companies to have berthing rights, rather than the exclusive rights that Norwegian enjoyed.
He acknowledged that the 2017 hurricanes damaged many of the inland tourist destinations for cruise passengers, but maintained that the work he did under the NDP government made the VI a source of envy for Caribbean ports.
He also pointed out that before the storms the yearly cruise passenger arrivals were up to 700,000, and said this number had been built back up to nearly 500,000 after the hurricanes.
“This is one of the most positive things that the NDP did,” he said, adding that he was “disturbed by anyone making negative comments.”
Mr. Fahie also defended his decision to postpone the Standing Finance Committee budget meeting in order to attend a cruise industry conference in Miami to address the issues facing the sector.
He attributed the passenger shortfall to the lack of tourist experiences resulting from the 2017 hurricanes, and slammed the past administration for its “laissez-faire” attitude to boosting the tourism product.
Mr. Fahie added that cruise line executives said in meetings that they were so dissatisfied with their communications with the previous VI administration that they redirected their ships to other destinations. One line, he said, informed him that it would rather send ships to Antarctica than to the VI.
Mr. Fahie said his administration has developed several plans to move the cruise sector forward, including the appointment of a government official to manage cruise industry relations and monitor the performance of government agencies related to the cruise industry.
He did not name the official, but Claude Skelton-Cline was recently appointed chair of the “Cruise Tourism Committee,” and his firm Grace Consultants was awarded a $98,000 six-month no- bid contract in April to undertake duties including negotiating for new cruise line berthing agreements, government announced.
The premier said he also plans to create a team responsible for managing passenger and traffic distribution on days when there are more than 6,000 passengers on the ground.
He added that he will hold Norwegian accountable to its berthing agreement and find ways to mitigate the passenger shortfall and resulting economic impact on the territory; to increase investment in the tourism product; and to strengthen relationships with cruise lines and cruise organisations in the hopes of creating employment opportunities.
Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, he said, are both taking steps to increase their dwindling calls to the territory as a result of conversations at the conference.