by Richard Coulson
Last October, the Ministry of Tourism, noting that 3.5 million passengers annually were visiting Nassau via several cruise lines, issued a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) for “an upgrade and revitalization of the downtown Nassau tourism product.” Although we are statistically the largest Caribbean destination, it was common knowledge that we ranked low in guest satisfaction and tourist spending.
The Government RFP demanded not simply physical improvement and expansion of the Prince George Wharf complex, but “upland redevelopment for improving the guest experience”. In other words, the winning bidder must land more passengers and also show how to entertain them. Three bids were submitted by the deadline of December 7th, each meeting the RFP’s required capital commitment of at least $100 million to its project, which it would operate for a concessionary period of 25 years.
Last month the Evaluation Committee headed by Director General of Tourism Joy Jibrilu made its recommendation to Cabinet, and now Government has announced the winning bidder: the UK company Global Ports Holding (GPH), controlled by Turkish principals but publicly quoted on the London Stock Exchange.
GPH started business with tourist ports in Turkey and the Aegean, and expanded to major European tourist travel hubs such as Barcelona, Lisbon, and Venice. Its only Caribbean ports to date are the recently opened Havana and Antigua sites. It sees Nassau as its major entry into this hotly contested cruise zone, and has been studying our city for over a year, having made an unsolicited proposal well before the RFP was announced.
Since GPH is a public company issuing detailed annual reports , its financial picture and track record are transparent, as are details about more than a dozen ports it manages, extending as far as Singapore. It’s clearly the world’s largest enterprise specializing in the shoreside handling of cruise-line passengers. But It should not be forgotten that two other competent bidders entered the lists against this formidable competitor.
Port of Nassau Partnership was composed of two elements: the Bahamian company Cruise Ports International with a 60% stake, and Cruise Lines Group, with 40%, a coalition of the four leading cruise lines serving Nassau, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, and Norwegian. The local ownership was led by well known retired insurance executive Gerard Strachan who for over ten years has been trying to launch his multi-party “Culture Village” concept . However, more public attention was focused on the possible conflicts of interest posed by the cruise lines’ major role, and Minister of tourism D’Aguilar emphasized this factor in Government’s rejection of this bid.
The other rejected bid came from Nassau Port Partners, carefully constructed by Kenwood Kerr, CEO of financial firm Providence Advisors, administrator of our largest public pension funds. Although technically Bahamian owned and committed to opening a dedicated pier park , this entity had to rely on expertise from foreign-owned contractors like Metro Cruise Services, a California company managing cruise ports on the US east and west coasts, a prize-winning venture but lacking the international scope of Global Ports Holding.
Neither of these two candidates could match the proven management expertise and financial resources of GPH. Its video presentation has been widely seen and has drawn comments from local retailers such as “They were far away the most ambitious of the revitalization project bidders—exactly what downtown has been needing for many years now”—including a dramatic open-air amphitheatre.
To assure substantial local ownership of the project , GPH is partnering with investment bank CFAL in creating a fund to offer participating shares for as little as $1,000, financing a up to 49% of the estimated $250 million capital cost.
Of course, nothing is proven until successful execution, but GPH has already dispatched its senior executive Colin Murphy to shuttle between Miami and Nassau, and Minister D’Aguilar is clearly keen to put a feather in his political cap by welcoming a Nassau renaissance long before the next election.
Mr. Coulson has had a long career in law, investment banking and private banking in New York, London, and Nassau, and now serves as director of several financial concerns and as a corporate financial consultant. He has recently released his autobiography, A Corkscrew Life: Adventures of a Travelling Financier.