Plans to build a new port dedicated to handling cruise ships at Grand Bahama will bolster the Bahamas' transport sector, both on the island itself and across the country.
In early September, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham confirmed that the state would use its powers to acquire 55 acres of land in the Williams Town area to the south of Freeport as the first step in developing a new cruise ship port.
Currently, cruise ships bring some 300,000 tourists to Grand Bahama every year, a figure officials say will increase to 1m once the new harbour and its facilities are operational.
The scheme is by no means a new one, with the proposal to build a dedicated cruise ship port sited at Williams Town having been floating around for some years. At present, liners arriving at Grand Bahama berth close to the industrial harbour facilities at Freeport. Though close to the town itself, the harbour basin does not present visitors with a first impression of the Bahamas in keeping with the image the country seeks to project, say supporters of the plan to move the passenger terminal to the Williams Town site.
According to Nalini Bethel, the senior director of communications at the Ministry of Tourism (MOT), the cruise port will have a positive impact on Grand Bahama, the island's tourist trade and other sectors of the economy.
"The island is strategically positioned to Florida and many Eastern seaboards where many of these ships will come from," Bethel told local media in mid-September. "This also opens up not only employment opportunities but business opportunities for tours, attractions, transportation and retail."
While bolstering the tourism sector, the new port should also serve to improve other maritime operations on Grand Bahama. By freeing up space in the main Freeport basin, more space will be made available for commercial port expansion, and congestion in the port's waters will be reduced.
The new cruise liner port may also bring other advantages to the Bahamas maritime sector. With more passenger vessels making a landfall at the Grand Bahama, there should be increased calls for supplies, much of which will have to be shipped in. In addition, other side sector services could also benefit, with the island's massive shipyard – one of the largest in the region – its handlers and agents all set to see trade rise.
The advantages of the new port are expected to spread beyond the island of Grand Bahama itself, should the predictions of greater tourist numbers prove accurate. While most passengers arriving at the Williams Town port will be only short-term visitors, leaving on the same liner they came on, some at least will combine their cruise with a longer stay in the country, necessitating either a short-haul flight or boat trip to other islands.
Although most welcome the confirmation of the project, there are some who query both the price tag and the planned location. The government has announced the budget for the project to be around $100m, though whether this includes all the work required to make the new port operational is unclear, such as dredging, land-based infrastructure and transport links to the site.
The proposed site is somewhat exposed, open to the effects of high seas and winds. Developing an all-weather port at Williams Town is expected to involve a good deal of work off shore to mitigate extremes of wind and waves, potentially an expensive undertaking.
The timeline for the project is also an ambitious one, with the government saying construction will begin in early 2010 and be completed before the end of the following year. This leaves little time for the state to buy all the land required for the port, and to settle any legal disputes that may arise.
When announcing the project, Ingraham said the acquisition process would take time, with land owners to be given the opportunity to prove their ownership and take any necessary action needed following the government's assessment of the property's value.
Bethel acknowledged that this could be an involved process, one that had to be conducted carefully to ensure that there were no delays further down the track, and that, "All the T's are crossed and I's dotted."
If the government can get its lettering right, bringing the project in on time and on budget, the new port will be a significant addition to the country's transport network, helping to strengthen the all-important tourist trade, while also freeing up capacity at Freeport and adding value to transport side services.