Bahamas Cruise Tourism Soars: A Conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper

Cruise visitation to the Bahamas is soaring. In 2023, the Bahamas welcomed 7.9 million cruise visitors—up 43 percent from the previous year. That’s out of a total of 9.6 million visitors, so guests arriving by cruise ship were the bulk of those numbers.

Travel Agent recently met one-on-one with Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper of the Bahamas. He also serves as minister of tourism, investments and aviation. So, we asked him what to expect for cruise tourism in 2024. The bottom line? Things are going to continue doing well. 

“It’s going to be steady this year,” says Cooper. “We are anticipating that this momentum will hold. We were 11 percent ahead in January 2024 than where we were in 2023, so we think we’re going to do equally as well this year. There are a lot of things in the pipeline that are very positive for us.”

Citing the opening of Disney Cruise Line’s Lighthouse Point in Eleuthera this summer, “we expect that’s going to be a boost,” he says. “The significant momentum that we’ve seen for 2023 is going to carry forward into 2024.”

Aerial view of the upcoming destination by Disney
Disney Cruise Line is building the new Lighthouse Point on Eleuthera. That new shoreside experience will open this summer. (Courtesy of Disney )

Another factor? “We’ve made significant investments in our ports and terminals,” Cooper says. And, “we’ve had a full year, now, of the Nassau cruise port. We can dock six ships here—six of the world’s largest.” So far, he says, bookings have been very strong for those pier berths. “We can accommodate up to 30,000 passengers a day, which is truly amazing.”

And with the enhanced facilities, smaller vessels can also be accommodated, so a record number of cruise ships—seven, including the 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit, for examplewere docked on March 12. That resulted in visitation by 20,009 cruise passengers on that one day. But the actual record number of passengers in port—some 29,316—was reached even a bit earlier on December 27, 2023. 

Enhancements completed in 2023 also have created a more welcoming aura for visitors. Enhanced aesthetics and functionality are important parts of the total $300 million investment in the Port of Nassau. Much has been done to create new experiences, revamp the downtown and create a Bahamian “Old World” charm, which Cooper believes offers “a sense of authenticity” for visitors.

For example, to board Sea Cloud Spirit earlier this month Travel Agent walked through the new pier entry corridor consisting of cute shops and colorful Bahamian buildings. We felt it was a pleasant experience for people walking to their ship, compared to what we’d recalled from a few years back. “They’ve been very intentional in attracting the type of vendors that showcase Bahamian products,” explains Cooper.

Plus, at the end of the shops’ area right before heading directly onto the cruise pier to reach their ship, guests can look up to see a gigantic screen with high-definition video of sharks and other marine life. Frankly, at first, we thought we were gazing into a real aquarium, before someone told us, “It’s just high-definition video.” But that wasn’t immediately detectable, and other visitors clearly had the same thought—many stopping to look at it and wondering as well. That was quite fun, actually. 

That pier area with the Bahamian-style structures, local products for sale and the undersea video offers “a sense of authenticity,” according Cooper. “We hope that all these things play well to attract new guests.”

In addition, “Carnival is building a new port in Freeport, Grand Bahama,” he adds. “And by 2027, they will have the capacity to attract 4 million new tourists. By the end of 2027, if you combine the new port that’s being built by MSC [Cruises] and RCL (Royal Caribbean International) in Grand Bahama, they will bring to Grand Bahama Island 5.5 million visitors.”

And, he says, “to put that in context, last year the Nassau cruise port brought 4.6 million. So, I think we are on the cusp of a Renaissance in cruising. Grand Bahama is a large island [with] lots of capacity with great infrastructure and we’re creating more experiences to ensure that we can accommodate all of our guests there.”

Big Ships Versus Small Ships

Some ports in the Caribbean region and even Key West in Florida have taken steps to avoid big ships arriving in port, but the Bahamas believes that it’s important to welcome those large ships in certain ports—given the tourism benefits, employment of local residents, existing infrastructure that can accommodate the visitors, experiences that showcase the isles, and overall economic benefits to the nation.

“No question,” says Cooper. “We want to share all of our offerings to the world. Cruising is good for our economy."

In addition, "it’s also a great way to give our guests a snapshot of what they can see and do if they stop over," he emphasizes. He believes that those who arrive on a cruise port call might also take time for a pre- or post-cruise stay or even a hotel or resort vacation in the future. “We’re hoping to convert many of the cruise visitors to stopover visitors.”

Given the Port of Nassau’s recent $300 million investment, “we want to maximize utilization by attracting the world’s largest ships. We have great proximity to Florida, the base for these cruises, and, therefore, we’re well-positioned to continue the growth that we’ve been seeing."

But there's more to the Bahamas than simply Nassau and Freeport. “We have 16 island destinations with unique attributes,” Cooper stresses, adding that "we do not encourage large ships into many of these islands. We welcome them in Nassau and in Freeport and in Bimini. But for many of our islands, we want to remain very quaint, low-density and, simply there isn’t the infrastructure, populations or amount of experiences to attract large ships."

Sea Cloud Spirit
The new Sea Cloud Spirit serves just 136 guests and is right-sized for visiting smaller Bahamian isles, says Deputy Prime MInister Chester Cooper. (Sea Cloud Cruises)

But smaller ships are welcome at those smaller isles. For example, the smaller, 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit, a new luxury boutique ship, plans to call at both Exuma and Eleuthera in the Bahamas as well as Key West, FL, on a new March 2025 cruise round-trip from Miami.

“Therefore, with Sea Cloud Cruises we’re able to attract some cruising without really catering to mass cruising," Cooper explains. "So, there’s an opportunity…to have tendering into various islands to see the sights, to enjoy the magnificent beauty of the waters, but at the same time doing it in a very sustainable, environmentally friendly way.”

He says the arrival of that small upscale ship this year "solidifies the Bahamas as a premium destination for cruise travel.” Attending a commemorative plaque ceremony for Sea Cloud Spirit’s inaugural call at Nassau, he told the audience, including Mirell Reyes, Sea Cloud's president for North America: “You see, we have range. We go from the world’s largest [ships] to the Sea Cloud brand.”

Dealing With "Been There, Done That"

Over the past several decades, many big-ship cruisers have started with a short cruise that calls at Nassau. So, if they’d traveled there in the past, some now would rather head for new destinations they haven't visited in the past. We asked Cooper how he’s trying to address that “been there, done that” perspective of some past Bahamas cruise guests.

His two-fold response is: “We continue to create new experiences so once you come on a cruise, we want you to come and be a stopover visitor." Secondly, “we’re sending the message loud and clear that the Bahamas is more than just Nassau.”

Given the Bahamas' multiple isles—both big and small—Cooper believes that no matter what travelers wish to do there’s something for them whether it’s doing nothing on an island beach, going deep sea fishing, swimming with sharks or doing nightclubs and casinos. “So, if you’ve been to Nassau, you want to go to the other destinations, as well.”

The country is also adding new investments, new hotels, new airports and new experiences for tourism. A new Tourism Development Council (TDC) was formed last year to help Bahamians create new tours and experiences for guests.

Cooper's prime message for both new cruise guests and past repeat visitors is this: "We have a very diverse experience."

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