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St John’s development coming closer?

Much speculation surrounds the progress of the much anticipated, much needed but often doubted port development projects in Antigua.

It has become a hot topic in maritime circles as conjecture grows about the sources and reliability of the project’s promised and extensive foreign investment. In recent months the Antiguan government has made a series of announcements and signed a few memorandums of understanding, but many of them have not materialized.

The scope of the proposed investment is significant. Figures of up to US$ 2.3 billion of potential investment have been bandied around, mainly by the US-based Kylin International Group, which presented its plans in conjunction with the Las Vegas design company Friedmutter Group in October 2014.

Kylin’s proposal includes relocating the cargo facilities at the Port of St John’s, extending the wharf at Deepwater Harbor, developing three new finger piers and dredging the harbor channel and turning basin to 60 ft to accommodate the largest cruise ships now in operation. There will also be investment in new buildings and equipment.

The proposal includes a redevelopment of the port’s operational areas to ease congestion and allow the port to receive larger cruise ships. The cruise terminal project includes warehousing, retail outlets, Mediterranean-style restaurants, a modern promenade from the ship and a designated taxi stand.

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 Free zone

The government also plans to create an Economic Free Zone within the port that will act as a center for trade, manufacture and assembly warehousing. This is expected to transform the economic fortunes of Antigua and create several hundred new jobs.

In addition, there are plans to make English Harbour a duty free port. The aim is to offer cruise passengers an enhanced shopping experience and thus help stimulate the economy.

Working with the Chinese state-owned energy company PowerChina, Kylin proposes to complete the Rat Island dredging; to move the cargo port to Crabbs Peninsula; to extend the Rat Island wharf by several hundred feet westward; and to develop the north side of the inner harbor with shops, hotels, a marina and a boardwalk. Developments also include construction of a dedicated container terminal with several gantry cranes, to modernize the operations of the port.

However, as this issue of CM went to press the only confirmed details were that the Kylin Group proposed to undertake a hotel development and golf courses on an offshore island.

The Antigua Port Authority has recently signed a financing agreement in January with China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCEC) to commence the ‘sweeping of the harbor’ at the beginning of February 2015. This is maintenance dredging to remove silt and debris from the seabed in the harbor. It was revealed at the signing agreement that the Trinidad and Tobago-based group Ansa McAl would be undertaking the maintenance dredging.

Another and possibly conflicting agreement – between the Chinese government, the government of Antigua and Barbuda and CCEC – to provide more than US$ 200 million covers the port development project and includes a new cruise berth, marine and cargo and logistics areas. Further news is awaited on the details.

Pledging support for joint initiatives between the cruise lines and the government – initiatives aimed at returning the destination to its former status as a leading cruise port – the Hon. Molwyn Joseph, Minister of Health & Environment, said earlier in 2014: “The overall development of Antigua and Barbuda’s cruise industry will be against the backdrop of ensuring that there is sustainability in the destination’s strategies and day-to-day management and marketing. This will improve our future prospects and our ability to compete effectively in the cruise industry.”

The government and its partners are working with cruise operators to build a long-term relationship. The goal is to provide cruise passengers with an enhanced visitor experience and to enable the larger vessels coming into service in the near future to be accommodated at the island’s port.

Leading destination

Fifteen years ago, Antigua was one of the Caribbean’s leading cruise destinations. It was the first Eastern Caribbean destination to have four dedicated cruise ship berths. But economic decline and falling numbers have left their mark. Antigua and Barbuda is now reported to have some of the lowest passenger disembarkation rates in the Caribbean, while Heritage Quay is one of the most poorly rated cruise terminals in the region.

It is not all bad news, however. Antigua and Barbuda still welcomes some 600,000 cruise ship passengers each year, with an expected increase of 20 per cent projected this year to almost 700,000 passengers.

A US$ 1.7 million loan from the Caricom Development Fund is already being used to enhance and beautify Heritage Quay, including a new sea wall.

General improvements include collection areas for waste run-off, road repairs and renovated sidewalks and gutters to enhance the general appearance of the locale.

The President of the Antigua and Barbuda Cruise Tourism Association (ABCTA), Nathan Dundas, says he is confident that this long-awaited development of the cruise tourism product will position the twin island state to return to the forefront of the cruise industry in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and the Caribbean as a whole.

While dredging and other engineering work is due to commence at the end of the tourism season in April 2015, the beautification program is expected to be completed during the 2014-15 tourism season that began in November.

At Caribbean Maritime, we will watch these developments with interest.