by Gemma Handy
Cruise ship passengers brought Heritage Quay alive yesterday, giving welcome business to everyone from portrait painters to boutiques. But for traders at the Redcliffe Quay counterpart, it was another day of sitting patiently awaiting the visitors which once used to flock here in droves.
For the beleaguered business owners in the historic area – who pride themselves on unique artisan wares – it’s all the more galling after 15 long months when no cruise ships visited St John’s at all.
On Thursday, with the behemoth Jewel of the Seas in port, giving forth hundreds of tourists keen to sample the city, Redcliffe Quay traders once again bemoaned an absence of customers.
Hopes were high when the first passenger-laden vessel docked in the capital to much fanfare in July, that the resumption of cruising would reap prompt dividends for the stores, eateries and vendors who have longed relied on short-term visitors for a livelihood.
But the need to curtail Covid contagion which put the brakes on the sector in March 2020 saw shoppers restricted not just in numbers but to guided tours too, hindering much-needed sales.
Exacerbating matters further is something slightly more organic.
The boardwalk linking Nevis Pier with Heritage Quay – where the bulk of the vast vessels dock – has been closed to pedestrians since the pandemic made its impact felt on the country in spring last year.
Government says the above-water walkway has been deemed unsafe and the bill for replacing it was yesterday estimated to top EC$200,000.
“Since ships have been coming back, we have barely seen anyone off them,” one Redcliffe Quay shop owner told Observer yesterday. “Even the taxi drivers who used to park this side don’t bother anymore which means we see even less business.”
Cruise passengers are free to walk through the town itself to reach Redcliffe Quay but local vendors say few bother.
One trader said revenue was down as much as 70 percent on pre-Covid levels.
“Two years ago, 80 percent of my sales were from the ships. Now 90 percent of the few sales I get are from local residents and hotel guests,” she explained.
Artist Stephen Murphy, who creates a variety of hand-crafted pieces for sale in his shop Zemi, told Observer that a lack of foot traffic from the tour buses which used to pull up near Nevis Pier was also having a dramatic effect on revenue.
“Fixing the boardwalk will definitely help. Those of us who live here know how to get to Redcliffe Quay, but if you’re just walking down the the street off a ship you wouldn’t know it’s here.
“Until they make those repairs we’re going to have a problem. I have made just US$35 today,” Murphy said.
“I understand that if someone trips and falls on the boardwalk it will cause an issue, but closing it makes no sense when the whole of St John’s is in the same state,” he added.
On Thursday, Information Minister Melford Nicholas said a proposal to replace the boardwalk had been received and that government pledged to complete it “in the shortest possible time”.
“It is a matter that continues to occupy the Minister of Tourism’s attention,” he told the weekly post-Cabinet press conference.
Nicholas acknowledged there was “anxiety” about the issue, which he hoped would soon be alleviated.
“We expect to see more and more cruise ships coming into the harbour and clearly there is going to be sufficient business for everyone to benefit from,” he added.
More than 60 ships are due to dock in the country next month, according to the Antigua Cruise Port schedule. The vast majority will dock in Heritage Quay, with seven due to arrive at the Nevis Pier and a handful in Falmouth and Barbuda.
Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez pledged the boardwalk works would take up to six weeks to complete.
For fed-up Redcliffe Quay business owners – many of whom say they are hanging on by a thread – that cannot come soon enough.