The small island of Curaçao, a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands off the coast of Venezuela, recently kick-started the grand redevelopment of its largest harbour at the Port of Willemstad.

In July 2014, the Curaçao Ports Authority (CPA) unveiled its Rif Seaport Curaçao Master Plan, a two-phase redevelopment project aimed at modernising Willemstad, the second biggest seaport in the Kingdom of the Netherlands after Rotterdam, and already one of the most advanced and efficient ports within the Caribbean.

Since the construction of Willemstad’s first mega pier in 1999, Curaçao has seen great growth in its cruise sector, prompting an expansion of existent facilities to accommodate the increasing number of visitors and larger ships on the market.

CPA’s planned expansion therefore envisions the development of a second Mega Cruise Ship Pier capable of welcoming more frequent calls by larger cruise vessels. An adjacent promenade, complete with reliable ground transportation, pedestrian zones, entertainment, retail and dining facilities are also planned as part of the expansion.

With a final deadline in 2018, the project is currently expected to cost approximately $50m including landside and soft costs. But for an island country currently estimated to draw an annual $40m from its vibrant cruise tourism sector (according to market research firm Business Research and Economic Advisors (BREA)) the investment certainly looks worthwhile.

The Rif Seaport project: modernising a Caribbean hotspot

Strategically located in the southern Caribbean Sea with access points to United States, South America and Europe, the Port of Willemstad is a perpetually active hub of both goods transhipment and passenger transportation.

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By GlobalData

The capital city is also home to UNESCO World Heritage sites located in the protected downtown area and alongside various neighbourhoods, which serve as another pull factor for visitors across the world.

The Rif Seaport project, devised in collaboration with Curaçao’s Ministry of Economic Development, will be carried out in two phases and integrates three main interconnected components.

“The first phase, starting in early 2016, focuses on the construction of a brand new, second Mega Cruise Ship Pier.”

The first phase, starting in early 2016, focuses on the construction of a brand new, second Mega Cruise Ship Pier and upland connection point, an adjoining passenger arrivals area, a plaza, ground transportation area, as well as pedestrian connections to the current cruise site and beyond.

The second phase will see the delivery of a state-of-the art Rif Seaport Village complete with a marketplace, retail shops, food and entertainment options and a centralized ground transportation area linking the pier to other tourist attractions across the city via 35 bus routes for scheduled and independent tour operators.

Urban design and architecture firm LandDesign created the master plan for the remodelling of the entire St Anna’s Bay complex, including the Willemstad port project.

“LandDesign, with project collaborators 505Design, prepared a vision for the inner harbour calls for a balanced, incremental redevelopment of portions of the waterfront, while also recommitting other areas for continued, intensive maritime use,” their website reads.

“The vision draws from the framework of promoting connectivity, community, culture and commerce.”

A new public space for tourists and residents alike

Talking to Curaçao Business magazine, CPA managing director Humberto de Castro said: “In addition to the landside development being an attractive entertainment area, we have always looked at it as a logistical centre. The Rif Seaport is not the destination, Curaçao is. Tourists will always be encouraged to explore the island”.

A specific aim is to minimise the passenger “security area” to the edge to the pier so that the Seaport Village and its amenities are fully available to the wider public.

Organised around an open waterfront promenade, the Seaport will feature a combination of one and two-storey buildings in both modern and traditional Caribbean Dutch architecture and has an estimated construction time of 18 months, with developers promising its opening in early 2017.

CPA notes that “depending on market needs” the area lends itself to future expansion.

Early last year, Castro confirmed the project was “in progress” and CPA had held meetings in 2014 with Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines with the view of receiving their contribution as financial stakeholders.

Although details are still scarce, the remainder of the funding could be sourced from local investment institutions, according to project team chairman Vernon Huerta.

Welcoming future visitors: a boost for Curaçao’s tourism sector

The port’s redevelopment is playing on Curaçao’s strong point, namely its flourishing tourism sector. According to a “Tourism Master Plan 2015 – 2020” study by the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, “the tourism sector demonstrated resilience against outside shocks and was able to steadily increase its prominence in Curaçao’s economy.”

Today, tourism represents 18% of the island’s economy and nearly 23% of jobs are created and sustained directly or indirectly by the sector, the study states. Over a two-year period between 2012 and 2014, the number of cruise passenger increased by 30%, reaching almost 600,000 visitors by the end of 2014. As larger vessels are increasing their itineraries in the Southern Caribbean from seven to ten days, the trend is bound to continue.

“The opportunity here lies in impressing each tourist enough for them to consider visiting the island once.”

Analysing the economic contribution of a future mega pier, an article in Curaçao Business notes that changing perceptions are now casting Curaçao as “the best-kept secret in the Caribbean”.

The goals are certainly clear: Castro expressed his hopes that following the opening of the refurbished pier, the island’s cruise sector will manage to increase the number of visitors to one million per year, while growing their daily spending from $70 to $100 on average – an “attainable target” as described by Castro. Larger vessels mooring at the new mega pier would carry approximately 8,000 passengers on an average day.

“Every tourist is an opportunity to expose our island,” he said in an interview. “The opportunity here lies in impressing each tourist enough for them to consider visiting the island once again for a longer period of time or recommending it to their friends and family.”

Preserving the surrounding environment

In parallel, efforts are being made to ensure the project doesn’t pose an environmental threat to a popular diving spot located near the new pier’s construction site, as well as a mangrove area near the future Rif Seaport.

Castro acknowledges that although “preserving the island’s environmental state is and will always be” a priority, infrastructure developments are vital to “remain competitive and continuously develop the reputation of the island in the tourism industry.”

As CPA’s and fellow project leaders highlighted, “stakeholder collaboration, environmental considerations and consensus are all vital to the success of the Rif Seaport project and its goal to be a valuable addition to the island.”

The project’s chairman Huerta said that a dialogue has been organised between the Rif Seaport project team and its stakeholders, taxis, tour operators, catering companies, waterfront shop owners and the customs authority “to ensure the island is ready for this in 2017”.