Chukka Adventures in expansion mode
$80-m in new parks; now in Bahamas, Belize
Business Observer Tourism writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Melville brothers - Marc and Alexander, and their business partner, John Byles, have developed a soft adventure park on the tiny Bahamian island of Little San Salvador - part of an $80 million series of theme park investments being undertaken throughout the region this year by the group.

The Melvilles who own Chukka Caribbean Adventures - operators of Chukka Cove and Chukka Blue Adventure - have exported their brand to Little San Salvador, in an arrangement with Holland America Cruise Lines, which owns the islands, and whose passengers will have exclusive use of the soft adventure park.

"The park will be the first in (the region) to be set up for sole use by a cruise line," Marc Melville, co-managing director of Chukka Caribbean Adventures, told the Business Observer.

The park which represents an investment of $12 million, will provide horseback riding to Holland's cruise passengers. Scheduled to open in November, it will be the fifth major investment by the business partners for 2004.

The venture in the Bahamas represents the second investment by the partners outside of Jamaica, and is in line with their objective of anchoring their Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Jamaica, while expanding it into a genuine regional enterprise.

A year ago, the partners invested in a similar attraction in Belize, which Melville describes as "virgin territory". The sparsely populated country attracts one million cruise passengers each year from a single port of call - a factor which according to Melville, allows his company to attract significant patronage from its single site.

"It allows us to concentrate our investment in one area and not spread ourselves too thin," he explains.

In contrast, Jamaica attracts a similar number of cruise passengers, but those visitors are spread out between two ports - Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.

Melville believes that the attractions, by broadening and deepening the range of interesting activities in which tourists can engage, will create value-added for the industry, not only by encouraging more visitors to leave the ships when they dock at the ports, but by actually generating more passengers for the cruise lines.

"Part of their plan is to come up with additional value-added activities for their guests visiting the island," says the 34 year-old entrepreneur, of the cruise lines.

Interestingly, all the major cruise lines operating in the Caribbean, except Carnival Cruise, own one of the tiny Bahamian islands. With passengers not being required to pay head tax, the cruise lines are now trying to develop these islands to add value to their vacation experience.

Chukka Caribbean Adventures has been the company in the region that has been mostly engaged in this synergistic arrangement with passenger lines, and has since this year undertaken the following adventures:

. AVT (quads) Tour facilities in Negril and Ocho Rios - an $8 million investment which opened in July.

. Canopy Tour in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios - a $30 million investment which opened in January.

. Canopy Tour in Belize - a US$300,000 investment to open in October.

. Airboat & Juggle Buggie in Belize - a US$200,000 investment to open in October.

. Horse-riding facility in the Bahamas - a $12 million investment to open in November.

Melville says that his company's strategy is to negotiate exclusive deals with cruise lines - leveraging its reputation of reliability and safety in the soft adventure business, a reputation which he says has been built up over the years from its operation in St Ann.

"We are able to achieve this because of a proven track record - especially our safety record, the fact that we have documented systems and procedures, and, of course, our highly trained staff," he told the Business Observer.

Each month more than 10,000 tourists visit Chukka's Jamaican tours facilities, the majority of them cruise ship passengers.

It is therefore not surprising that it is the cruise lines that are at the forefront of this thrust towards creating new and value-added attractions in the islands at which they call.

"They are always looking for unique tour offerings to attract new customers on tour at each port of call, rather than simply re-distributing the numbers that are already going on tour," explains Melville. "When that happens, the cruise line gets more people on tour rather than having to re-distribute the number on board."

It was the cruise lines for example, that prompted the interest of the Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Belize, according to Melville.

He explains: "When the cruise lines told us two years ago that they were going to go into the Belizian market seriously, and that they wanted attractions like ours down there for their passengers, we took a year to explore the market, got a local partner, and by the next year we were up and running."

Melville declares the attractions business in Jamaica to be "really taking off now, as attractions are as big a part of the destination as the accommodation. What you're seeing is a marriage between the hotels and ourselves".

The rapid growth of his own company mirrors the development that has been taking place across the entire industry.

For back in 1999, the business, started a few years earlier by their father, and former member of parliament, Danny Melville, was a two-tour, 30-employee operation.

Today, while the older Melville has retired and resides in Barbados, Chukka Caribbean Adventure which represents the merger earlier this month between Chukka Cove and Chukka Blue Adventure - offers 17 tours, and has 300 employees.

With this fast-paced growth, Chukka now ranks as the second largest soft adventure tour operation in the Caribbean, after the Canadian-owned Atlantis Adventure which is based in the Bahamas, and which operates from 17 regional destinations.

Melville says that attraction companies are keeping up with the growth in the industry by putting in place "professional management, and sophisticated and aggressive marketing programmes".

They also have to reinvest in the physical infrastructure to maintain the product at a high level.

"We are re-investing almost every penny back into growing the business," notes Melville. "We are taking stock of everything we're doing right now and putting in place a good corporate structure which will create a platform for growth over the next five years."

As part of that structure, John Byles, who recently sold his interest in Lets Investments to Pan Caribbean Financial Services, is Chukka's co-managing director, in addition to being a capital partner in the venture. Alexander Melville is the director of finance.

Editor's note:

There are generally three categories of attractions - parks, water sports, and soft adventure. Both Dunn's River Falls and Dolphin Cove in St Ann rank as parks.