The Caribbean is well established as a favoured destination for cruise lines and passengers, offering a varied itinerary and a favourable climate. However, it is not only the beauty and cultural appeal of the ports of call that is drawing in more cruise business to the area.

Looking to the future, the region has considerable opportunity for growth, but ports wishing to capitalise on the sustained appeal of Caribbean cruises must ensure that they provide the right amenities to suit both passengers and ship operators, according to Peter Cox, director of itinerary development and land operations for Seabourn Cruise Lines. “The Caribbean is considered a safe region with an exotic ring to it,” he says. “It is the nearest place to the USA where passengers are virtually guaranteed good weather. It’s accessible, especially since all the main cruise operators have started to offer Caribbean cruises from the many different ports all over the USA.”

As well as its accessibility for the key US market and its predictably warm weather, which draws US tourists for short trips, the region also has appeal for European tourists, for whom it represents a more exotic destination for longer luxury trips.

“Operating in the Caribbean is considerably cheaper than operating in Europe.”

For cruise operators, it also holds many advantages, including lower cost profiles and diversity. “Operating in the Caribbean is considerably cheaper than operating in Europe, where the cost base is much higher,” says Cox. “Caribbean distances between islands are short, while the major cruise lines that operate routinely in the Caribbean on a year-round basis have great control over their product planning and delivery, which benefits the cost of operations.”

OPPORTUNITY FOR NEW DESTINATIONS

With its appeal to passengers from North America and Europe, as well as its favourable cost profile for cruise lines, many more ports in the Caribbean region have a chance to stake a claim for a place on the itineraries of major operators, particularly as many of the traditional ports of call are becoming congested. “As the fleets of the major cruise lines grow, there’s a need for new destinations,” says Cox. “We have seen the major cruise companies, in particular Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean, starting to invest in infrastructure in destinations that have potential and are within reach.

“Good examples are Cozumel and Belize, where Carnival is involved, while Royal Caribbean has announced that it will invest in a new cruise pier in Roatan, Honduras.” Carnival has also begun to develop Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, in the Eastern Caribbean, where a port and a complete shoreside infrastructure are in development.

“Ports wishing to capitalise on the sustained appeal of Caribbean cruises, must provide the right amenities to suit both passengers and ship operators.”

Cruise lines have played a major part in the development of some destinations, including private islands in the Bahamas or near Haiti, often leased by cruise lines that manage the property and structure the amenities. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Other ports vying for business need to look closely at what these companies need. Above all, they need to provide a safe berth for ships, along with a varied menu of excursions, beaches, shopping and passenger entertainments. As new cruise lines are not expected to begin operating in the region, keeping a close eye on the preferences of the existing operators is key for any developing destination.

“I anticipate that all of the major players will continue to introduce their newest and biggest ships in the Caribbean,” says Cox. “The large companies with a year-round presence in the Caribbean are most interested in its development. So, I suspect that Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean in particular will remain the main players to invest in infrastructure, although new facilities will benefit all operators.”

TARGETING THE RIGHT MARKET

The cruise companies present in the market have different strategies, and ports will need to recognise where they might fit into these approaches. For certain types of cruises, the emphasis may be on attractions on board the ships, especially for those cruise operators offering year-round Caribbean itineraries, many of which are building ever bigger ships that serve as destinations in their own rights.

“An ability to work closely with the cruise operator to design onshore experiences may well be a port’s greatest asset.”

When these mega ships call into port, they will require varied excursions and, usually, beaches of a high standard. In such instances, an ability to work closely with the cruise operator to design onshore experiences may well be a port’s greatest asset.

Other cruise lines, including Cox’s company Seabourn, operate smaller luxury vessels, which operate in the Caribbean only for a limited season. Their itineraries tend to favour less crowded destinations, so there is an opportunity for a different kind of port to cater for cruise business.

“Whereas the large vessels go alongside at Philipsburg in St Maarten, Seabourn ships anchor at Marigot Bay on the French side of the Island,” says Cox. “Instead of calling at St John’s in Antigua we may anchor at Rodney Bay, we might use Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands instead of Road Town, stop at Nevis instead of St Kitts, or Deshaies instead of Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe.”

The focus is on offering guests a quality experience. “To offer our guests a luxury vacation away from the crowds we anchor in many other places where the big vessels can’t get in, such as Cruz Bay in St John in the US Virgin Islands, Bequia in the Grenadines and Gustavia in St Barts,” he adds. “But, in order to offer consecutive one-week cruises without repeating ports, and for operational reasons, such as waste disposal or taking on fresh water, we sometimes must call at ‘big-ship’ ports.

“Only for the terminal ports is it important that we dock at a port with a good infrastructure and good airlift – Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas or Bridgetown, Barbados, for example.” Currently, Seabourn operates as an ultra-luxury, high per diem cruise line, so its demand for Caribbean cruises is limited.

It operates in the region for around 60 days a year. However, the preferred type of destinations for such operators presents an opportunity for some ports to develop further. “As our guests expect a quality destination experience we look for ports where the large ships can’t enter, remaining at anchor much of the time,” notes Cox. “With a mere 200 guests on our all-suite ships, tendering guests ashore to a boat landing at a picturesque locale, or at a beach for an exclusive Seabourn beach party in the surf is routine, whereas it would not be possible for ships carrying ten or 15 times that number of passengers. Avoiding congested ports is definitely our aim.”

Targeting the right market is crucial for any port wishing to find its way onto the itinerary of a major cruise line, and recognising its unique advantages will be the first important step. Though the main bulk of the Caribbean cruise business is likely to remain the kind of ‘fun-in-the-sun’ style break favoured by many US tourists, those destinations that can appeal to the higher-end, luxury, long-haul cruises will find a growing niche.

“Destinations that can appeal to the higher-end, luxury, long-haul cruises will find a growing niche.”

For both types of cruises, interest in the Caribbean is still growing and, as cruises become a more popular choice for a more varied demographic, now is a good time for new destinations to start carving out a niche. Cooperating with cruise lines and keeping track of their changing needs, along with developing the right infrastructure, is perhaps the most important step any port can take towards capitalising on the growing popularity of the cruise market.