The Caribbean has long been a favourite destination of cruise lines, the eastern islands in particular. But in the last few years, the western side of the region is proving to be just as popular, with cruise lines expanding their ports of call.

Princess Cruises’ presence in the Caribbean continues to grow. In 2006/07, the line will boast eight ships on 11 itineraries. This will include the new 113,000t, 3,100-passenger Crown Princess, which is scheduled for delivery in spring 2006, as well as inaugural sailings from the line’s new homeport of New Orleans.

To ensure smooth sailing in the Caribbean, cruise industry veteran Stephen A Nielsen, vice president of Caribbean & Atlantic Shore Operations for Princess Cruises, has a wealth of experience in the industry. He has been with the line for 35 years, and was appointed to his present position in 1995. He manages Princess’ relationships with federal, state and local government officials in the Caribbean and Florida, and is responsible for managing marine and other related operational matters in the Caribbean.

HOT NEW PORTS

“The first cruise of many passengers is the eastern Caribbean and they may have been there several times – now they are looking for new destinations.”

While every year certain areas are ‘discovered’ and become the latest travel hot spots, the Caribbean is a slightly different character. “I don’t think there has been a necessary shift in popularity from western Caribbean to the west,” says Nielsen, “but rather a continuing growth in cruising in west. While not new, its popularity has been gone from strength to strength in the past ten years.”

This is partly due to the region’s variety of destinations. “In the western Caribbean, there are the Grand Caymans, Mexico, Belize and Roatan,” he explains. “The Caribbean as a whole hasn’t changed greatly, not to the extent that the western region has,” he explains. “The first cruise of many passengers is the eastern Caribbean and they may have been there several times. Now they are looking for new destinations.”

The main port of call on the western route has been Jamaica’s Montego Bay, and now other lesser-known port calls have been introduced. “Cozumel, Roatan, Playa del Carmen, Belize, Costa Maya and the Caymans are as essential to the itinerary as Jamaica is,” Nielsen says. “I’ve seen a resurgence in the area because of a change in the passengers’ interests. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

“Instead of just being drawn by the sun and scenery, they are now more interested in the area’s culture and history, in particular Mexico’s Mayan ruins; the eco-tourism of Belize and Roatan; and Guatemala and Costa Rica. The natural beauty, history and culture of this region is just incredible and people want to see it.”

PRAM PUSHERS AND ADVENTURE-SEEKERS

Once the haunt of honeymooners and couples, tourists from all backgrounds are visiting the Caribbean. “The typical seven-day Caribbean cruises cater to a wide range of ages, including young families, while the longer cruises tend to attract older passengers, with more time to travel,” says Nielsen.

The region also attracts cruisers due to its adventure-filled shore excursions. “We have to be smarter in how we develop the shore excursions and tours. The days of the old three-hour circle island tour with a stop at the duty-free shop are not as popular as they once were,” he says. “Passengers are younger and more physically active. They want to take part in activities such as photography, bicycle tours, snorkelling and scuba-diving.”

EXPANSION FOLLOWS DEMAND

It is the destination that attracts the cruisers, according to Nielsen, and ports are now improving facilities to meet demand: “Ports are now gearing up for the growth in popularity. St Martaan didn’t have a berth until just a few years ago, but was still a very popular destination.”

“Back then there were no shore-side facilities whatsoever, just the events of the day. We would anchor and take the passengers ashore and they would walk into town and take the tours. It wasn’t until about five years ago that a cruise ship terminal was built there. The port is now working to expand the four-ship terminal to accommodate two more ships to meet demand. A new tender facility is also being built in the Cayman Islands.”

“Instead of just being drawn by the sun and scenery, passengers are now more interested in the area’s culture and history.”

Nielsen speaks of the necessity that creates these expansions: “Ideally, you want to have the ship right alongside the berth. When the destination realises enough business – and that this will continue – then they’ll be able to build a facility from the revenue the cruise industry brings in.”

“It’s not like an airport where you have to build it to land the planes. Belize is an example where there is no pier, and ships have to anchor a distance from town. As more people visit the area, then they will then have the resources to create the necessary facilities.”

MARKET SQUEEZER

As cruisers seek new destinations, smaller ports are increasing their share of the popularity polls. “St Vincent in the Grenadines is a relatively smaller port and its business is growing,” says Nielsen. “St Kitts is also a small destination that has realised that tourism is an alternate economy driver for them.”

He notes that with the growing interest in the smaller islands, the larger ports will see their market share being reduced. “Despite the growing number of ships, these smaller destinations are able to absorb the number of cruise ships and passengers,” he says.

LOCATION, LOCATION

For passengers coming from the USA, it is not just what the western Caribbean offers, but the convenience of location that attracts them. “The area is now more accessible to the newly burgeoning homeports in the USA, such as Galveston, Houston, Gulfport, Mobile and New Orleans, Princess’ new homeport,” comments Nielsen. “Those ships being based there make it easier to get to the western side of the Caribbean.”

Princess has also restored its port facilities in Fort Lauderdale and last year added Galveston to its homeport base. “More cruise lines are homeporting their ships further away from Miami and other ports in South Florida,” he adds. “We’re putting the Crown Princess into Brooklyn, New York next summer, when it will sail on nine-night Caribbean cruises, with port calls including Grand Turk, Jamaica and Grand Cayman. The Grand Princess will be based in Galveston, Texas, and from here Cozumel, Cayman and Jamaica can be easily reached.”

For Princess Cruise Lines, what the passenger wants, the line will do its best to get. “As interest grows in the Caribbean, we start looking for new homeports,” says Nielsen. “That is what drives which ports we can get to on those itineraries. We will always be looking for what is new and exciting for Princess passengers.”