With the size and number of cruise ships working the limited Caribbean market on the rise, cruise executives believe out islands will play an increasingly important roll in maintaining the quality of their cruise itineraries.

The executives said out islands are an answer to overcruised ports and small ports that may never be able to accommodate large ships. They also said out island experinences are an important part of the cruise activity mix that passengers value highly and will continue to demand.

Out islands, with their beach barbecues, water and land sports, and sometimes arts and crafsts shopping, are now employed by most lines operating m the Caribbean, including: NCL, RCCL, Admiral, Windstar, Exploration, Dolphin, Premier, Princess, Ocean, Windjammer and American Canadian. The industry credits NCL with starting the out island trend in the mid-1970s when it leased Great Stirrup Cay.

A few lines own or have exclusive arrangements for their private islands, such as RCCL having exclusive rights to Labadee, Princess to Mayreau Island, and NCL now owning Great Stirrup Cay. They have, however, allowed small non-competing ships to call on off days at these islands. Small lines like American Canadian which calls at Mayreau, and Windjammer, which calls at Great Stirrup Cay, may not have the financial resources to develop their own out islands but value the importance of them.

Some lines share islands on alternating calls. Windstar and Ocean use Palm Island in the Grenadines; Dolphin and Premier share Blue Lagoon Island (a.k.a. Salt Cay) in the Bahamas. Holland America recently announced its new purchase, the MV Homeric, would be calling Saturdays at Little Stirrup Cay next year an out island used by Admiral.

RCCL has been trying for a year to close a deal with the Dominician Republic for use of Cayo Levantado. Rich Steck, a spokesman for the line, said negotiations are moving slowly and that the line does not believe it will get an exclusive arrangement for the island. If negotiations fall through, RCCL has a dozen alternatives throughout the Caribbean " he said.

Caribbean Crowded

The reason the line is seeking to develop more out islands, said Steck, is the need for new port-of­ call experiences in the crowded Caribbean.

"The Caribbean is already crowded and is not getting any better. There are limiting factors anywhere you go. Everybody wants to call at San Juan and St. Thomas and even there it is getting harder to arrange calls," he said.

As an example, Steck cited Holland America's decision to call at both those ports with its newly purchased Homeric next year.

"There are only so many ports you can go to with large ships. You don't want to dump a thousand passengers on an island with six taxi cabs " he said. "So we are building our own ports of call to enhance the cruise experience."

Princess spokesman Max Hall called out islands "a day off from your cruise" that passengers look forward to. "They have fun in the ports, but towns can be busy, the shops full - it can be a hassle," he said.

Princess started its out island program because it wanted to give passengers a break on port­ intensive cruises and offer a different experience of just relaxing, he said. The line had used Palm Island unexclusively until it found Mayreau just five miles away in the Grenadine chain, where it now has a five-year exclusive contract.

"The Caribbean is supposed to be a fun-in-the-sun-relax place. You need an out island to really give passengers that," added Hall.

Admiral's yice President Sales & Marketing Robert Mahmarian agrees lines need an out island to deliver "what the caribbean is all about - islands and beaches." And that also makes out islands a competitive necessity, said the executive.

Competitive Edge

"When we started calling at Little Stirrup Cay, our comment cards got better results " said Mahmarian. Soon after, he said, Admiral's short cruise competitors Dolphin and Premier began using Salt Cay as an out island.

Mahmarian said that as more passengers experience cruises with out islands, they will demand the same of other lines. The out island experience is a "value price enhancement." He continued by saying Admiral had added Catalina Island to its three- and four-day cruises from Los Angeles.

The out island is also a way to have total control over the passengers experience for a day, unlike turrung them loose in port, said Mahmarian. "You want to control your product as much as you can, and we own them for the day, making sure they are well taken care of. " He said passengers have Little Stirrup Cay to themselves, with the usual sports and barbecue, but also get outpost bars so they are never far from refreshment and the line imports straw merchants to allow them some light shopping.

"The days of just cruising have ended. People want multiple activities, and to do things they have never done before," said Mahmarian.

Hit with Passengers

According to all the executives questioned, out islands are a source of much unsolicited praise as passengers make their comments on cards that' do not specifically ask about the out island.

In many cases, out islands are the number-one source of satisfaction on the cruise, however. Even with the sports-intensive nature of the out island experience, passengers young and old find it their favorite aspect, said Ed Mass, Executive Vice President of Dolphin.

"Passengers have a choice of staying in Nassau or on the ship, or going over to Blue Lagoon. Ninety percent choose to go to the island," he said. "It's definitely the number one attraction on our cruises." In fact, a frequent comment from passengers, even on the three-day cruise, is "Spend two days at Blue Lagoon," said the Dolphin executive.

An RCCL study of its out island program revealed that Europeans found Labadee to be one of their favorite aspects of the cruise; first timers rated it second behind St. Thomas; while repeat cruisers rated Labadee number one.

"If Dolphin were to cruise to another destination, we would look for an out island there also, it's that important," said Mass.

NCL recently added Catalina, which it will alternate calls at with short-cruise competitor Admiral, as an out island to its three- and four-day Mexico cruises from Los Angeles. The line admits another Caribbean out island is not out of the question.

"We pioneered the concept and it has worked very well for us," said Mike Smith, Vice President Marketing. "Great Stirrup Cay will continue to be a part of our upper Caribbean cruises and it could make good marketing sense to extend the concept to other NCL products as we continue to refine them."

Smith stated that if the line were to seek another out island, it would be in the Southern Caribbean for use on NCL's seven- and 10-day cruises from San Juan.