Aggressive Caribbean ports can reap substantial rewards from the new fleet of ships that will be cruising their waters in the next few years, according to several industry spokespeople.

While some industry observers question whether the Caribbean can absorb the additional capacity, others, like Bob Dickinson, vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines said that the Caribbean is a big place, with plenty of room for growth.

"So few people understand the size of our industry. They talk about saturation in the Caribbean, yet last year, there were only about 1.3 million Passengers in the entire region, compared to the 5 million tourists who land in Hawaii alone each year," he commented.

According to Dickinson, we will see some new ports of call in the next few years. "It depends on the commitment of the governments to provide the infrastructure," he said. Eleuthra, new areas in the British Virgin Islands, and other parts of Puerto Rico are among the destinations he mentioned as having the capacity to become major ports of call.

Those interviewed said that the additional capacity is creating congestion at some ports, causing cruise lines to search for alternatives. In addition, the cruise lines need to find new and exotic destinations to keep repeaters coming back.

Many of the ports in the Caribbean are operationally overtaxed," said Rod McLeod, president of Norwegian Caribbean Line. "Bermuda already restricts the number of calls and St. Thomas is often handling 10 ships at once. Grand Cayman also has problems but they are addressing them."

In addition, the Bahamas Tourist Board recently expressed concern that cruise traffic was deterring from land package revenues.

"This creates a great opportunity for new ports to capture their share of the lucrative cruise business, according to Jay Lewis, president of Market Scope, the Miami-based consumer research firm. "For them, the benefits will be outstanding."

Need Commitment of Caribbean Governments

"The Caribbean governments must recognize what needs to be done to properly service the cruise lines," McLeod said. "This means expanding facilities, and improving services such as land tours, ground transportation and baggage handling."

"There is also an opportunity for aggressive tourism officials to identify and develop out islands adjacent to the cruise lanes," McLeod added.

McLeod also said that he prefers to see tourism officials devoting their energies to promoting the island, rather than visiting the cruise lines. "Creating demand for a destination is key to developing it for cruising."

New Far-Reaching Caribbean

A growing number of operators are moving their ships to the lower Caribbean, an area with vast potential for the industry, many spokespeople commented.

San Juan and Bridgetown are the two ports that have attracted the most attention and business to date.

According to those interviewed, these destinations are ideal for home-porting because they are deep in the Caribbean, offering operators an opportunity to include more ports on seven-day cruises, and destinations that are less well-known.

The key, however, are the good air connections into these islands from North America, several executives said.

Carnival, Chandris, Costa, Cunard, Exploration Ocean, Princess, Royal Cruise Line, Sitmar, and Sun Line are offering cruises from San Juan this winter, and RCCL and NCL will be joining them next year. Cunard Sea Goddess, Exploration, Exprinter, and Ocean sail from Barbados.

McLeod said that good air service to Grenada makes that port a good candidate for a home base, as well. From these ports, a wide variety of itineraries to "exotic" destinations are possible. Panama Canal cruises, cruises along the coast of South America, and calls at Trinidad, Tobago, Curacao and other ports that are currently overlooked by the industry are among those that were cited.

In addition, there are also the cruises to the Bahamas and Virgin Islands, and the Western Caribbean/Mexican Riviera cruises.

As Dickinson pointed out, "the Caribbean is vast, and there is enough variety to satisfy both the mass and upscale markets."