While Caribbean cruising is booming, the business climate is getting tougher. The change is driven partially by the cruise lines' need for additional revenue generation to compensate for discounted ticket prices, and by 9/11, which has put ships into new U.S. homeports and on itineraries closer to the mainland.
The immediate main benefactor of this development is the W estem Caribbean, with ships even being paid to call in Colon and with "affordable" Belize building up a strong cruise business virtually overnight.
Still, the ports with marquee value in the Eastern Caribbean are maintaining their traffic. Others have been able to compensate for the westward migration of American-based ships with European ships. Many ports are also embarking on new efforts to lure the ships back - by building new facilities and by marketing themselves aggressively.
The bottom line was summarized by one port authority executive who asked that the statement not be attributed to him: "If you do not contribute enough to their (the cruise lines') bottom line, it is goodbye. And they do not want to hear about head tax. They do not want to pay us. They want us to pay them to come."
But the islands that are seeing booming cruise business also risk the ire of their own domestic tourism industry, which in many cases has seen its own business fall off dramatically, as many Americans and Europeans remain leery of flying.
Passenger Spending Fluctuating
While passenger traffic is up, passenger spending is not and that is true for all the islands, according to William Tatham, vice president of cruise shipping and marine operations for the Jamaica Port Authority. "We are all feeling it," he said. "Spending is down as cruises have gone from mostly the high-end market to being mass market. Today's passengers look for deals and buy one souvenir where in the past they would buy three or four," he added. But the picture is not all bleak, as Jamaica bas instead been able to boost revenues on shore excursions. "What we lose in the shops, we are making up on the attractions," Tatham said. "We offer a wide diversity of attractions and the cruise lines' onboard sales are very effective."
Today's cruise passengers are spending less with the exception of those walking off the Carnival Destiny, which is a "buying ship," according to Milton Henriquez, managing director of the Aruba Port Authority, who said he was quoting merchants and shopkeepers.
In St. Thomas, Edward Thomas, CEO of the West Indian Company, was upbeat: "The merchants are telling us that passenger spending is good," he said.
Jamaica is also trying to bomeport more ships, which the Chairman of the Tourist Board, Dennis Morrison, said in a teleconference, "brings business to area hotels and local suppliers." With two ships homeporting this season, Tatham added: "We would like up to four ships homeporting." He also explained bow Festival Cruises' Mistral embarks 25 to 30 percent of its passengers in Jamaica.
The passengers for the three ships are mainly European and the cruise lines provide their own air, but there is ample scheduled airlift into Jamaica, Tatham added. Furthermore, Vancouver Airport Services has recently taken over the airport and plans to invest US$200 million for expansion and refurbishment, according to Tatham.
Trinidad and Tobago hopes to make the Southern Caribbean region more attractive, according to Ancil Bowen, deputy general manager of ad.ministration at the port authority. He said that Trinidad and Tobago, together with Curacao, Margarita Island, Grenada and Barbados, offers attractive itinerary options for a cruise line looking for something different.
Ships could homeport in either Trinidad and Tobago or Barbados, according to Bowen.
In Grand Bahama, Chris Gray, executive director of the Freeport Harbour Company, also outlined bomeport plans, pointing out the synergies offered by the Grand Bahama Airport, the Freeport Container Port and the Grand Bahama Shipyard.
Meanwhile, in the U.S.V.I., Thomas is not very interested in bomeporting. He does not mind the small ships, but said that be would not like to see bomeporting of big ships. "We want the passengers to stay here for a day and spend money," he said, "not to just go from the airport to the ship and sail away.
With the cruise traffic going west, European ships are supporting Guadeloupe's cruise tourism, according to Sylviane Samyde, cruise director for the port authority. She noted that most of the European passengers combine a one-week cruise with a one-week hotel stay. Most are French as Guadeloupe is French territory. Samyde attributed the downturn this winter season partially to Europeans being leery of flying as well as the shift of ships to U.S. homeports - which makes Guadeloupe too far for a seven-day itinerary.
In Jamaica, Josef Fortsmayr, president of the hotel and tourist association, said they were still "grappling with the challenge of turning cruise visitors into land visitors." He suggested that part of the problem was when passengers visited Jamaica after having been to the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, which he described as "antiseptic," they would come ashore to a vibrant and colorful Jamaica. He said that while that may tum some cruise passengers off, Jamaica's goal is "to make sure that all passengers are universally happy when they leave the island."
While business may be booming in the neighboring Cayman Islands, a source there said that underneath it all, there is a lingering conflict between land-based tourism and cruise. While cruise is booming, the hotels and resorts are suffering, he said, adding that be did not want to "be in the middle of this very controversial issue."
Martinique bas claimed a "major breakthrough for cruise tourism" as the long-standing conflict with the taxi drivers is over, according to Jacques Baja!, director of the cruise department at the board of tourism. The French government bad pushed through an agreement to standardize the professional operating practices of taxi drivers and a plan to support the retirement of the oldest drivers. In return the taxi unions have accepted that passengers and tour operators can choose their own form of transportation, including busses.
The cruise companies are of vital importance to many of the Caribbean destinations. In St. Kitts, cruise passengers account for approximately 75 percent of all the visitors to the island, according to Aurelie Lam, senior tourism officer. "Their presence is vital for our economy," she said. "We want people who don't know us to get to know us. Much of this starts with the cruise passengers who visit the island for only a day. We have a captive audience who could be interested in coming back to our island if we do our jobs right," she added.
While St. Kitts seeks to attract more business, it is also concerned about maintaining its charm as a relatively undiscovered destination. "It is a fine balance we will work to maintain," Lam said. "Understandably, we also want to maximize the economic benefit of tourism for our island and its people."
With the industry consolidation, the general manager of the Grenada Port Authority, Ambrose Phillip, said. "It is important for them (the lines) to understand the impact they are having on the destinations." He also hopes that more islands in the Eastern Caribbean can develop further business opportunities with the cruise lines - "whether we (the islands) provide crew, staff or goods," he said.
In Curacao, Dino Daal, product development and cruise tourism manager for the Curacao Tourism Development Bureau, said he saw owth opportunities beyond 2003, but he was also concerned about how a war would affect the business. And, he voiced concern about how the merger between Carnival Corporation and P&O Princess Cruises would affect the island.
In St. Maarten, Rommel Charles, managing director of the port authority, said that he was also concerned with the changing demo aphics of cruise passengers, which means they are spending less ashore. In addition, the ships themselves offer passengers many possibilities to spend their money onboard, he added.
But his biggest concern is the stability of the industry itself. "I am concerned that terrorism and war will have a negative impact on cruise tourism," Charles said.
Meanwhile, Belize is on a fast growth track, from 58,000 passengers in 2000 to a projected 550,000 this year and 740,000 next year, according to Noel Escalante, deputy registrar of hotels and tourist accommodations. He attributed the growth to Belize being in a " eat location, offering everything, and being quite affordable."