Martinique is planning on becoming a major homeport by the early 1990s pending the completion of a new airport. Windstar Sail Cruises, which recently homeported one ship in Fort-de-France for the winter seasons, was forced to move that vessel when Eastern Airlines suspended its airlift from the United States to Martinique.
Meanwhile, Martinique, which last year attracted 558 ship calls and some 388,000 passengers, is planning to build a new $5 million cruise terminal close to the town center and adjacent to the harborfront yacht anchorage in Fort-de- France. Construction is expected to get underway as soon as certain local political hurdles have been passed, and completion of the two-ship berth facility is expected by 1991.
The new facility will be able to accommodate one vessel the size of the Sovereign of the Seas, according to Hugues Bajal of the Chamber of Commerce, and one medium-sized vessel.
A new meeting and convention complex to be built on the waterfront in Fort-de-France is also in the planning stages and would include a cinema, stores, and restaurants.
Martinique appears to have arrived at its status as a major cruise port by the joint marketing efforts of the Chamber of Commerce, which runs the port; the tourist board, which promotes Martinique in the American marketplace; the Plissoneau shipping agency, and the Roger Albert company which includes the island's largest tax-free shopping complex; wholesale activities to cruise lines; all cruise passenger tour operations; and a travel agency.
Legendary Roger Albert, who owns the company, has been involved with cruise ship calls in Martinique since before the Second World War and is considered by many to be the driving force behind Martinique's success as a cruise destination. Albert also created the concept of the now renowed dancing troup which performs on ships prior to their departure.
"Our aim now is to try to give better service," Albert said, "and to improve transportation, more so than to generate more ship calls." Albert explained that taxi drivers are offered free daily classes in English and how to treat American passengers.
Albert also pointed out that the cruise lines should prepare the passengers for their French port of call. He said that not enough passengers attend the port talk presentations as "there are too many activities going on."
As part of its efforts, Martinique arranged a cruise conference two years ago in which executives representing the lines calling in Martinique met with port and tourism officials and other key individuals representing the local tourism industry, merchants and the taxi and bus drivers to discuss "how to improve the environment of the cruise ship industry in Martinique."
The second one-day conference will be arranged this fall during Tourism Week, on October 26. Jose Doutone of the Board of Tourism said that the second conference will give both the cruise lines and the local interests an opportunity to see if the decisions made two years ago were implemented.
According to Albert, ships with American passengers were calling in Martinique long before the Second World War. He said that Holland America Line, Swedish America Line and others made regular calls mostly at Saint Pierre where passengers wanted to see the Mont Pelee volcano. After the war, passenger ships resumed calling in the late 40s, Albert said.
Today, cruise ships berth at a car cargo pier which has been equipped with tourism facilities.
Although the cargo pier is congested with containers and trucks; and traffic into Fort-de-France is reminiscent of New York City; and nearby beaches are modest by Caribbean standards, Martinique has sustained a steady increase in calls. In 1975, 143,450 passengers visited the island, in 1980 205,645. The early 80s, however, saw a temporary decline in passengers due to a transportation strike, before increasing again to 217,520 in 1986 and 304,205 in 1987.
Albert estimated that the average cruise passenger spends $50 in Martinique. That would generate $19.4 million for the local economy. Albert said that the middle class passengers are the best customers. The rich don't buy much since they already have everything, he said. The best shopping takes place around the holidays.
Noting that cruise lines are developing bigger onboard stores and more aggressive sales, Albert added that the lines must find a proper balance between onboard spending and spending ashore. "Few islands would welcome passengers who have spent all their money onboard," he said.
Also contributing to the local economy are cruise line fees for pilotage, berthing and the ship agent. In addition, fresh water is available at $1.19 per thousand gallons; waste is accepted at $66 per cubic meter or $230 for the first truck load. There is no head tax on transit passengers.
Of the 388,000 cruise passengers registered in 1988, the vast majority, 296,650 were Americans, while 40,000 were Europeans, 30,000 Canadians, 18,000 South Americans, 2,000 from Caribbean nations, and the rest were from other countries, mainly Japan and Australia.
Twelve cruise lines have scheduled some 525 calls in Fort-de-France in 1989, including six calls by Russian vessels.
French West Indies
Martinique is part of the French West Indies which also includes Guadeloupe, including St. Barthelemy, St. Martin, Iles des Saintes, and Marie Galante.