As the cruise industry is growing, its external sensitivity variables are becoming more apparent. With more ships, there will be fewer opportunities to move ships successfully, when disaster strikes in one area, whether from man-made or natural causes.
A recent series of events have demonstrated that for cruise lines to succeed today, they would seem to need several contingency plans, including alternate baseports, ports-of-call, complete itineraries, and airlift.
Hurricane Hugo forced a number of cruise lines to deviate from their regular itineraries and in several cases, even cancellation of cruises. Alternate ports suffered from overcrowding.
More or less coinciding with Hugo was a U.S. travel advisory on Colombia which led several cruise lines to cancel calls to Cartagena.
1989 is certainly a year to be remembered a long time by cruise line staffs. Earlier in the year, the Eastern strike cased extensive disruption in the Caribbean cruise picture when cruise lines without warning had to scramble for airlift replacement, usually at considerable added cost.
Eastern's misfortunes came in the wake of Hurricane Gilbert which also disrupted cruise itineraries, affecting especially Jamaica and Mexican ports on the Yucatan peninsula.
Social unrest in Venezuela caused cruise lines to cancel calls in that country, and the tense political situation in Panama have made Canal cruises increasingly harder to sell to the U.S. public, effectively forcing lines to cut back or reroute sailings.
But as the cruise line executives know only too well, the Caribbean is not the only sailing region to be affected by events. In fact, the Caribbean is the most stable region.
While the industry has accepted that the Mediterranean is the sailing region that is most exposed to external factors that could affect the industry negatively, it was instead the Far East that suffered a setback in its development of cruise tourism when China clamped down on its dissidents last spring.
Singularly, the significance of these events may seem distorted, but according to several industry executives, the events should instead be read as signals for greater contingency planning as the industry continues at its present strong growth rate.
One notable event that did not seem to hamper cruise tourism much in 1989 was the Alaskan oil spill. Despite unprecedented media coverage, cruise lines reported that their ships sailed more or less full during the Alaska summer season.
On the other hand, even the most unlikely of events can affect the industry such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, which had a chilling, if only temporary, effect on cruise tourism to Northern Europe which that year had just begun to develop as a more viable alternative to the Mediterranean in the wake of the Achille Lauro incident.
The Mexican Riviera has also rebounded from events that only two to three years ago made its future as a cruise destination seem bleak. At that time alleged drug related incidents, pick-pocketing and other passenger harassments were broadly reported in the U.S. press dissuading the American travel public from going to Mexico. The disasterous earthquake in Mexico City also put Mexico in a less than desirable tourism light.
But other individual destinations have also been affected by domestic and local problems ranging from poor attitudes of the local population to political terror acts. Jamaica's fortunes in the cruise industry, for instance, have seemed to fluctuate in line with the political leadership of that country, but now seems to be on a stable, upward course. In Grenada meanwhile, the U.S. invasion also put a temporary damper on tourism interest. Meanwhile, Grenada has made a strong comeback and now ranks among the ports most actively courting the cruise lines.
Recurring media reports on pick-pocketing and other harassment in South America are also affecting this continent's image in the North American travel market.
Hurricane Hugo, however, did not only cause physical damage, which can more easily be repaired, the hurricane also uncovered deep seated social problems, especially in St. Croix. Days of saturation media coverage of looting, rioting and lawlessness will take a long time to heal, effectively postponing St. Croix's plans of becoming a homeport. Few cruise lines are likely to even want to call at the island for some time.
The unrest also affected St. Thomas, making this key port seem less attractive in the U.S. travel market. But while St. Croix can easily be replaced on a cruise itinerary, St. Thomas cannot, as it is a key turning point on seven-day cruises from Southern Florida and a shopper's mecca for cruise passengers.
While Hurncane Hugo caused extensive damage among several Caribbean cruise destinations, touching down in Antigua, Guadeloupe, St. Thomas and St. Croix, and Puerto Rico, it also caused disaster in Charleston, S.C., where it struck the U.S. mainland with full force. Fortunately, it did not strike Miami or Port Everglades.
Popular travel destinations have a way of rebounding quickly, and it is not expected that Hurricane Hugo will have any lasting impact on cruise tourism. Juan Miguel Domenech, Director of Tourism for Puerto Rico, said that his government will be launching an advertising campaign in the United States to offset any negative effect of the hurricane on local tourism. In St. Croix, meanwhile, it may take more than an advertising campaign to restore confidence, although it is expected that the island's tourism business will be returning to normal.
Mark Conroy, President of Renaissance Cruises has said that the line's new ship will call at Chinese ports in the fall of 1990. He was quoted in a recent interview as saying that "Chinese history is so rich you can't ignore it."
So far the cruise lines have been able to ride the waves, so to speak, and find alternative routes, ports and airlift when the situation has demanded it. In fact, the industry's adaptability has been rather impressive.
Growth May Increase Sensitivity To Variables
The recent events that have had varying negative impact on the industry serve to demonstrate the cruise lines' unique sensitivity to certain variables, the intensity of which would seem to increase with the continued growth of the industry.
With more cruise ships plying the popular seas of the world, it seems that it would be increasingly difficult to redeploy ships on short notice. Full ports would limit the available options to move ships in the case of events that would demand itinerary changes.
This poses some interesting questions as the cruise lines continue to expand their seas of operations.