Developing destinations

Cruise lines increase Caribbean stops at newly developed island ports, private island compounds

10/20/2012 12:00 AM

10/19/2012 2:40 PM

A new passenger port under development in the Dominican Republic by Carnival Corp. is a reminder that future Caribbean cruise itineraries will continue the trend away from traditional port stops.

Older cruise ports are crowded — and can be disappointing to repeat passengers — so cruise companies are developing their own ports and pouring money into improvements at private islands.

Cruise line goals for new ports are: Build docks where big new ships can tie up (with no tendering, which passengers strongly dislike); stay close to South Florida and Texas to save fuel costs; gain control over the quality of the environment, shore excursions, and goods and food for sale; and increase revenue that flows from shops and restaurants ashore back to the cruise lines.

For years, Caribbean cruises from South Florida were sold primarily as opportunities for vacationers to visit historical sites, experience island cultures and shop for unique art and crafts. That experience has been on the wane for more than a decade.

Some traditional island ports have lost their allure. Others are ill-equipped to entertain the thousands of additional travelers dumped ashore by growing fleets of bigger ships. The success of traditional cruise ports has been largely in the hands of local operators and government officials, whose performance has been uneven from island to island. Even at one of the most successful Caribbean ports — St. Maarten — the island government needed to borrow money from Carnival to build a second pier.

As cruise lines looked unsuccessfully for alternative ports that were accessible, clean, attractive, safe, and fun, they decided to build their own — or at least to invest in developments where they have a say about docks, as well as shops, diversions and excursions.

Cruise passengers have changed, too. Today, most prefer their vacations casual, and many passengers, especially repeat customers, are happy with port days at beaches and bars with live entertainment, water parks and zip lines. On a week’s voyage, some veteran cruisers never even get off the ship.

Carnival has been a leader in designing Caribbean cruise ports, including Puerta Maya at Cozumel; Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, south of the Bahamas; Mahogany Bay on the island of Roatan in Honduras; and now, at $65 million, Amber Cove Cruise Center on the Bay of Maimon near Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The last cruise ship to call at Puerto Plata, says Carnival, was nearly 30 years ago.

As is typical for Carnival’s port developments (this one being done with the Rannik family of Grupo B&R), Amber Cove, scheduled to open in 2014, will have room to dock two big ships, mostly from among Carnival’s 10 cruise brands, with an estimated daily flow of up to 8,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members.

The 30-acre site will also house a marketplace for Dominican crafts and souvenirs, themed restaurants and bars, and a water attraction, as well as a transportation center for land and sea excursions. Many passengers never stray outside these expanded port facilities, unless they go on a ship-sponsored shore excursion.

“These projects have a huge impact on local employment, especially in areas where hotels have closed,” said David Candib, Carnival’s vice president of port development. “Local governments understand what our investment allows them to do.

“We continue to look at cruise port projects, because there is still a lack of berths in the Caribbean. We look for the kinds of places where passengers want to go. We are not building private compounds. Carnival builds cruise vessels that deliver cruise vacations. We don’t create excursions or run stores ashore. We are landlords.”

One trend that is churning cruise line port investment is passenger satisfaction at spending a day at the beach. Cruise executives say that beach days at private islands are among their most popular port stops, so cruise lines have been pumping millions into island compounds, mostly in the Bahamas, where ships stop for a day of sunshine, barbecues, and water sports.

Norwegian, for instance, recently spent an estimated $30 million on the 250-acre Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, adding an encounter with 18 specially-trained stingrays (fee required), a new snorkel trail (fee for equipment), and an island bar sponsored by Patron, the maker of high-priced tequila. Also on Great Stirrup are new private cabanas that cost $249 a day for up to six people. Private cabanas also are a popular item at Holland America’s 2,400-acre Half Moon Cay, a Bahamian island that once was Little San Salvador, a hiding place for pirates. Cabanas often are fully rented before the cruise begins, said a Holland America spokesman.

Disney Cruise Line reports that its 1,000-acre, private Castaway Cay in the Bahamas is its top-rated port. The island is full Disney, which means that it is perfectly manicured, with separate swaths of beach for families, teens and adults, activities, and multiple visits by Disney characters.

In addition to Coco Cay in the Bahamas, Royal Caribbean operates the highly popular private beach compound in Haiti called Labadee, which offers a roller coaster and zip lining.

Labadee is one of only three port stops by Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas on their one-week Western Caribbean itineraries out of Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel, Mexico. The third stop is Falmouth, a newly developed port for Royal Caribbean. President Adam Goldstein told The Miami Herald that Royal Caribbean began to develop its port at Falmouth when the cruise line concluded that neither of the traditional Jamaica ports, Ocho Rios or Montego Bay, could accommodate Oasis and Allure, the world’s largest cruise ships.

On either of those ships, during a Western Caribbean one-week cruise, Falmouth is the only opportunity for passengers to get a look at a real Caribbean island port city. Royal Caribbean and Jamaica have built a modern port facility, with docks and some local shops. Just two blocks away is a real city where residents seem to live much as they did 10 or 20 years ago.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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