The cruise industry may have suffered a serious financial squeeze and a few hard hits to its reputation in recent years, but it’s still the biggest game in town for many island nations.

The industry contributes a total of $2 billion each year to the Caribbean, according to US-based Business Research and Economic Advisors (BREA). Of course, much of that money never makes it into the hands of islanders, since the cruise lines’ vertically-integrated services keep passengers on board for most of their meals and entertainment. In fact, the island citizens who see cruise ship revenue are a privileged few, said Manoj Shivlani, a marine affairs scholar who has studied the impact of cruise tourism on local economies.

“People aren’t willing to spend that much off of the ship,” he said, and when they do, “it’s felt within in a very small community.” Namely, the community of vendors and merchants who set up shop at the cruise port. Even the island hoteliers aren’t crazy about these tourists.

“The hotels obviously are not getting a benefit from cruise passengers,” said Richard Kahn, a spokesman for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “On many islands, hotels are the biggest taxpayers, so not benefitting hurts them and it hurts everybody.”

We ranked the following popular Caribbean cruise destinations by their level of dependence on the industry, as calculated by what percentage of their GDP cruise revenues compose.

NationTotal cruise tourism expenditures    ($Millions)Total employmentTotal employee wage income ($Millions)GDP ($Millions)% GDP from cruise tourism
1. St. Kitts and Nevis447565.97495.9%     
2. Antigua and Barbuda48.3131511.91,1764.1%
3. Belize58.6178117.71,4484.0%
4. St. Lucia45.712039.31,1863.9%
5. Bahamas246.16219100.48,1493.0%
6. Dominica14.240534803.0%
7. Grenada21.75813.97892.8%
8. Barbados53.6166517.23,6851.5%
9. St. Vincent and the Grenadines6.81591.57131.0%
10. Jamaica101.5386522.614,8400.7%
11. Trinidad and Tobago2.91431.623,9900.01%

Trinidad and Tobago, at the bottom of this list, rely far less on tourism than their neighbors for one simple reason: oil. The islands’ resource wealth allows them to forego the industry courting and catering that can make or break its neighbors’ economies.

Meanwhile, topping our list is the two-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, whose cruise-tourism sector has grown by more than 400 percent in the last six years, according to BREA.

That growth is far from accidental; the country upped its appeal through a series of efforts that read like a cruise-tourism playbook. For one, it built up its duty-free shopping options, to capitalize on what is one of cruise passengers’ favorite activities. It also more than doubled its on-land tour offers. “We have ten different rainforest type tours, off-road tours, beach tours, and scenic tours,” said Tourism Minister Ricky Skerritt. One in particular, the island’s “scenic railway” tour, is the only of its type in the region, Skerritt said.

The tours work to circulate cruise passengers throughout the island and help part them with a bit more money than they’d spend staying aboard ship. As officials hoped, the average tourist spend on land more than doubled in the past six years, to $100. “We look at where they’re spending their money and make decisions accordingly.” said Skerritt. “We want people to want to come ashore and spend longer on shore,” he said, “so we made it a more pleasant port and we put in more options for them to spend money.”

In its game-winning play, the island used the rise in global fuel costs to its strategic advantage. It built a refueling barge near the port, which meant that ships could sail to the island on half a tank of gas instead of fully fueled, with the weight accordingly making it less fuel-efficient. Since traveling lighter meant saving big money, the cruise lines suddenly saw the appeal of St. Kitts and Nevis much more clearly.

By tracking and swiftly responding to the preferences of both cruise passengers and companies, this tiny Caribbean nation has quickly become a serious contender in the cruise tourism industry. So now, with that shaky industry more important than ever to the islands’ economic survival, the country needs to make sure it doesn’t fall out of favor with its new business partners.

Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean cruise ship Adventure of the Seas, in port at Basseterre, St. Kitts. Roger Wollstadt / Flickr