The cruise industry in the Caribbean quickly pivoted as it headed into its busiest season. While cruise lines might be able to scrape by relatively unharmed — it's easy to change ports when something goes wrong — the negative impact on destinations missing out on cruise sailings will be felt for years.
With a little more than a month left in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, a handful of Caribbean islands are already on tap to receive boatloads of additional rerouted cruise sailings and tens of thousands of more passengers through the end of this year.
Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria have made this season one of the deadliest and costliest ever recorded and some destinations in the region, such as Puerto Rico, are still without electricity, other utilities and basic supplies after the storms made landfall and passed on. The fallout from the storms comes as the Caribbean’s peak tourism season kicks off in December.
Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said during an earnings call late last month that about seven to nine percent of ports in the Caribbean were affected severely enough to be shut down for some amount of time.
But many ports in the southern and western parts of the region suffered no impact from the storms. The Bahamas escaped damage. And several that had to close reopened quickly, including those in Havana, Martinique, St. Lucia, Trinidad, and Tobago. San Juan’s port just reopened.
Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company, said ports in St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Grand Turk, Dominica, Tortola, and St. Croix were all rebuilding and ships are heading to other islands in the meantime.
During the Carnival earnings call, Donald said leaders of some of the affected islands were “cautiously optimistic” that they would be “up and running — or most of them will — before the end of the year, which places them well for the peak season.”
“It’s part of our job to make certain people know that there are plenty of great places to go in the Caribbean and even those places impacted are coming back,” he said.
Taking on More Cruise Ships
Many other islands were largely untouched by recent storms and feel they’re positioned to help their neighbors weather the aftermath and welcome rerouted cruise itineraries.
Martinique, for example, is expecting an additional 115 cruise sailings than it initially planned for earlier this year. The French overseas region’s tourism board has held meetings in recent weeks to prepare for the onslaught of cruise passengers arriving in the months ahead.
“We’re also working with the French government, which is bringing some additional help and infrastructures from France, for example, on additional security personnel on the island,” said Karine Mousseau, president of the Martinique Tourism Authority, speaking during the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Tourism Industry Conference in Grenada this week.
Mousseau said the destination told France that keeping tourists in the Caribbean is the priority versus having them change their destination to another part of the world. “Because if we lose these ships, for example, in the Caribbean we know it’ll take a lot of time to get them back,” she said.
But how do small islands suddenly accommodate thousands of more passengers last-minute? October and November is a shoulder season in the Caribbean and Martinique and other islands in similar situations won’t have trouble welcoming the increase in cruise passengers, said Mousseau. “We have the infrastructure in Martinique that has been developed to welcome a larger number of ships at once,” she said.
Martinique is also running a campaign to educate its population about the benefits of the cruise industry, timed to coincide with the arrival of the rerouted ships. “We recently conducted a study on cruise industry’s impact on Martinique’s local economy and were able to show our population how important the industry is and what it can bring to them,” said Mousseau.
The Cayman Islands, which had nearly two million cruise arrivals in 2016 and was largely spared the brunt of recent hurricanes, was told a couple of weeks ago to expect an additional 100,000 cruise arrivals through the end of this year.
“We expect this increase to continue into 2018 and right now we can handle that,” said Rosa Harris, director of tourism for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, speaking to Skift by phone. “The 100,000 estimate is probably much more by now and if this continues into 2018 this is something we’d really be watching closely.”
“So far this year we were slightly down in cruise arrivals because of a lot of bad weather days,” said Harris. “Our weather this year has been a lot more sporadic than recent years. We experienced Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and it took us many years to get back up to speed after that storm. It was a long time before a sense of normal life returned.”
Grenada, however, was already trying to beef up its cruise arrivals before hurricane season began. The country is set to receive an additional 33 cruise ship calls through December and views this as a major opportunity, said Patricia Maher, CEO of the Grenada Tourism Authority.
Like the Cayman Islands, Grenada has so far avoided the worst from this season’s storms. “We got the notification within a matter of days that these ships would be coming, it was a very last-minute change of plans,” said Maher. “Since the beginning of 2017, we’ve been working feverishly at growing our cruise business and meeting with cruise stakeholders on a frequent basis.”
“In fact, we hosted at least one large ship which was diverted from another island, in addition to continuing with and adding to our many regularly scheduled cruise ship calls for the season.”
Maher said she and her team also see the boost in ships as a way to lure cruise passengers back for an overnight stay. Overnight arrivals in Grenada typically stay for seven to 14 nights, said Maher, while cruise arrivals are only there for one day.
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Photo Credit: Some Caribbean destinations are preparing to handle rerouted cruise ships during what's normally a quiet shoulder season for the region. Pictured is Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas in port at Fort-de-France, Martinique in 2015. Prayitno / Flickr