Cruise passengers are still taking the trips they had planned for this time of year in the Caribbean, despite recent storms. As operators seek to reassure travelers that the region is open for business, it's still unclear how demand for cruises next hurricane season will hold up.
Cruise executives and a trade group on Monday launched a push to promote Caribbean cruising in the wake of hurricanes that devastated popular destinations.
With ports including St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Maarten, Grand Turk, and Dominica still closed, the message was focused on bringing attention to the parts the region that are up and running.
“The vast majority of the Caribbean was completely unaffected by the September storms,” said Michele Paige, president of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, referring to hurricanes Irma and Maria. “The Caribbean has been and continues to be open for business.”
The trade organization said almost 85 percent of the region’s nearly 100 ports were operational, and 90 percent should be up and running in the near future.
The association created a website, caribbeanisopen.com, and will continue to push an awareness campaign next week at its conference in Mexico.
Royal Caribbean International announced on Monday that ships would return to St. Thomas on November 10; the cruise line will head up restoration efforts at a popular beach there, Magens Bay, in the meantime.
Adam Goldstein, president and chief operating officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises, said he expects the four damaged ports that his company frequently uses — St. Martin, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and San Juan — to all welcome guests before the end of November.
“We really have a very optimistic view, even in the short term,” he said.
One of Royal Caribbean’s ships, Adventure of the Seas, has already been sailing from San Juan since earlier this month. But the Puerto Rican port will be back in circulation as a stop in other itineraries by the end of next month, the company said.
For Carnival, the ship that was slated to sail from San Juan is instead being chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for four months. It will house relief workers off St. Croix until February.
Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp., said the ship was largely booked with more than 31,000 people expecting to board over that time.
“We had not experienced any large number of cancellations or anything,” Donald said. “FEMA needed the beds.”
In other ports, the work is ongoing. Donald said a zip line adventure excursion that the cruise company runs on St. Maarten should be operating by December 1, and a private destination on Grand Turk will be up within a month.
“Recovery is going to be rapid,” Donald said.
Even before those ports are ready, he said Caribbean cruises are in high demand. More than 60,000 passengers were sailing in the region Monday on nearly 20 Carnival Corp. ships.
“We know some people wonder if it’s a good time to go to the Caribbean or if they should wait,” he said. “The answer is it is a great time to go to the Caribbean.”
The storms’ financial toll on cruise operators’ business is not widely known yet. Carnival, the only operator to release earnings since the hurricanes, said the impact was 10 to 12 cents per share due to cancellations, credits issued after itineraries were changed, and other storm-related causes.
Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the other major publicly traded cruise companies, have not yet reported earnings.
But Norwegian told analysts from Barclays earlier this month that booking volumes were still strong after the storms.
“Following the aftermath of the hurricanes, call volumes for Caribbean sailings are picking up nicely and improving each day,” the analysts wrote. “Despite taking modest price cuts on some unbundled cruise fares…the company is not seeing any unusual discounting activity in the Caribbean.”
Both Goldstein and Donald said passengers shouldn’t expect deep discounts for Caribbean sailings in the near term, in large part because those trips have long been booked.
Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner of home-based franchise Cruise Planners, said clients have been inquiring about the conditions of ports where they are calling.
“We saw a slight dip in the short term, as well as a good bit of cancellations,” said Garcia, whose company is affiliated with American Express Travel. “However, [we are] already seeing it pick up and overall cruise sales are up.”
Royal Caribbean International president and CEO Michael Bayley said the volume of questions on social media and to call centers has diminished day by day.
“Now the inquiries are really quite low in terms of people with questions, concerns, or any kind of anxiety,” he said.
Still unknown: Whether cruise passengers will think next year’s hurricane season, which stretches from June 1 through November 30, will be a great time to go to the Caribbean.
“We’ll have to watch and pay attention to it,” Donald said. “But the more people are aware that the Caribbean is up and running, the less probability there will be any kind of lasting impact in terms of people being concerned about going to the Caribbean.”
Mike Driscoll, editor-in-chief of the industry newsletter Cruise Week, said so much time has passed since a hurricane season like this one that it’s difficult to know how consumers will react.
“I think it is going to be hard to predict what happens in wave season because the market has changed so much since the last time we had this type of season,” he said. “I think it’ll be a little hard to have real honest visibility.”
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Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International's Majesty of the Seas is shown in St. Maarten, where the ship dropped off relief supplies and picked up evacuees after Hurricane Irma. Royal Caribbean International