Just as they've focused on building bigger and more elaborate ships, cruise lines are now seeking to outdo one another with private islands. MSC Cruises' eco-conscious approach is commendable, but will it resonate with passengers?
While private islands operated by cruise lines have long been a staple of Caribbean itineraries, enabling passengers to enjoy a day of sun and sand in an exclusive area right off the ship, the activities and amenities available on these islands are greatly expanding and diversifying.
“There’s no doubt that cruise lines are becoming more competitive with private islands,” said Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise site Cruzely. “If a cruise line has a unique island, it’s an advantage it can use to win over potential customers. And if one cruise line has a must-see island, then all the others will need to step up their game as well.”
While none ignore the desire for sun and sand, the new island concepts are a diverse lot, ranging from theme park attractions to an emphasis on meditative wellness and ecotourism. In most cases, these varying approaches strongly reflect the particular brand of the cruise line, said Brittany Chrusciel, destinations editor of Cruise Critic.
“Through investment in their private islands, cruise lines are looking to create a true extension of their onboard vacation experience,” she said. “There are a number of factors that affect how and why cruisers book their vacation, and private islands are just another way that cruise lines can differentiate themselves.”
Michelle Fee, CEO of the travel agency franchise group Cruise Planners, has a similar take. “There are only so many island destinations in the Caribbean for a ship to be able to sail to, plus the fact that all ships sail to the same islands,” she said. “This not only gives each cruise line a differentiator but allows them to infuse their personality.”
Unveiled in December, the newest entrant is MSC Cruises’ Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, the result of a four-year restoration of what was once a treeless sand excavation site covered with industrial waste. The 95-acre island in the Bahamas, now planted with 77,000 trees and shrubs, offers eight beaches, spa services, crafts by local artisans, food trucks, and a full range of water activities.
Also distinguishing the island is a strong conservation focus, according to Michelle McGregor, general manager.
Along with seeking to have the island waters designated a marine reserve, MSC has a coral restoration project under way that will include a coral nursery and bio-center on the island staffed by marine biologists. The project will include opportunities for guests to participate in activities such as coral planting and learning about marine conservation.
“Ocean Cay was founded on strong environmental principles that illustrate our approach to developing cruise ecotourism,” McGregor said. She cited a recent MSC survey that showed growing demand among passengers “for more purposeful travel and more eco-friendly vacation options.”
While he applauded MSC’s efforts “to be a good steward” and notes that the line urges passengers to use coral-safe sunscreen, Callais said a recent visit left him uncertain of how conservation activities will resonate with passengers.
“As a visitor to Ocean Cay, it can be tough to see the full picture of sustainability,” he said. “After all, you are there for a day to enjoy yourself on the beach, not to dive into the ins and out of the environmental aspects of the island.”
Also making it unusual among private islands, Ocean Cay offers evening activities on every call. Stargazing, paddle boarding with LED lights, and a sunset Junkanoo-style parade are among the options.
Vicky Garcia, Cruise Planners’ co-owner and chief operating officer, said the opportunity to spend an evening on a private island should prove very attractive to her clients, many of whom are looking for extended port experiences.
“The fact that you can do an evening event on the island, such as the celebration with a parade that MSC offered last New Year’s Eve, is a very exciting development,” she said.
While Garcia is a fan of Ocean Cay, she’s also enthused about another Bahamas private island with a different vibe — Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at Coco Cay, which underwent a $250 million transformation last year. The island now features the Thrill Waterpark, which offers the tallest waterslide in North America and the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, the Up, Up & Away helium balloon ride, floating cabanas, laser tag arenas, robotic bartenders and moving observation platforms.
“It really shows how the private island is getting more elaborate,” Garcia said. “It’s a very cool environment for passengers who enjoy what Royal Caribbean offers on its ships.”
Royal Caribbean has said it plans to open several other private islands under a brand portfolio called Perfect Day Island Collection, but has not yet announced the locations.
When Virgin Voyages launches its first ship, Scarlet Lady, in March, its answer to the private island concept will be The Beach Club, a private destination for guests on the Bahamian island of Bimini. Among its offerings are a private beach, lagoon-style pool, food stations, and six bars.
During the day, the adults-only Beach Club will feature a relaxed vibe with beach yoga and meditation activities, hammock groves, and luxury cabanas. With late-evening departures, the Beach Club will also offer a range of nightlife, including DJ-led pool parties and bonfires on the beach.
Pros and Cons
As more cruise lines invest in them, private islands are proving to be a desirable port offering for many passengers, said Cruise Critic’s Chrusciel.
“Private islands offer a way for cruisers to slow down and relax; there’s not as much pressure to jam-pack their day in port, and they can use their downtime to slow down and decompress,” she said.
On the downside, Chrusciel also observed that cruise lines sometimes create overtourism problems on private islands.
“As much as private islands are valued by cruisers, there are some frustrations voiced if there are a number of ships docked at a private island at once,” she said. “The more people you have on an island, the less you might feel like it’s an exclusive experience.”
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Photo credit: Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve is a private island with a conservation focus. Conrad Schutt / MSC Cruises