Cruise Lines Looking To Revamp The Caribbean Experience

Cruise Week

Cruise leaders often sound vexed when discussing the Caribbean, the industry's largest market. Part of that frustration stems from a perceived inability of many Caribbean ports to efficiently handle the thousands of passengers on today's mega-ships and provide them with a positive shore experience.

There is a notable exception to the negativity: private islands and purpose-built ports are drawing exuberance from top cruise execs, who use adjectives for upcoming port developments normally reserved for describing new ships.

“Harvest Caye opens early 2016," Norwegian President Andy Stuart recently told Cruise Week regarding the company's new port project in Belize. “We are putting a lot of energy into making sure it's a fantastic experience."

Meanwhile, at the recent Cruise Shipping Miami conference, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald proudly told delegates: “We're developing Amber Cove in the northern part of the Dominican Republic. It is going to be an absolutely spectacular destination."

After Donald added that Carnival Corp. has a number of private islands, the panel moderator interrupted: “But aren't private islands another way to keep the money to yourself rather than the community that the ship is going to?"

“Yeah, but those private islands are staffed by locals so it still drives the economy in the region," replied Donald. “And for us, it's to give the guests an extraordinary experience and so with the private islands you get much more control on how guests disembark."

Control is the key word here. The new ports under construction are purposefully designed to deal with the challenge of hosting larger cruise ships. The infrastructure of many Caribbean islands simply isn't set up to meet the demands of 4,000-6,000 cruise pax coming off 1 ship. As a result, several companies are doubling down on private islands and ports.

Lines are also putting pressure on ports where guests are reporting unsatisfactory experiences. “We're looking at every port that has not been rated highly," says CCL Senior V.P. Terry Thornton. “It's one thing for guests that go on organized excursions, but what are we doing for those who may decide not to take something organized and do their own thing?"

Until now, not much has been done, and pax who don't take an excursion often leave port with a bad taste in their mouths. Thornton uses Progreso, Mexico, as an example. “For many Carnival clients who don't take organized tours, Mexico can be a little intimidating. So we worked with the local government officials and said, 'Look, where we drop people off from the bus, we want you to have staff there that speaks English and can direct people to something that might be interesting - a nice restaurant, good shopping, a craft market, etc."

They did and since then ratings from people that didn't go on an organized excursion have shot up.

However, the solutions to poor customer experiences are different depending on the port. “Sometimes the local governments are more difficult to work with than others so there are some challenges."

For instance, Carnival has been trying to work with Jamaican officials because of customer feedback on harassment - aggressive selling. There hasn't been a lot of success to date, but CCL is attempting a grassroots approach to show the vendors themselves that “being in someone's face isn't helping business in the long-term as it creates a negative word of mouth."

One way or another, cruise officials are recognizing the need to improve the overall Caribbean experience.

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