“The Caribbean is open for business,” was the prime message that Michele Paige, president of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), wanted to get across to reporters on a press conference call Monday morning. She said more than 90 percent of the Caribbean was not impacted by the recent hurricanes.
Paige was joined by Adam Goldstein, president and COO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) and Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation. They focused on the “Caribbean is open” message, plus outlined recovery progress made for several of the hardest hit islands that their lines either depart from or call at -- St Maarten, St. Thomas, St. Croix and Puerto Rico.
Donald said he knows many people are wondering if they should go to the Caribbean right now or if they should wait. "It is a great time to go to the Caribbean," he emphasized, noting that most of the region was untouched by the storms.
He also said recovery was happening quickly in most of the affected areas. "We expect virtually every destination to be up and running in the coming weeks," Donald stressed. "And there is no better way to support the Caribbean than to go to the Caribbean."
Displaying "an extremely optimistic view even in the short term," Goldstein said of the 50 Caribbean destinations his lines call at, only the four mentioned above were significantly impacted "and all of those will be welcoming guests by the end of November."
Visiting Charlotte Amalie, USVI, last week, Goldstein described the attitude of shore excursion operators and merchants as “bullish” on their ability to come back. While he said some roads in St. Thomas' hilly areas still need debris removal, improvement is being made daily.
RCL has taken a direct interest in Magen’s Bay and in the restoration of that beach area, popular with cruisers. “We’ll have St. Thomas back,” he said.
When asked about the availability to visit St. John, a popular day trip from St. Thomas, Goldstein noted that most of St. John is under the auspices of U.S. National Park Service control, and as of a few days ago, he said the status “didn’t seem to be that clear.” On its website, the park service shows Virgin Islands National Park on St. John as closed until further notice.
In St. Maarten, he stressed that the airport is now operational, should be back to normal operations soon, and that he expects normal shore operations to resume later this year. The Port of St. Maarten separately said Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas will be the first commercial cruise vessel to return to the destination post-Irma on November 5.
In Puerto Rico, electricity is still out in many places and television views of desperate island conditions are seen nightly by U.S. consumers. Goldstein pointed out the difference between the residents' experience (and acknowledged how difficult it is for many residents) and the cruise guest experience, and what the lines need to do to ensure a great experience.
That, in turn, brings positive economic impact to a destination to help in its recovery efforts, the executives stressed. Paige said a single Caribbean cruise call represents $500,000 in revenue to a port destination
While San Juan's cruise terminals had damage, “we are already using them to turn Adventure of the Seas around,” Goldstein said. He described that ship's return to San Juan October 7 as "full of guests, eager and excited to visit the Caribbean as they've always been."
Goldstein said few of these customers need hotel space, which is good given the need for hotel beds for responders. "But we’re able to secure the capacity we need,” he added.
In San Juan, Goldstein believes visitors will have a great experience as “Old San Juan looks virtually as it always does. El Morro [the old Spanish fortress] looks as it always does and has been there for more than 500 years.”
That said, Goldstein acknowleged that shore options for those touring on a San Juan call are focused on the city's core, rather than trips farther out to such places as El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest. That site, which is under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, is still closed.
Paige also emphasized that a cruise doesn’t require the same infrastructure in accommodations, dining and entertainment that a land-based vacation does. It also doesn't require the same air lift that land-based hospitality does. Ships are mobile and can move as needed.
Goldstein and Donald both stressed the need to deliver a great experience for guests and say they’re doing that even in San Juan right now. The duo also stressed they wouldn’t be back at all if that wasn’t the case.
“We know it’s a great time to go to the Caribbean,” Donald stressed, noting that “most of the region was untouched.” The total Caribbean region consists of one million square miles.
Recovery is happening quickly in many spots impacted by the storms, the executives said. In fact, 90 percent of all Caribbean destinations will be welcoming travelers in the coming weeks.
To get the facts out -- that many islands weren't impacted at all, and others are well on the road to recovery -- a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, “The Caribbean is Open...” starts this month. The FFCA has launched CaribbeanIsOpen.com as a landing page to support the campaign.
“The FCCA and our members, in coordination with partners, are working tirelessly on hurricane relief [too],” said Paige, who noted the lines are delivering much needed emergency relief supplies across the region, supporting recovery and rebuilding.
“After all, our the Caribbean and our stakeholders are not just our partners but our family,” she said.
Demand and Discounting?
Goldstein was unable to talk about bookings, given SEC requirements for an upcoming earnings report, but Arnold stressed his company’s brands were “largely booked through fourth quarter for the Caribbean and we were ahead in price and bookings.”
As for discounts, while those are part of the industry's equation on any given itinerary here and there, Donald cited the industry's value and robust Caribbean bookings as reported in recent earnings.
"Fundamentally the industry is strong, our business is very strong," Arnold said, adding "I wouldn't wait for a deal." In addition, Caribbean cruising generates $2.4 billion in economic benefits to the region on top of 55,000 jobs and $832 million in wage income.
When asked about FEMA chartering the Carnival Fascination and the cancellation of several months of cruises by Carnival Cruise Line, Arnold made it clear the cancellations weren't due to lack of consumer interest.
“The ship was largely booked with 31,000 booked for the ships and we had not experienced any large number of cancellations,” said Donald, "but FEMA needed the beds.”
He said the company made sure in the contract with FEMA that the shareholders did not lose money, but the company is providing beds much needed for responders and recovery personnel.
Arnold noted that his line has been in the Caribbean for 45 years. It also returned to New Orleans well before all the major clean-up was completed, and even today, “New Orleans is still recovering” but cruisers are having a great time and contributing economically via their vacation.
Goldstein said the lines are very involved in dialogue with operators of shore trips, boat rides, beach experiences and so on. When a ship calls, a wide range of shore trips must be delivered.
“There is no point in going to a port if we can’t deliver a guest satisfying experience,” Goldstein emphasized, adding that: “If people see us return... then that is a statement on our part that we have secured the appropriate shore excursion capacity to deliver a guest satisfying experience.”
Similarly, “we’re not going to take guests to any place where they can’t have a great experience,” said Donald. For example, he said an excursion the line has created in St. Maarten, a zip line experience, should be operational by by December 1.
Carnival Corporation’s Grand Turk private island experience in the Turks & Caicos will be open within the next 30 days. “It will be fully operational with all the excursions" that guests expect.
In San Juan, Goldstein said it was clear from his visit: “If you’re a resident, almost anywhere on the island…it’s a difficult existence because you don’t have electricity.”
But he also said it’s quite amazing to see islanders “acting in a completely professional capacity, working on restoration, having meetings, working with the U.S. federal government … and knowing they’re going back home to a home that’s dark and hot.”
Goldstein praised the locals, saying they are “absolutely determined to come back better than before…Yes, we are proud and pleased to help, but the credit goes to the people on the islands.”