Carnival Cruise Line’s guests who are port day visitors taking San Juan shore excursions are rating the Puerto Rico destination experience “higher” in satisfaction than what the line's guests did prior to Hurricane Maria.
That’s the official word from Terry Thornton, Carnival’s senior vice president of port operations, guest care and international, who spoke to Travel Agent about the 2,675-passenger Carnival Fascination’s return to San Juan home porting this past weekend.
“The ratings for San Juan are higher than before the storm,” Thornton stresses. “It's one thing for me to say it’s [San Juan is] fine, but it’s much more powerful when guests say ‘it’s fine and delivering a great experience.’”
Thornton adds that guest ratings for day calls/shore excursions for Carnival's ships now calling since January at St. Thomas and St. Maarten are also tracking higher than they were before the storm.
Post-storm, the cruise industry took an aggressive stance to recovery in those eastern Caribbean islands with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Carnival Corporation and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings quickly assessing island damage and operational issues and getting back to business in a timely manner.
After clean-up began for Hurricane Maria, Carnival temporarily pulled its ships from San Juan, including the home-ported Carnival Fascination, until the conditions on the island stabilized.
Carnival returned to San Juan for port calls on November 30, 2017. It also returned to St. Maarten and St. Thomas for port calls in January 2018.
But Thornton says now it's time for the 70,367-grt Carnival Fascination to also embark and disembark guests at San Juan on a year-round basis, and that guests have indicated they're ready to return.
During the post-storm period, the ship was chartered by FEMA to house FEMA relief workers in St. Croix; the ship had been docked at Frederickstad during that period.
Having completed a two-week drydock this month in Freeport, the Bahamas, the ship is now back in San Juan for home porting and also freshly updated with many new Carnival 2.0 signature spaces. It now sails year-round on seven-day cruises to St. Lucia, Barbados, St Kitts, St. Thomas and St. Maarten.
“We’re delighted that the Carnival Fascination has returned to year-round sailing from San Juan, a beautiful and popular homeport for Carnival for many years,” said Christine Duffy, Carnival's president.
Getting ports in the eastern Caribbean back online and home porting in San Juan is critical for Carnival, as 20 of its 25 ships operate in the region on a year-round or seasonal basis.
Sufficient Air Lift, Many Hotels Open
Yes, there were sizable disruptions after the storm, including both air lift issues and hotel accommodations, but that was then and this is now, according to Thornton.
“We’ve carefully studied the air lift and the hotels available for tourism,” Thornton says, adding that air lift is sufficient and many hotels that are no longer FEMA reliant are welcoming guests. Many are good quality properties, he stresses: “I can’t say every hotel is open but many are.”
What's at stake? “San Juan has a very important tourism season beyond cruising and they needed to keep that going to keep the economy strong,” notes Thornton.
Thornton talked about how cruising can become a catalyst for the return of a destination to a tourism norm, whatever the destination, whatever the disaster.
“On the land side, [the recovery] sometimes takes longer because of the construction at hotels, but what we need most is for all the key areas to be cleaned up and looking nice, safe and secure,” which has happened on the Caribbean islands impacted by Hurricane Maria, he says.
That said, it's critical that guests must have a good experience when ships are ready to return. So “we need most of the shore trips to be operating, to have transportation and to have restaurants and shops open,” he said. "But once that happens in any destination, and they [local officials] really focus on that, then we can come back quickly.”
Overall, Thornton praised government officials in the islands impacted by Hurricane Maria, noting “they’ve done an amazing job” at fixing those elements mentioned above.
In fact, Travel Agent learned that all shore trips previously offered by Carnival from San Juan are now being offered once again, with the exception of a trip to El Yunque, a tropical rainforest. Operated by the USDA Forest Service, most of that eco-park remains closed while clean-up continues. A small portion has reopened, but with no facilities.
Back to San Juan
Those who do sail from San Juan on Carnival Fascination will discover a variety of new beverage and entertainment concepts that were added during the recent drydock in Freeport, The Bahamas. The new spaces include:
Guy’s Burger Joint: Free of charge to guests, this poolside casual eatery was developed in partnership with Food Network personality Guy Fieri. It serves burgers and fries with such optional sides as carmelized onions, sauteed mushrooms and pickles, hot peppers and condiments.
RedFrog Rum Bar: This poolside watering hole offers Caribbean rum-based frozen drinks and beers, including Carnival’s own private label draught brew, ThirstyFrog Red.
BlueIguana Cantina: At this complimentary poolside Mexican eatery, guests can chow down on freshly made burritos and tacos on homemade tortillas. This festive outdoor bar has a casual Mexican-themed atmosphere and serves up tequila-based frozen drinks and beers.
Cherry on Top: This fun shop offers bins of bulk candy, gifts, novelties, custom apparel and more.
Alchemy Bar: Themed as a vintage cocktail “pharmacy,” this bar (shown above on a Carnival ship) features mixologists who “prescribe” concoctions from different elixirs and ingredients. Guests can also order custom-created cocktails.
Bonsai Sushi Express: A casual offshoot of the full-service Bonsai Sushi restaurants, this eatery offers sushi, sashimi, rolls and more.
Beyond the drydock update, Carnival Fascination also has a 12,000-square-foot health and wellness center, a Serenity adults-only retreat, and an array of entertainment choices including the Punchliner Comedy Club, Playlist Productions shows, and Hasbro, The Game Show.
Family-friendly options include the Seuss at Sea program, an exclusive partnership with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, along with fun, supervised activities for kids in three age groups – Camp Ocean (2-11), Circle “C” (12-14) and Club O2 (15-17) and a WaterWorks aqua park featuring a 300-foot-long Twister slide.
The return of Carnival Fascination to San Juan for home porting signifies the full resumption of Carnival’s Caribbean operations following the hurricanes that affected the region last year.
While some consumers may still have memories of dramatic TV videos of hurricane destruction, Thornton wants them to re-evaluate the region based on the reality of what’s happening now.
“It’s now important to understand that it’s back and it’s a really good experience,” Thornton emphasizes.