News Analysis: Birth of a New Destination - Historic Falmouth Port, Jamaica

Agents pitching a Caribbean cruise to long-time clients often hear, “I’ve been there, done that.” While there are dozens of ports in the region, new port destinations that can accommodate the largest new ships have been few and far between.

But today, Historic Falmouth Port, a new $220 million cruise destination, officially opened to big fanfare. As a cornerstone of the festivities, Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas sailed into the new port today for the first time; the port had a soft opening in January.

Located along Jamaica’s north shore between Montego Bay and Ochos Rios, the new cruise destination is a joint project of the Port Authority of Jamaica and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd
Today’s ribbon cutting ceremony featured (shown left to right in the photo above) Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister of tourism; Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.; Bruce Golding, Jamaica's prime minister;  Noel Hylton, president and CEO of the Port Authority of Jamaica; and Michael Henry, Jamaica's minister of transport and works. 

The first phase of cruise port development includes a two-berth cruise pier, retail and restaurant services, and a transportation center. Some features are still under construction but, over time, agents can expect new on-site attractions and experiences, hotel and residential developments, more shops and restaurants.  

Historic Falmouth has what industry experts describe as “home run potential” as a long-term cruise destination because, while it’s going to be themed, it’s also authentic. The town is home to many original 18th and 19th century homes, shops and public buildings with superb Colonial and Georgian architecture. Several structures are now being restored; others await restoration in a gradual process.
Jason Hall, Jamaica’s deputy director of tourism, cruise, events and attractions, tells that “Falmouth is truly a unique port, not just another port in the region that doubles as an attraction.” He stresses that cruisers are now fascinated by looking at some of the buildings that date back to the 1700s and seeing them emerge as centuries of dust and neglect are stripped away. 

As it develops, “Falmouth will be a huge plus for both travel agents and their clients,” says Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales.  “As we know, consumers are always looking for the newest attraction and Falmouth gives them new and different.”

Founded in 1790, Falmouth was built on land owned by Edward Barrett; his granddaughter was poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During the Colonial era, Jamaica was the world’s leading sugar producer and Falmouth boasted some 80 area sugar estates.

The town was meticulously mapped out in the Colonial tradition, with streets named after British royalty and heroes — King Street, Queen Street, Rodney Street (named after 18th century naval leader Admiral Lord George Rodney) and Wellington Street (named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington).

With 250+ years of history in the making, it’s quite a rebirth, says Hall: “You’re going from the days of  ‘King Sugar’ as the Falmouth area was the site of the some of the largest sugar plantations in the Caribbean…and now you’re seeing another form of maritime development. People are very excited and very proud of their town. We’re now seeing a renewed energy about the place.”

In its heyday, Falmouth had the first piped water supply system in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1799. The town prospered throughout the first half of the 19th century. Margie Jordan, CEO, ASAP Travel in Jacksonville, FL, says that if her clients haven’t heard about Falmouth, she talks about its history and provides suggestions on what they might do while in port.

“I love to share little pieces of trivia such as in its heyday, Falmouth was the economic hub with its sugar and rum exports,” says Jordan. “With the large number of plantations, Falmouth was also the central hub for slavery.” Site of many slave revolts, Falmouth also subsequently played a strong role in the movement to ban slavery. 

Slaves often hid in the town’s “safe houses” after their escape. For example, the historic safe house belonging to Rev. William Knibb still stands; he was granted Jamaica’s highest civil honor, the Order of Merit, in 1988, 150 years after the abolition of slavery.

Generally, cruise ports offer about 40 or so shore trip options for guests, according to Hall, who says more than 60 land excursions are possible from Falmouth. Walking tours and tours by horse-drawn carriage through the town are already under way. 

“The location is ideal since Falmouth is close to many of the popular Jamaica attractions,” notes Freed. Among those activities a short drive away are dune buggy tours, river tubing, rafting, zip lining, eco-exploration and, and the Good Hope Great House and its estate.

For those who enjoy reggae and musical heritage, “one of the interesting pieces of trivia that helps clients connect Falmouth to Jamaica is that it is the birthplace of Ky-Mani Marley, one of Bob Marley's sons,” Jordan emphasizes. 

When looking at all the raw numbers and research, Hall says it’s estimated that cruisers will spend an average of $75 to $90 per person when ashore at Falmouth, a big boost to the local economy.
Port construction and town renovation has created at least 300 jobs; some are permanent, some temporary. But “certainly, we see a lot of locals setting up new shops and various types of attractions not only for passengers but also for crew,” says Hall. 

Eventually, Historic Falmouth might resemble the approach in Colonial Williamsburg, but with a Caribbean flair. Enactors will walk around in period clothing and that will become part of the entertainment.

For now, though, the new port should help Jamaica increase its overall cruise tourism numbers. For several years, Jamaica’s cruise numbers were skewed higher than normal due to natural disasters, says Hall. For example, when storms damaged Costa Maya and Cozumel, some ships temporarily patronized other ports such as Montego Bay until repairs were completed.

Last year, cruise ship passenger totals throughout Jamaica were about 909,000. Hall says the 2011 forecast is about 1.05 million passengers or a 15.7 percent increase over last year. 

As Freed notes, “many clients like to repeat the Caribbean itineraries because they are ‘easy,’” in terms of the ease of getting to a U.S. home port embarkation port and the roundtrip nature of many voyages. Now, Royal Caribbean has something enticingly new to offer in the region as well and Freed believes that “for repeat guests Falmouth will be well received.”

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