Cruise Execs Talk Caribbean Recovery, One Year Later

Aerial view of Philipsburg in Saint Maarten
Idyllic Caribbean isles such as St. Maarten, shown above, are working hard to recover fully from last year's hurricane damage. // Photo by Sean Pavone Photo/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

This month last year, Hurricane Irma blew through the eastern Caribbean, causing sizable damage to a small portion of the million-square-mile region that included Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten and the British Virgin Islands. 

On Thursday, Adam Goldstein, vice chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., and chairman of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise AssociationArnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation and global chairman of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA); and Michele Paige, FCCA's president, conducted a press conference call to talk about the region's recovery progress.

Economic Impact  

Preliminary figures show that Caribbean cruise tourism contributed $3.4 billion dollars, along with more than 79,000 jobs and $911 million in wages for the 2017-2018 cruise year, according to Paige.

All three cruise industry executives stressed that only a small section of the region witnessed a historic hurricane season last year, and today, those islands are making "an equally historic recovery.”

She cited "the people's willingness to work 18 hour days, dripping sweat after sleeping without air conditioning" to restore utilities for potential guests and get the recovery moving. Paige said "those tireless efforts paid off."

She praised local residents' determination “to face adversity and come back even stronger,” as well as the strength of the entire region, which even though unaffected by the 2017 storm season was still impacted by guest concerns about potential damage.

Paige told reporters that the people of the Caribbean are the region's greatest resource. From shop keepers to tour guides, “after all, the people create the experience…every person that interacts with a [cruise] guest becomes part of that trip and life,” she said. “They are the reason around around 10 million passengers this year alone will receive the warm welcome in the Caribbean."

Commitment to "Build Back Better"

Goldstein was adamant that most of the Caribbean was unaffected by last year's storms, but for those few eastern Caribbean islands that were, he expressed FCCA’s "congratulations for the tremendous efforts that they have put to recover as quickly and fully as possible."

He also said the recovery process underscores the sense of partnership between the region and the cruise industry, which "reminds everyone how much they mean to each other."

Praising the impacted destinations' “commitment to build back better," he stressed that the islands aren't aiming to return to where they were before the storm but instead for what they want to be in the future. 

Discussions between the industry and destinations have involved such topics as what can be done with power lines, how can port facilities be strengthened and how can the water supply continue in an emergency.

For post-hurricane investments, yes, Goldstein said, it’s important to do the things that can make permanent improvements, he said, “and not risk having to start over again.” That’s always been important to the destinations, but the focus was heightened over the past year.  

Currently for the main cruise ports in affected destinations, it's business as usual. Although some restoration efforts continue, “the offering to the guests is still fundamentally intact," Goldstein stressed. 

“Every port is back in operation receiving cruise ships,” he said, emphasizing that while customer satisfaction is at a normal level, in some cases, it's even better than pre-storm.

“Port infrastructure is in place everywhere except one of the two berths in St. Croix is not yet in service, but everything else is in service,” Goldstein said. 

Tour capacity for shore trips is 90 percent or greater from a year ago, and the guest experience has also been augmented. Several destinations have injected new programming into their offerings. (See the island-by-island update below.)

As for any potential consumer travel concerns this year, after speaking to his brands' sales teams, Goldstein believes, “it’s not at all about last year [and the hurricane damage]. It’s about all sorts of things on people’s minds today… but it’s not ‘noise’ about whether these destinations are ready to deliver great experiences for guests.”

Goldstein thanked the company’s travel partners for educating consumers the Caribbean is open for business and said most totally understand the situation. 

But, "if there are any travel agents who remain leery, I would very much encourage you to update your research and do site inspections of the destinations in question, and you will see that the Caribbean is open for everyone," he suggested. 

World's Largest Cruise Market 

“The Caribbean is not just the world’s largest market for cruise vacations, it’s also one of the most popular destinations in the world,” said Carnival Corporation’s Donald. This year, eight Carnival Corporation brands are sailing to the Caribbean, visiting 58 ports in 28 countries and territories, and making 5,000 port calls.

“What a lot of people don’t fully realize is that the Caribbean is a very large area, covering a million square miles,” Donald also stressed. “So it’s important for us to once again emphasize that the vast majority of the region…was completely unaffected by [the 2017] storms and, in fact, most of the region remained fully open with no interruptions whatsoever.”

His message to consumers is that tourism is extremely important to the livelihood of people living and working in the Caribbean region. He stressed that, for those few impacted destinations, it was amazing to see such an outpouring of love and support from around the world, including from the cruise industry.

“Our ships along with many others from our industry delivered supplies, provided shelter and transportation to help affected communities with their most immediate needs," said Donald. 

Following the initial emergency response, “we were all very proud of how quickly the cruise operations returned to normal in those handful of destinations, some within a matter of weeks,” he stressed.

“Today, things are much brighter for those few impacted destinations, the results of lots of hard work and support, and the spirit of people living in the Caribbean,” Arnold continued. Now, the industry has turned to long-term plans, working with the affected islands on local projects.

Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, AIDA Cruises and others in the industry have been supporting community needs in eight Caribbean destinations; the prime focus is supporting children, education and preparedness for future emergencies, and, at the same time, create sustainable, long-term impact for the future.

As with Goldstein, he thanked travel agents for getting out the "open for business" message, and said the Caribbean remains the cruise industry’s most popular regional destination.

Strong Port Infrastructure

In recent years, ports in the Caribbean have constructed – as a matter of normal process – stronger piers and stronger terminal facilities built for hurricane resistance. “That emphasis has been here for awhile, and that’s why many places were able to accept cruise ships soon after the storms passed," said Donald.

That's important, he said, because so many islands depend on tourism, and cruise lines are the first line of recovery for a destination.

For example, cruise visitors often enjoy the beach, which often doesn’t involve a tremendous amount of infrastructure, so it becomes a catalyst for island recovery.

Executives said the cruise industry also had become better at planning and making decisive moves in positioning and any potential compensation of guests, varying by circumstance, more quickly than in the past.

“We’re always trying to get better all the time,” Goldstein noted. Another point? He reiterated that ships can move, so from the consumer's perspective, when a storm strikes, “no other sector of travel can take you to another place.” 

Island-by-Island Updates

FCCA provided reporters with a support document that provides updates on certain island recovery efforts. Here's a sampling of those:

British Virgin Islands

Within the British Virgin Islands (BVI) the yachting sector has made a rapid recovery. Also, 769 hotel/villa rooms are now open, 85 of those within the past month. Also, 98 restaurants and 16 attractions (including the zip line experience) are open.

At the Tortola Pier Park cruise port, most major restoration work has been completed and affected tenants have reopened or are expected to soon. Of 72 stores at Tortola Pier Park, 56 are now open and were operational for Disney Cruise Line’s return on August 28, 2018. That's expected to rise to 66 stores open by October. 

All services normally offered at the port are operational and available. New programming? With feedback from cruise lines and FCCA, Tortola Pier Park in partnership with its tenants has created these new interactive cruise passenger experiences:

  • Create your own spice: This experience will be offered by Locally Yours. Cruisers can grind, mix and create their own island spices from their choice of various local herbs and spices.
  • BVI’s famous pain killer experience: This experience is offered by Myetts Chill Zone. Passengers can learn how to make the BVI’s famous pain killer drink.
  • An island cocktail experience: Offered by Tropix Cocktail Bar, this experience will give passengers hands-on interaction with a local mixologist to create an alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail using local rums and ingredients.
  • Cigar & wine pairing: Aromas Cigar and Martini Bar will offer a cigar and wine pairing experience to adult guests; it will feature Cuban cigars and an assortment of wines. The experience will include education about the wine and cigars, as well as their pairing compatibility.

Puerto Rico 

During the past few months, Puerto Rico has hosted such big-ticket events as DIVAS Half Marathon and 5K, a PGA Tour special event, IRONMAN 70.3 and the MLB Puerto Rico Series.

Travel Agent has also recently reported that:

  • Puerto Rico has set an island record for most cruise vessel arrivals with 14 – four more vessels than last year. The island also now has 119 different cruise shore excursions.
  • Cruise tourism in May, for example, turned in the best monthly results for the last 20 years with 107,390 cruise passengers received. That was 12.9 percent higher than the 95,139 cruise passengers who visited in May of 2017. .
  • For the upcoming cruising season, a record 1.7 million passengers are expected, which equates to approximately $250 million in revenue.

Among other positive developments focused on Puerto Rico's recovery efforts are these:

St. Martin

Destination Sint Maarten  says that, as of September, more than 1,500 hotel rooms were open on the island and availability will rise through year’s end:

  • Oyster Bay Beach Resort has reopened with 85 remodeled rooms;
  • The 128-room Divi Little Bay Beach Resort (which also has plans to expand with an additional 98 rooms) has reopened;
  • Simpson Bay Resort and Marina with 336 suites and 83 two-bedroom suites, is on track to have 100 percent of its units operational this month. It’s renovating its meeting and conference room to expand capacity to accommodate larger groups.
  • Maho Hotel Group plans to open both the all-inclusive, adults-only Sonesta Ocean Point Resort and the family-friendly Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino and Spa, after renovations have been completed; projected opening dates are November 15 of this year and February 1, 2019.
  • Belmond La Samanna will reopen its 83-room resort on December 10.

Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) now reports it’s receiving flights that served 66 percent of the market destinations prior to September 2017. Weekly seat capacity has risen to 12,000, with airplanes experiencing an average 90 percent load factor.

Airlines that have returned recently include United Airlines, WestJet, Spirit Airlines and Copa Airlines. A new airline, Air Century, began flying to SXM in June. The national airline of Sint Maarten, WINAIR, recently began new services to connect the islands of Bonaire and Aruba with the destination, as of July 1.

JetBlue announced it will resume Saturday Mint flights from New York in February 2019 and will also launch a new Saturday Mint service from Boston next February.

Phase one of the Airport Terminal Building roof repair project is complete and the entire terminal reconstruction will be completed later this year. In November, departure and arrival operations will be transferred to the ground floor of the terminal building.

The airport expects an increase in long-haul flight frequency from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Latin America for the peak winter season of 2018-2019.

This year, Port St. Maarten experienced 15 percent growth in cruise passengers between January and June. Port management expects a stable off-season for cruise calls, and a strong upcoming high season similar to pre-storm numbers last year. 

More than 733,000 cruise passengers visited the island between January and June via 230 cruise ship calls. Cruise ship home porting is slated to return in December, with 14-16 cruises during the high season.

The St. Maarten Marine Trades Association projects a bright outlook for the coming yachting season. By November, yacht numbers are expected to return to pre-Irma levels.

The Dutch and French tourism representatives of government signed the French version of a joint tourism Memorandum of Understanding, first signed in February, to promote the island as one destination. That pools resources to maximize benefits for tourism promotion.

Several new events kicked off this year and now preparations are underway for SXM Festival, the underground electronic music festival, on March 13-17, 2019. It will be set amid beaches, nightclubs and villas, and will essentially be a week of world-class house and techno programming.

For the upcoming St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, February 28 to March 3, 2019, organizers have added an extra day to the three-day event so it will be four days of yacht racing and four nights of entertainment. 

The St. Maarten Carnival Development Foundation (SCDF) is preparing for the 50th anniversary of Carnival 2019 between April 22 and May 6, 2019. The official part of Carnival 2019 (when Carnival Village opens and closes) spans 14 days. Pre-Carnival events will start mid-March and run until Carnival Village opens so there will be almost two months of Carnival 50 activities.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The islands will benefit from increased airlift in the coming months as Spirit Airlines inaugurates a new service, nonstop flights three times weekly between Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and St. Croix (STX), as well as flights between Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas (STT) with three flights a week, starting November 8.

American Airlines, already serving St. Croix and St. Thomas with flights twice daily from Miami to both destinations, will begin daily service between St. Thomas and Charlotte on November 4, 2018. In addition, the carrier will resume flights between Philadelphia and St. Thomas on December 19, and between New York and St. Thomas on December 22.

United Airlines will offer daily nonstop service between Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and St. Thomas this winter, while JetBlue Airways will resume its daily Boston-St. Thomas service. 

More than 50 percent of accommodations across the USVI are open and accepting guests, while other properties continue to repair or rebuild. Tourism officials report approximately 1,050 hotel rooms are now available on St. Thomas, nearly 150 rooms on St. John and around 600 units on St. Croix.

In addition, approximately 600 villa units and 200 charter yachts are available on St. Thomas/St. John. On St. Croix, there are about 300 villa units. Currently, there are 830 Airbnb listings in St. Thomas, 250 in St. John and 350 in St. Croix. For hotel updates, visit www.usviupdate.com.

The Department of Tourism recently presented its Fiscal Year 2019 budget request of $20,668,404 to the 32nd Legislature. Priorities are: historical and heritage training for all front-line employees in the tourism industry; a new “Made in the Virgin Islands” program; improving the cruise passenger experience with new St. Thomas harbor transportation; increasing St. Croix's cruise calls; and transitioning from “Still Nice” back to “Real Nice.”

As part of its marketing strategy to invest in sports tourism, the tourism department attended the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Toronto this month to build on plans to launch an annual tennis tournament in St. Croix next year.

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