While Amber Cove is fueling the big growth and Cap Cana, new on the scene, is sparking interest, Santo Domingo has nearly doubled its passenger count in three years, from about 80,000 in the 2014/15 season to more than 150,000 projected in the current 2017/18 season.
'We're getting calls from many different lines. They're giving Santo Domingo a second look after all the investments in the Colonial City,' said Jaime Castillo, executive director of Sansoucí Ports. The company operates the Don Diego and Sansoucí terminals adjacent to the Colonial City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Last season, for example, Carnival Cruise Line came back for the first time in many years, with visits by Carnival Splendor and Carnival Conquest.
These were part of 'Carnival Journeys,' longer cruises that go to places outside the regular Fun Ship routes. Carnival doesn't have many Santo Domingo calls, but 'when people go, it's highly rated,' according to the line's Terry Thornton, SVP port operations, guest care and Carnival international. 'It's a good experience. There's a great diversity of shore excursion opportunities. Also, if people want to explore on their own, there are great restaurants and shopping. The nightlife is great.'
This season TUI Cruises' newest ship, Mein Schiff 6, will visit, and Holland America Line is returning after a gap, with Prinsendam. Marella Cruises' Celebration and Viking Ocean Cruises' Viking Sea recently called, and Oceania Cruises' Insignia plans an overnight stay on Dec. 30 as part of a Cuba voyage.
Pullmantur has been making partial turnarounds for several years. This year Zenith is operating full turnarounds from Sansoucí terminal, part of a two-week butterfly program with two different seven-night itineraries.
Sansoucí Ports works with the airport to expedite ground handling, and the cruise terminal offers 18 check-in counters and provisioning capabilities for 25 containers at the same time. Castillo said a third of the Pullmantur passengers come from Spain, a third from Latin America and the rest are from the DR.
Ships on transit calls typically dock at Don Diego, alongside the walled Colonial City, for gorgeous views over the Alcázar de Colón (the palace of Viceroy Don Diego de Colón, son of Christopher Columbus). Ships docking at Sansoucí terminal on the other side of the river get shuttles into the Colonial City, or it's a 15-minute walk.
According to the UNESCO inscription, Santo Domingo, founded in 1498, became the site of the first cathedral, hospital, customs house and university in the Americas. It was laid out on a grid pattern that became the model for almost all town planners in the New World.
It was the first permanent establishment of the New World and capital of the West Indies, 'the place of departure for the spread of European culture and the conquest of the continent.' From there 'conquerors such as Ponce de León, Juan de Esquivel, Herman Cortés, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Alonso de Ojeda and many others departed in search of new lands.'
In recent years a $30m Inter-American Development Bank loan served as the seed capital for improvements and beautification to make the Colonial City more visitor-friendly. Works include widening sidewalks, putting cables underground, making facilities more accessible and reducing traffic. According to Castillo, this attracted $100m in private investments, and the IDB is going to expand the program by putting in another $100m to reach more areas.
At the same time, airlift to Las Américas International Airport has increased, and new roadworks between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana and Santo Domingo and Samaná have shaved hours from transit times, making a wider range of destinations more accessible overland. Today the drive between the capital and Punta Cana takes two hours.
'All of this is good for the Colonial City,' Castillo said. Not only are cruise calls up, but tourists from Punta Cana are able to visit.
Santo Domingo is a river port and Sansoucí owns its own dredging equipment to meet ships' requirements. Updated bathymetric charts are posted at Sansouci.com.do. This year, instead of 10 meters, a depth of 10.5 meters is being maintained, and Castillo noted 'we're looking to improve next year as well.'
The largest vessels calling currently are close to 300 meters in length, and Sansoucí will look to expand for ships close to 320 meters.
The European-US mix is shifting, with the US lines rising to about 40% now. Though Santo Domingo's strongest assets are culture and history, 'since [attracting] more American lines, we have to make the experience as fun as possible for those passengers looking for fun and adventure,' Castillo said.
Some initiatives include costumed characters to welcome passengers and live music and dancing in the parks and plazas of the Colonial City. There are nature tours, a dozen golf courses and, within a 40-minute drive, beaches. A wine tour—rare in the Caribbean—is within a two-hour drive or, much faster, by helicopter.
Tours can be customized. Some luxury lines have offered painting classes with a famous Dominican painter and cooking classes with a noted Dominican chef. Sansoucí works with tour operators and has its own destination services division to help tailor programs.
Castillo added that security is in place, with a tourism police force that's been established for years and special attention when ships are in port.
The latest Business Research & Economic Advisors study for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association found 80% of cruiser were visiting the Dominican Republic for the first time.
'We have to be sure their first impression is good,' Castillo said.
He's not ready to share numbers for 2018/19 but said the DR overall is well positioned for cruising: 'The country is in a good moment. Most ports, if not all, are growing.'