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Exclusive: Costa Maya's parent to develop new Puerto Plata cruise port

Taino Bay - two berths initially; Taino, buccaneer and Spanish heritage; eco park, water slides, wildlife encounters, dining and shopping (click to enlarge)
The company behind Mexico's Puerto Costa Maya has won the concession to develop a cruise port at Puerto Plata.

'This is a major project for the Dominican Republic,' said Robert Shamosh, head of commercial affairs for Mexico's ITM Group. 'Things are aligned. The cruise lines are coming. This location is very strategic for Eastern Caribbean itineraries of four, five and seven days.

'The demand is there. The [cruise] infrastructure in the US keeps expanding and growing, and new destinations are needed.'

New development Taino Bay

At the new Taino Bay, cruise passengers will arrive at an exciting development with elements related to the pre-Columbian Taino culture, plus an eco park, water slides, wildlife encounters, dining, shopping and other entertainment.

From there they'll have direct access to Puerto Plata's colonial core, much like in Old San Juan and Santo Domingo.

In its first stage Taino Bay will have a pier large enough to handle two ships of Oasis-class size. An 8.4-hectare/20-acre landside development features four areas.

Taino Village is themed on the culture of the pre-Columbian Taino people. Monkey Jungle will be an interactive eco park with capuchin monkeys, a botanical garden, aviary, reptile island, marine habitat and sustainability center. Shops, bars, restaurants, plazas for live entertainment and a museum comprise Buccaneers Village. Fort Cibao will be a theme park with waterslides, coasters and a lazy river, children's and VIP areas and swimming with rays and cat sharks. A multi-stage zip line will encircle the entire facility.

Taino Bay will replace Puerto Plata's old cargo port, putting cruise passengers within steps or a short boat ride of Fort San Felipe, a major historic site, and the colonial heart of Puerto Plata, where a 16-block area will be undergoing a major government-led renovation and upgrade.

ITM Group is also working with local companies to develop 30 shore excursions around the island.

Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages have expressed interest in the project.

Carnival Corp.'s Amber Cove nearby

Puerto Plata is already a proven destination. A little along the coast, Carnival Corp. & plc operates the thriving Amber Cove Cruise Center, which has helped drive the country's cruise numbers to new highs.

Mexico's ITM Group will be putting $80m into the first stage of Taino Bay's development, which includes the two-berth pier and landside facilities. Some dredging is required to bring the navigation channel and turning basin depth to 11.5 meters/38 feet, and an old power plant and fishing pier will be removed. The existing cargo finger pier will be expanded to 400 meters/1,312 feet, to enable a pair of Oasis-size ships alongside. In the second stage, an additional 300-meter/984-foot extension is planned so three Oasis-size ships could call simultaneously. 

The president of the Dominican Republic is due to announce the project on July 30, and construction is set to begin in 60 days, Shamosh said.

'We have some ships scheduled for as early as winter 2019 even though the land facilities won't be ready, but the pier and some basic services will be there,' he said. The entire project, including the land side, is expected to be ready by summer 2020. A million passengers are projected during the 2020/21 season.

In a competitive bidding process involving 13 companies, ITM Group's Taino Bay was selected for providing the most complete and best integrated plan.

A new force in cruise port development

With this development, ITM Group, led by CEO Mauricio Hamui, emerges as a new force in cruise port development.

The company divested its hotels, shopping centers and convention center to focus on cruise ports, and is moving its headquarters from Mexico City to North Miami Beach. In this new phase of ITM Group's development, 20 executives in the areas of marketing, social media, finance and shore excursions will be based in an office near Bal Harbor.

'We have surrounded ourselves with a lot of talented people from many areas,' Shamosh said. 'Some are [former] cruise line executives. Now that we're moving to Miami, it will be easier to [recruit] people.'

Roatán expansion, second pier

A year ago, ITM Group bought the majority stake in Roatán's cruise port from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and is undertaking a major development there as well. The berth has already been expanded to handle an Oasis-size ship—Allure of the Seas has docked more than once.

An Oasis-size second berth is under construction for completion in winter 2019 and ITM Group envisions a vast expansion of attractions over five times the area that exists now.

Garifuna Village will offer a heritage exhibit, cooking, steel pan and dance workshops, a restaurant, a market and souvenir shops with items like textiles, banana-rum cake, art, musical instruments and cultured pearls. In the bay adjacent, a series of connected Adventure Islands will house a seafood restaurant, bars, swimming with rays, snorkeling, kayak rental, an aviary, rope courses and a zip line, among other attractions.

ITM Group will be investing about $30m, plus another $15m to develop shore excursions.

Roatán's passenger count went from 650,000 in 2017 to a projected 800,000 this year and 1m in 2019.

Carnival Corp.'s nearby Mahogany Bay Cruise Center is also flourishing.

Costa Maya's fourth berth, new archaeological site

Meanwhile, at Costa Maya, the coming months will see the completion of a fourth berth and the first tours to a major archaeological site, Ichkabal.

The new Berth 4 will extend 306 meters/1,004 feet. This will also stretch Berth 3 on the other side of the pier to 380 meters/1,247 feet, long enough to handle an Oasis-class ship. With this, Costa Maya will be able to serve two Oasis-size vessels simultaneously.

A tour to the recently uncovered Mayan complex, Ichkabal, is expected to become available to visitors by December, pending permission from Mexico's new administration. Ichkabal was identified and named in 1995, and excavations began in 2009. The site is believed to extend more than 28 square kilometers/11 square miles, and its largest structure rises 46 meters/151 feet.

Archaeologists think Ichkabal may hold clues to the origin of the Kaan dynasty, the most powerful of the classic Mayan period and represented by a serpent's head. It's also been suggested the site could confirm that the great ceremonial centers of the classic Mayan period did not collapse around 900 AD, as widely believed, but continued until European contact, centuries later.

Open to expansion beyond the Caribbean

With ITM Group's new focus, 'the idea is to keep expanding and growing in further ports,' Shamosh told Seatrade Cruise News.

Will all the projects be in the Caribbean?

'Not necessarily,' he said.