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New ships, destinations, Cuba likely to keep Caribbean the top cruise spot

Pullmantur's Jorge Vilches - 'Cuba is the new girl in the dance party' (Photo: Liz Gammon)
Globalization is creating new market sourcing, but the Caribbean is likely to remain the world’s most popular cruise destination, and Cuba will boost regional appeal with new itineraries, top cruise executives said Wednesday.

Cruise lines are spending many millions to develop private out-islands, refreshing the region’s appeal when island governments are reluctant or unable to do so, panelists said during Seatrade Cruise Global’s “The State of the Cruise Industry: Caribbean & Cuba” session.

“It’s still the post potent cruise market in the world,” said Rick Sasso, president, MSC Cruises USA. “We’re investing a hell of a lot of money. For 2016, ’17 and beyond, we’re betting the market will grow continually.”

MSC Cruises is spending $200m to develop Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, opening in December 2017, about 60 miles south of Bimini. Ships will be able to stay until midnight.

“The Caribbean is the largest destination in the industry, with the biggest and best ships. There will be continued strength,” said Andy Stuart, president and chief operating officer, Norwegian Cruise Line.

Earlier in the day Norwegian revealed more details of its new Harvest Caye private island in southern Belize, set to open in late 2017, with dining options, beach villas, pool cabanas, eco-tours, a zip line and marina.

All Norwegian's western Caribbean ships will visit Harvest Caye. “We really think this is an in-depth destination in the Caribbean,” Stuart said.

The line also has a long-term commitment to Tortola, where the expanded pier can handle larger ships. "It’s good for the whole industry to open up more destinations,” Stuart said.

Carnival Corp. & plc, meanwhile, is considering a new island destination in the Bahamas, said Carlos Torres de Navarra, vp commercial port operations, Carnival Cruise Line. “We’re the only line that doesn’t have a port in the Bahamas.”

Last year, Carnival opened Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, giving its lines 40 new itineraries from eight homeports. “We’re all trying to get flexibility,” Torres said.

About 50 ships are ordered through 2021, Torres said. “Where are all the ships going to go? The Caribbean is going to grow.”

Cuba, said Jorge Vilches, president and ceo, Pullmantur, “is very interesting. It’s the new girl in the dance party.”

Cuba’s recent rapid growth means “its lack of infrastructure will be that way for many years to come. It will take a while to develop its potential,” Vilches said. “It’s clear that when the embargo is lifted, everyone will go there.”

Added Stuart: “Cuba is going to be a good guy for the region and a good guy for the industry.”

Pullmantur isn’t calling in Cuba now, though it did in the past, and has changed its strategy, sourcing half its passengers from Latin America. Half of those are from Brazil, currently a shrinking market because of severe economic woes.

“We’re gradually reducing our exposure to Brazil,” Vilches said, adding that Pullmantur is focusing on 10 inter-ports that include Cartagena and Santo Domingo.

Regionally, lines continue to search for new homeports.

Carnival currently has seven ships in U.S. Gulf Coast ports: three in Galveston, two in New Orleans, undergoing a recent 34% growth; one soon in Mobile and in Tampa.

Norwegian is growing with a big ship, Norwegian Epic, at Port Canaveral. But homeports in Philadelphia and Houston have contracted.

Three audience members asked about the potential of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, which has no ships scheduled this summer.

“The beauty of St. Croix is that there are not enough berths in St. Thomas,” Torres de Navarra said. “But I don’t think we can sell St. Thomas and St. Croix on the same itinerary.”