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What of Caribbean ports that weren't storm-hit? How three are juggling hundreds of extra bookings

(File photos)
From upper left, clockwise: Pointe Simon at Fort-de-France, Martinique; St. John's, Antigua; Jamaica's Falmouth and Ocho Rios
Hurricane redeployments are pushing up numbers at Caribbean destinations that weren't badly impacted. Already busy places like Antigua, Martinique and Jamaica, to name just three, have added nearly 360 calls from a wide range of cruise lines.

Some of these bookings stretch to the end of the season in April.

While this is great news for those islands and brings welcome incremental revenue, none of the destinations expect all those berthing reservations will stick, and all expressed the hope for their neighbors' quick recovery while making extra effort to ensure a positive experience for travelers who didn't choose where they're ending up.

Antigua in the eastern Caribbean gained a whopping 158 calls, and more are coming in.

'While we are happy to assist the cruise lines in need of berths for their passengers and ships, our desire is for things to get back to normal in the other Islands,' said Nathan Dundas, general manager, Brysons Shipping and chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Cruise Tourism Association. It's important they return to normalcy, he added, so ships stay in the eastern Caribbean.

At fellow eastern Caribbean island Martinique, where calls were already up 25% for the just-begun 2017/18 season, hurricane-related redeployments have added approximately 101 more visits. As a result, the passenger count will almost double from last season.

'As our tourism commissioner [Karine Mousseau] said from the first hurricane, our hearts go out to everybody who was impacted,' said Roger Blum of Cruise & Port Advisors, Martinique's cruise industry representative in the US. 'These destinations are going to need the cruise lines back. They're really working hard. We're helping as long as we can but we're hopeful our neighbors will get back in business.

'They need the income and it's a good psychological boost for them to have tourists returning. For people who've been through storms,' Blum continued, 'it's like a light at the end of the tunnel.'

Many ships are shifting to the western Caribbean. Ports in Jamaica collectively added more than 100 calls since the storms started.

'We're fortunate to have been spared so far. Hurricane season isn't over yet,' cautioned William Tatham, VP cruise shipping and marina operations, Port Authority of Jamaica. 'Right now we're open for business and grateful for that. We will use the incremental revenue from any unscheduled calls to strengthen the destination,' he added.

Following each of the storms Jamaica, Martinique and Antigua quickly assessed port and pier conditions, roadways and the abiility to operate tours. All immediately informed US and European cruise lines they could take ships. In Antigua's case, that required extra communication.

It's one of the Caribbean's most mature destinations, while sister island Barbuda—approximately 25 miles away—only recently has been getting into the tourism business and it was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma. Antigua was fine, but Barbuda was not.

When lines understood they could come to Antigua, requests began flooding in.

'While we are grateful for these calls we have to manage them carefully so that we are not overwhelmed or overbooked,' Dundas said. A main concern is managing the number ships per day so the infrastructure can absorb the passengers.

'We want the visitors, despite the extraordinary circumstances, to have a pleasant, memorable experience of our destination,' Dundas told Seatrade Cruise News. However, due to the demand from lines, there will be a few days when congestion is unavoidable. 'We will do all we can,' he added, to plan with stakeholders to deliver the best experience possible.

Dundas's company, Brysons, handles the vast majority of cruise calls to Antigua and he is personally managing the bookings directly with the lines to keep control of the daily ship numbers and balance the berthing requests. It's a tremendous task.

To date Royal Caribbean International has requested 55 additional calls, Costa/AIDA together 25, MSC Cruises 25, P&O Cruises 12, SeaDream 10, Princess and TUI Cruises seven each, Celebrity and Norwegian five each, Disney two and additional Carnival companies five, with more expected. But the numbers are changing daily, both up and down.

Dundas noted both Carnival and Royal Caribbean canceled Antigua calls this week to assist with the humanitarian and evacuation needs of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 'It was commendable,' he said. 'I would prefer we lose cruise calls in order for the cruise lines to assist with humanitarian needs.'

Like Antigua, Martinique has been juggling to apportion berthing and ensure its tourism services are ready for the influx.

'All these requests poured in quickly, especially after Maria,' Blum said. 'It was a jigsaw puzzle about where to put the ships. In some cases we had to get specifications about the gangway doors since some of these ships haven't visited before.'

Martinique's port captain has been able to satisfy all the requests, however some ships will have to go to the Hydrobase, a cargo pier. It's just east of the Tourelle cruise terminal and has docked TUI and MSC vessels before. For ships going to the Hydrobase, tours will operate directly from there, while independent passengers will take shuttles to Tourelle for closer proximity to downtown Fort-de-France.

Tourelle, mainly used for homeporting, has a second dock that's going to take transit calls. At the city-center Pointe Simon pier, the moorings have been adjusted so larger ships can dock on the inside. (Ships of any size can dock on the outer side.)

'Every request has been filled,' Blum said. 'Nobody's complaining. Hydrobase is no one's first or second choice but we're going to make it work.'

Martinique anticipates record-setting days so meetings are already planning for matters like tour bus staging. 'We're really trying to be proactive,' Blum said.

'We've been building up to this. If it had happened a few years ago, maybe not, but now we're ready. And we realize it's an opportunity to showcase Martinique and we want to be sure everyone has a great experience and the cruise lines are happy, too. We realize the passengers booked another itinerary so we want to be sure they enjoy themselves.'

At Jamaica, which has three main cruise ports, the situation is still fluid, according to Tatham. Some lines are spreading calls around to Falmouth, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. None is at capacity yet, though a few ships had to be turned away on peak days. Anchorages are also available, with no requests so far.

Tatham anticipates continued tweaking and changes. Thursday morning he took five more bookings for one of the lines.

For brands like Norwegian that are adding Jamaica as a result of the hurricanes, the calls are more likely to stick, he surmised, because it's a new itinerary. Whereas those with incremental stops at the same destination may find a greater challenge holding their pricing since several ships of the same brand may now be operating the same itinerary.

After the initial rush to ensure safe alternatives, once the urgency passes, the normal cruise line functions of sales and revenue management will kick in, so adjustments are likely.

And when it comes to the bread-and-butter seven-day cruises, Tatham said if just two strong destinations recover quickly, that may be enough to tilt the lines' decision to go back, even if a third port isn't ready.

As for Martinique's 100-plus added calls, 'for sure, 100% will not stick,' Blum said. 'It's easier to cancel a berth than to look for a berth that might already be taken by a competitor ... A lot of this is insurance.'

Meanwhile, the three islands and others that picked up business from redeployments are gearing up for an extraordinary season.

'We will do all we can to make the best of it,' Dundas said, 'and at the same time we are hoping that there is a speedy recovery of the affected Islands so that we all can continue to benefit from the cruise industry.'

He recounted how a number of destinations were in Hamburg as part of the Caribbean Village at Seatrade Europe 'while the hurricanes were battering our Islands and all of our hearts were heavy as we feared the worst. It was so sad to see some of our members in tears as they heard news and saw pictures of their homes destroyed.'

Tatham noted the cruel irony that the very night the British Virgin Islands Ports Authority was announced as 'Port of the Year' in the Seatrade Cruise Awards, Irma was pummeling Tortola. 'But at least they got that recognition, and maybe it will help inspire them in their recovery,' he said.

'It's really tragic what has happened this season,' Tatham added. Jamaica was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert years ago, but the recent storms affecting other islands have been of record intensity.

Even so, he thinks the destinations will recover 'and in some cases come back stronger and better because they have to start over. Maybe they'll be able to put in place some things they've been planning to do. But this is unprecedented. Never before have so many side-by-side countries been impacted.'

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