This article was first published in Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Wellness has always been a central theme within the Caribbean hospitality sector. However, when the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) declared 2018 ‘The Year of Wellness and Rejuvenation’, the words took on additional meaning because the region had just experienced a particularly rough 2017 hurricane season.
Only a few of the northernmost islands were impacted by the powerful Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but the live 24/7 news coverage about these storms often featured generalised comments. Many did not take into account the Caribbean basin’s more than 7,000 islands and islets across over one million square miles. As a result, confusion in the marketplace led to a drop in cruise arrivals at destinations located far from the storms.
For all of the success the Caribbean has achieved by marketing itself as one unified region, many consumers in the top feeder markets remain wholly unaware of the Caribbean’s geography. Though Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a household name, knowledge of the Caribbean Sea’s Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is comparatively lacking, despite it being the world’s second largest at 50,000 square kilometres. Consequently, the 2017 hurricanes didn’t just deter travel to the islands in their narrow path; they affected tourism to the region as a whole – including destinations over 500 miles away.
Extensive damage in Florida, as well as devastating floods in Houston – a result of Hurricane Harvey – compounded the situation. Many of the generous fundraising efforts which had historically benefited the Caribbean islands that were most adversely impacted by Atlantic hurricanes were instead focused on recovery efforts in the US.
A 501(c)(3) relief fund launched by CTO was mirrored by similar efforts in the region’s private sector, including the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, providing a lifeline to affected governments. Meanwhile, an outpouring of support from the tourism industry spurred a rapid recovery for destinations that were not impacted.
Led by well-known brands such as Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions and the 40,000-agent-strong Travel Leaders Group, travel agents and tour operators rallied their clients around the message: support the region by visiting the unaffected islands. Some cruise lines too, played an important marketing role. In October, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) launched an ‘Open For Business’ campaign emphasising that the majority of the region was not affected and encouraging passengers to support recovery efforts by cruising the region.
Since then, tourism throughout most of the region has rebounded. Even many of the hardest hit countries are now reporting a state of tourism readiness. However, more support is needed.
Enter the cruise industry, one of the most vibrant and resilient tourism sectors that has fully embraced the Caribbean’s year-round tropical temperatures moderated by mild trade winds. The Caribbean is the world’s most popular cruise destination, offering a diverse array of natural and cultural assets that contribute to its appeal for both novice cruisers and repeat cruise passengers alike.
In the initial aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, some Northern and Eastern Caribbean itineraries were rerouted to other parts of the Caribbean that did not lose infrastructure. Since then, many cruise lines have been returning, bringing with them the much-needed visitor spending and passenger tax.
“200,000 homeport passengers embarked from San Juan over the past 90 days,” says Carla Campos, interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “In fact, 35,000 cruise guests from 11 different ships visited the port of San Juan between 15-21 January 2018, representing an economic impact of more than US$4.5 million.”
Cruising is not only the best way to experience some of these still-recovering islands, where the rebuilding of infrastructure is still a work in progress, it’s also one of the most efficient ways to contribute to the region’s recovery. Cruise ports are open for business and the ocean liners that chart Caribbean waters have plenty of capacity.
Most cruise itineraries will feature various destinations, some that may have been damaged by the hurricanes, and several that were untouched. Visitors will find relaxation and rejuvenation in the islands that were not impacted by the storms, where services, facilities, sites and attractions remain pristine and accessible. In the storm-affected destinations, visitors will see first-hand various stages of the rebuilding efforts, as well as enjoy some of the benefits of shopping, sightseeing and dining that have remained.
CTO is working with some of those destinations to develop exciting new attractions, including guided tours featuring visits to specific safe zones where passengers can see and experience the impact of hurricanes and restoration efforts. Local guides will share the history of the destination, chronicling hurricanes and other natural disasters, and provide insight on their impact to local communities. Through this initiative, visitors will be able to interact with impacted communities and see restoration efforts already in progress with an option to donate directly to an initiative of their choice.
In addition, CTO is actively working with member countries to develop additional off-the-beaten-path excursions – such as volcano, voodoo or rum tours – to further diversify the regional tourism product. These tours will promote the authentic, one-of-a-kind encounters that define the regional landscape and the Caribbean tourism experience. For those interested in giving back or actively engaging in a voluntourism activity, several opportunities are currently being offered in the British Virgin Islands, Dominica and Puerto Rico.
Despite the climate challenges at the end of 2017, the Caribbean remains a fascinating and exciting cruise destination. The steady growth in cruise tourism has spawned new investments in the Caribbean, a trend which by all indications will be maintained. For example, Carnival Corporation has signed a memorandum of understanding with The Bahamas to build a private port on Grand Bahama Island. This is in addition to a US$70 million project to develop a cruise port in Tortuga, off the coast of Haiti.
Meanwhile, MSC Cruises’ US$200 million investment to convert Ocean Cay into a major private cruise destination in The Bahamas is on track for opening in autumn 2018. The success of major cruise infrastructure projects such as St. Kitts’ Port Zante and Norwegian Cruise Line’s investment in Belize’s Harvest Caye has also spurred the advancement of many cruise-related proposals throughout the region.
So while the Caribbean plans to offer its 2018 visitors myriad opportunities to seek wellness and rejuvenation, the reality this year is more akin to a symbiotic relationship. No one’s ever doubted that the world needs the Caribbean. In 2018, the world’s most tourism-dependent region needs vacationers to aid the rejuvenation process.
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