Twin-island nation Antigua and Barbuda aims to become a marquee Caribbean cruise destination and host more than one million passengers per year by 2019. It may seem ambitious, but it’s a goal that is in easy reach, claims Asot Michael, Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister of Tourism, Economic Development, Investment and Energy.
“We’ve seen remarkable growth in cruise tourism arrivals since 2014 and we’re well on our way towards breaking the million mark within two years,” he remarks. “In the 2016-2017 season, we had 408 ship calls and more than 700,000 cruise arrivals. This was a 14% increase over the previous year, and also a double-digit increase from 2014.”
Located in the heart of Antigua’s capital, St. John’s Cruise Port was the first in the Caribbean to boast four berths exclusively for cruise vessels, making it an ideal homeport. Ships can dock at two finger piers – Nevis Street and Heritage Quay – each with direct access to duty-free shopping centres, cafés and restaurants. Heritage Quay was extended by 500 feet in 2016, officially re-opening last December when Royal Caribbean International’s Anthem of the Seas made her maiden call in Antigua.
The berth extension is part of a multi-phase renovation of St. John’s Cruise Port, the harbour and the surrounding area, which is being carried out by the Antigua & Barbuda Cruise Tourism Association, the Antigua Pier Group, the Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority and the St. John’s Development Corporation. To date, engineers have dredged the port’s turning basin so it can accommodate larger vessels, and installed harbour lights and navigational aids to enable ships to stay in port past daylight hours. Next, work will start on constructing a fifth cruise berth, a sea wall and a transport hub for tour buses and taxis, as well as fully renovating the entire Heritage Quay area and reclaiming the land adjacent to Wapping Beach.
“We’re using US$255 million of funding from the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Corporation Consortium to carry out the project, future-proofing our cruise industry by enabling our harbour to accommodate the world’s largest ships – Royal Caribbean’s 362-metre Oasis-class vessels, which carry up to 6,296 guests and crew,” says Michael. “We’re totally transforming our port facilities and downtown St. John’s with a six-acre development that has three distinct town squares connected by a trolley system, as well as world-class casinos, cafés and restaurants, hotels, condominiums, and designer boutiques for duty-free shopping. We hope to complete the entire project within the next five to ten years.”
One key element of the downtown regeneration will be the cruise village at Fort James, says Michael. “Fort James Beach is the closest beach to our cruise berths and the new recreation facility will offer restaurants serving local cuisine, cultural shops and boutiques, walking trails, a water park and a museum detailing the history of the fort,” he explains. “It will be the ideal way for cruise visitors to enjoy the best there is about Antigua and Barbuda through our history, culture and our beautiful beaches.”
In its quest to boost Antigua’s reputation as the perfect Caribbean homeport, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ministry of Tourism has also been upgrading the island’s international airport.
“This project is critical as we position our destination as a cruise homeport,” Michael comments.
Antigua’s infrastructure investments are already paying dividends, according to Nathan Dundas, president of Antigua and Barbuda Cruise Tourism Association. Not only have cruise calls reached record numbers, but Anthem of the Seas’ maiden visit has planted Antigua and Barbuda firmly on itinerary planners’ radars as the perfect Caribbean destination for mega ships.
“Now that we’ve lengthened the cruise pier at Heritage Quay, we’re one of the only Caribbean ports that can accommodate the Oasis-class vessels, so cruise lines are confident that we can handle any ships and are increasing their calls to Antigua,” he explains. “For example, Royal Caribbean will bring Independence of the Seas to Antigua for the first time in 2017-2018, and we’re delighted that Viking Ocean Cruises – one of the world’s newest cruise lines – is to homeport Viking Sea in Antigua after successfully basing her sister Viking Star here last season. Pullmantur has also chosen us as a homeport and we expect to see this growth continue over the years.”
Between October 2017 and April 2018, Antigua and Barbuda will welcome around 250 cruise ships and 750,000 passengers. To ensure this success continues over the next few years, the tourism authority will continue to work with the government and private sector partners to “aggressively market” the islands as a mature Caribbean cruise destination.
“This September we’ll be at the Seatrade Europe Cruise & River Cruise Convention as part of our drive to increase cruise calls from European operators, and we’ll also be at the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association’s convention and trade show in Mexico to meet US-based cruise companies,” says Dundas. “We’re also exploring additional shore excursion opportunities with our tour partners so we can offer more activities and cater to the large number of cruise visitors we expect to host in the future. Meanwhile, our private sector partners are looking at how they can increase their numbers, purchasing new catamarans to help transport visiting cruise passengers.”
In the meantime, Antigua and Barbuda’s government will continue to collaborate closely with the tourism authority to actively encourage cruise line partners to book more calls.
“It’s critical that we encourage more cruise visitors to disembark and spend their money while on the islands,” Michael says. “One of the key benefits is that none of our excursions take longer than 45 minutes to get to, so cruise guests can easily participate in multiple activities during their call.”
The twin islands’ greatest assets – the friendly people, beaches, varied landscapes, and restaurants that offer world-class cuisine– will ensure Antigua and Barbuda remain popular long into the future. The multiple shore excursion opportunities will also play a role and include horseback riding, hiking, biking, sailing, a rainforest canopy tour, ziplining over the rainforest, swimming with stingrays, and visiting the museum of Antigua and Barbuda, St. John’s Cathedral, restored sugar mills, old estates and UNESCO World Heritage Site Nelson’s Dockyard.
“We continue to invest in the regeneration of our port infrastructure, heritage sites, land-based facilities, shopping opportunities, and transportation services to boost Antigua and Barbuda’s cruise offering, enabling us to provide a much better on-island experience for visiting cruise passengers and crew,” concludes Michael. “We’re already well on our way to becoming the Caribbean’s leading marquee cruise port, but the new port infrastructure and the revitalised area in downtown St. Johns will establish Antigua and Barbuda as a port of choice for every major cruise line’s itineraries.”