This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Located on the island of Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin in the Caribbean, Port St. Maarten is the gateway to a remarkable destination.
Port St. Maarten comprises 13 companies and more than 65 employees who are responsible for most of the country’s maritime activities. The operations at Port St. Maarten can be summarised as four pillars: cruise, cargo, yachting and real estate. The port has diversified its activities into real estate ownership and port consultancy, and also owns and operates two mobile harbour cranes.
Based on decades of experience, Port St. Maarten is focusing on the future and building a modern-day port that has attributes of a valued past. The port authority has ensured continued efficiency through significant investment in infrastructure, equipment, personnel, systems and processes. Another advantage has been Port St. Maarten’s ability to maintain long-term business relationships with cruise line partners, allowing the destination to weather any challenges that come its way.
The country’s cruise industry plays an important role in the national economy of St. Maarten and makes a considerable contribution. According to the most recent Business Research & Economic Advisors (BREA) report – a survey-based analysis of the impacts of passenger, crew and cruise-line spending prepared for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association and participating destinations – St. Maarten led all destinations with nearly US$423 million in cruise passenger spending for the 2014-2015 cruise season. The island’s cruise sector generated an estimated 9,259 jobs paying US$189 million in wage income during the 2014-2015 cruise year. This placed St. Maarten with the highest income impact and the second highest employment impact among the 35 participating destinations.
St. Maarten had the second highest average expenditure of US$119.13 per crew visit and the third highest number of crew onshore visits (377,400). It also had the second highest total expenditure at US$45 million. In St. Maarten, crew expenditures were concentrated on retail purchases of electronics and jewellery, followed by spending on food and beverages and clothing. These four categories accounted for 70% of total crew spending in St. Maarten.
On 6 September 2017, Category 5 hurricane Irma, described as an extremely powerful and catastrophic Cape Verde hurricane, wreaked havoc on the island of St. Maarten. Irma became the strongest observed hurricane in the Atlantic in terms of maximum sustained winds of more than 185 miles per hour – with gusts of 230 miles per hour and an 18-foot-high storm surge recorded on the island – making it the second most intense tropical cyclone worldwide in 2017. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record and the second Category 5 hurricane, made its way through the Lesser Antilles, hampering recovery efforts.
Despite the constraints and challenges, a resilient nation came together and put all hands on deck to achieve a remarkable ongoing recovery. In the first quarter of 2018, Travel & Cruise magazine featured a front-page story saying: “St. Maarten serves as a model of the Caribbean’s post-hurricane comeback”. The publication highlighted the resilience of the country’s people and the best practices post-Irma to rediscover the destination as the island rebounds.
In preparation to jumpstart cruise tourism, port management developed a strategy of open communication and engagement with cruise line partners and other stakeholders. Destination readiness assessments were carried out to evaluate the availability of tours, shore excursions, shopping, beaches and other cruise tourism related amenities. The port authority also brought in a well-known former cruise industry veteran to lead the ‘Rediscover Destination St. Maarten’ campaign that would prepare local stakeholders to welcome the cruise ship calls that were set to begin in December 2017.
Tour operators, retailers and other stakeholders worked diligently in a collaborative effort to rebuild and recover within the shortest time possible. This allowed the destination to bounce back quickly and be ready for the first cruise ship calls. On 4 December 2017, Port St. Maarten’s management team was elated to welcome the first commercial cruise vessel since the hurricanes, a successful visit that signified the island was open for business.
This April, port officials met with a major cruise stakeholder to discuss the destination’s performance and passenger reviews post-Irma. Cruise line executives reported that the destination St. Maarten experience ratings were near pre-Irma ratings, and noted an upward trend compared to January 2018 when they resumed operations to the destination.
Homeporting also returned to Port St. Maarten in December 2018. Port St. Maarten’s senior management team and staff met with executives of a high-end boutique cruise line in June who were on the island to assess the situation in preparation for the 2018-2019 cruise season. The executives expressed surprise at the quick recovery throughout the destination and look forward to homeporting their vessel during the upcoming cruise season.
Port St. Maarten management is very pleased with recent cruise passenger numbers and has seen a growth of 15% over projections for the first half of 2018 (January to June). During this period, 733,666 cruise passengers visited the destination via 230 cruise ship calls.
Starting in October, destination St. Maarten saw an increase in the number of European cruise lines calling at the port. This further added to current forecast numbers for the high season, bringing the destination to the level of cruise calls and passengers before the hurricanes of September 2017.
Despite the 2017 storms, Port St. Maarten was chosen by cruisers as one of the top ports of call in the Cruise Critic Cruisers’ Choice 2018 top-five rated Eastern Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda Destinations awards.
User comments on the Cruise Critic website showcase the many reasons why St. Maarten is growing in popularity with cruise lines, such as this: “Took a taxi over to Maho Beach and spent the day at Sunset Beach Bar which was incredible. It’s right next to the airport with beach access. Nothing beats watching a plane come in right over your head as you swim in crystal clear water!”
Port St. Maarten and the destination have shown true resilience as they have bounced back from the 2017 storms. Port St. Maarten is the gateway to all the unique and memorable experiences that cruise passengers can enjoy as they rediscover the island. The port looks forward to welcoming guests to the ‘Friendly Island’ – St. Maarten.
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