Think big. Big cruise ships, that is. The global cruise industry is changing, thanks to growing expectations from cruise passengers today. As indicated by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) 2013 Cruise Industry Overview: “Throughout its history, the industry has responded to vacation desires of its guests and embraced innovation to develop new destinations, new ship designs, new and diverse onboard amenities, facilities and services, plus wide-ranging shoreside activities.”
The industry’s response also involved the introduction of larger classes of ships, which carry an average of 4,000 passengers and crew. These ships were great news for the market, but were a call to action for the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to step up its game and build facilities to cater to this growing industry.
The BVI responded to changing passenger expectations and larger ships with the Cruise Pier Expansion Project, which broke ground in March 2014. The project, which is expected to be completed in the summer of 2015, involves the lengthening, widening and strengthening of the cruise pier in Road Town and a five-acre landside development that features commercial, retail, entertainment and green spaces. The pier will be extended from 230m (755ft) to 398m (1,312ft) and widened from 9.9m (32ft) to 18.3m (60ft).
The project has also given birth to the landside development ‘Tortola Pier Park: the Gateway to Your Getaway’. This development will showcase over 20 buildings, including the Royal Customs House, Black Swan Tavern and The Exchange, which will highlight some of the BVI’s vernacular architecture. The park will also feature a boardwalk, chapel garden, cricket lawn, swimming pool and enhancements to the excursion dock.
In order to ensure the success of the new cruise pier development, the BVI had to get big business involved. History was made when, for the very first time, the BVI signed berthing agreements with Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line on 17 January 2014. Collectively, the agreements mean that the BVI can secure a minimum of 425,000 cruise passengers per year – a total that far surpasses its annual average of 350,000.
Managing director of the BVI Ports Authority Claude O. Skelton Cline thinks the berthing agreements deliver much more than an increased cruise passenger total, though. “The agreements confirm that the BVI is still a choice destination for cruisers, encouraging not one, but two major cruise lines to bring over 400,000 passengers to the BVI’s shores,” he says.
The BVI is sticking to the principle of the old adage “it takes money to make money” to achieve its objectives. This year, on 22 April, the BVI Ports Authority signed a US$30.7 million contract with IDL Projects Inc/Meridian Construction Company Joint Venture Ltd to extend, strengthen and widen the cruise pier. Then, on 30 May, the authority signed a US$4.9 million contract with Ports and Marina Services Ltd to cover site enabling and substructure works for the landside development, which specifically entails the demolition, piling and placement of concrete slabs.
The cruise pier development will be one of the largest projects undertaken by the Government of the Virgin Islands and the BVI Ports Authority, with projected costs of approximately US$52 million.
While the costs are high, officials say that the benefits justify the investment. In a statement released in June 2014, Premier and Minister for Tourism Dr the Honourable D. Orlando Smith emphasised the Government’s plans to convert cruise passengers to overnight visitors, referring to the 425,000 anticipated passengers arriving from summer 2015 onwards.
Smith highlighted figures from an FCCA survey where half of the passengers surveyed said they would come back to the BVI to vacation on land. This is precisely the objective of the tourist board, which is to encourage overnight stays by cruisers and to establish a year-round cruise tourism calendar.
“[The FCCA survey] means that for every 100 persons to arrive via a cruise ship, the BVI can expect at least half to return as overnight visitors,” says Smith. “This means more visitors staying in our hotels and villas, sampling our local cuisine at our restaurants and touring our islands in our local taxis. It means more money in the hands of our people.
With a rise in cruise passengers, the BVI can expect further economic development, not only through higher passenger spend, but through an increased head tax. Currently, cruise lines pay US$7 per passenger, but with the new development, lines will have to pay US$15 per passenger. The BVI Ports Authority says that the development justifies this increase, as it will allow newer and larger ships to berth, and it will also boost the reputation of the BVI as a top Caribbean cruise destination that continues to attract new visitors.
Aside from economics, the project should also improve the overall visitor experience. Guests will benefits from access to improved amenities, better hospitality, and an opportunity to see more of BVI’s cultural traditions and artefacts. The development of ancillary businesses will also support the cruise pier development.
Tortola Pier Park will essentially serve as a shopping and entertainment centre. It will offer a venue for local artisans, storytellers, mocko jumbies (traditional stilts walkers), heritage dancers, authors, actors, musicians and other artists to help promote BVI culture. In addition, it has 80,000sqft of retail space available for rent to anyone who is interested in establishing a business at the park.
Through the berthing agreements signed with Norwegian, Disney and the BVI Ports Authority, local businesses should receive hospitality training to ensure customer service excellence. In addition, the agreements will boost global marketing of the destination, helping to cement the country’s place on the map as a top destination.
The cruise pier development will also create business and investment opportunities for BVI belongers (a status granted to indigenous people and those who have settled in the islands long term). The government expects that more than 200 employment opportunities will be created from the new development. Entrepreneurs are being urged to ‘think outside the box’ and be creative when they consider what opportunities they can take advantage of.
Lastly, through a special purpose vehicle, BVI belongers are also being encouraged to participate and invest in the cruise port. While there are no caps on how much they can invest, there is a minimum spend limit of US$5,000. The SPV offer is categorised by Class A, B and C Preference Shares with annual dividends or returns of 5.75%, 6.75% and 8.45%, respectively. Following the same order, preference shares will be redeemed automatically after seven, ten and fifteen years.
The project is underway and work has been progressing steadily. Work on one side of the pier must be completed in order to host Disney Fantasy on 7 January 2015, while the other side should be ready to host Norwegian Breakaway on 29 April 2015. The overall project is slated for completion by autumn next year. All things considered, 2015 is bringing big opportunities to the BVI’s cruise industry.
This article appeared in International Cruise & Ferry Review's Itinerary Planning Special Report. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.