Exploring new cruise opportunities in Jamaica

William Tatham tells Jacqui Griffiths why the Port Authority of Jamaica is looking beyond the waterfront to delight future generations of cruise guests

Exploring new cruise opportunities in Jamaica
Port Antonio serves as a gateway to tropical jungles, mountains and waterfalls

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

An island rich in culture, history and natural beauty, Jamaica holds unlimited discoveries for cruise guests. Just look at its ports – from Montego Bay with its luxurious beach resorts and golf courses to Falmouth with its Historic District full of Georgian architecture, to the coves and waterfalls of Ocho Rios or the cultural, ecological and archaeological attractions of soon-to-be-opened Port Royal, these gateways to the island are as diverse as the landscape itself.

Port Royal, with its 500-year history spanning everything from earthquakes to pirates, is the site of an innovative project to bring cruising back to Kingston while protecting the area’s sensitive ecology and historical sites. It is about to achieve a major milestone. “Our SeaWalk floating pier, from Cruise Ventures, has been completed and we’re looking to install it with the overall development of the port facilities around April-May 2019,” says William Tatham, vice president of cruise shipping at the Port Authority of Jamaica. “The port facility, which includes the substantial Royal Naval Dockyard, had fallen into disuse since the 1960s. We’ve now taken possession of that property and we’re working to complete the terminal building, ground transportation and so on by fall 2019.”

Plans are also underway to improve tourist attractions in the town of Port Royal. “We’ll be upgrading the guns and museum pieces at Fort Charles over the summer and improving the story-telling to better describe the fort and its history,” says Tatham. “It’s already a tourist attraction, but right now visitors tend to wander around it. We’re going to make it a more interactive experience for them.”

On Jamaica’s north coast at Montego Bay, a major upgrade of berth two is underway to accommodate Carnival’s XL-class ships. “During the first phase we are implementing what was berth one, which had never actually been built, to extend berth two,” says Tatham. “We’re putting in bigger bollards and new fenders, extending the berth space and creating facilities to supply LNG ships there. We’re looking to complete that this year, and next year we’re going to upgrade and expand the cruise terminal and ground transportation areas.”

At Falmouth, dredging of the port’s southern berth was completed late last year, enabling it to accommodate two of Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class ships. Port Authority of Jamaica has also turned its gaze inland, working extensively with local authorities and government entities on various projects. “We’ve done a comprehensive streetscape programme, upgrading the streets and the crossroads in the town,” says Tatham. “We’ve also built two dedicated markets for craft vendors who had previously been selling on the streets and sidewalks.”

Efforts to boost community involvement in Falmouth have met with great success. “We started a pedicab programme in which the Port Authority secured 12 pedicabs and employed locals to drive them,” says Tatham. “They’ve gone through comprehensive training around the town, its historical sites and places of interest. Now passengers who don’t want to go on a pre-booked excursion or take a taxi, but who want to explore a little further than the town centre, can take a pedicab and the drivers will tell them about the historical sites. It’s been incredibly successful – more than we expected – in fact so much so that we may look at implementing the programme elsewhere in the future.”

Meanwhile at Ocho Rios, a US$20 million upgrade of the Reynolds Pier has seen the 1950s dockside pier transformed to accommodate 180,000gt vessels. “The pier can now take Seaside and Breakaway-class ships, which haven’t been able to call there before,” says Tatham. “We put in new fenders and mooring bollards and a new cross-bridge to the shore.”

Here, too, the local community is integral to the port authority’s success: a new fishermen’s village has been built to improve visitors’ experience and create opportunities for local traders. “We took over the old, dilapidated fishermen’s location at Ocho Rios, which had no proper infrastructure,” says Tatham. “We purchased it from another government organisation and built proper facilities for the tenants, who had previously been selling from the beachside. They all had the entrepreneurial instinct, but they didn’t necessarily have money management skills or know how to manage a business, so we gave them that training and we’re also trying to find ways to support those who need help.

“Ocho Rios fishermen’s village now has a lot of food and beverage, retail and souvenir establishments. We’ve put in two large seafood restaurants so visitors can enjoy genuinely fresh fish and seafood, caught by the local fishermen. We’ve also put in a beach, and the location is ideally located for easy walking to local visitor attractions.”

Starting in summer 2019, the next phase of the project involves creating a seaside promenade leading into the town. “We are currently building new administrative buildings on a different part of the property, and we’ll be taking down the existing administrative buildings and utilising that space for an expanded ground transportation area,” says Tatham. “Another government authority is also working on a comprehensive streetscape programme to give pedestrians a better experience of Ocho Rios. All of that will all be ready for the 2019-2020 season.”

Port Authority of Jamaica’s belief that local stakeholders must feel like they’re players in the cruise industry has enabled it to address issues of local harassment that were tarnishing the guest experience. “A lot of people from the local communities felt that they weren’t directly benefiting from cruise tourism, so we sought to change that perception and ensure more buy-in,” he says. “We recognised a few years ago that if we weren’t able to deliver a certain level of experience in the town areas adjacent to the port, then it would negatively impact our business model. It’s unusual for a port authority to get involved in community projects, but we’re very pleased with the results we’re seeing and it’s encouraging us to do more in that direction.”

It’s an ethos that’s been good for business and community alike. “The craft village in Falmouth has taken vendors off the streets and given them a home,” explains Tatham. “Also in Falmouth, we worked with the Ministry of Tourism to create a station for taxi drivers, so visitors leaving the port can initiate the first contact with drivers instead of being pounced on as was previously the case. With the pedicabs in Falmouth we were able to identify young people who were looking for an opportunity. They now see direct benefits from the cruise ships coming in, so they’re more protective of it and they help ensure that the guests have a better experience. Many of the pedicab drivers – and the fishermen of Ocho Rios – have told us it has changed their life and their family’s life in a positive way.”

Tatham says the port upgrades being completed today will enable Jamaica to capitalise on the continuing growth of the cruise market over the next few years – particularly as a new, larger ships start to appear. “We look at our existing facilities and at how they can be upgraded to increase efficiency and accommodate the next generation of ships,” he says. “For example, the upgrade of Reynolds Pier makes us one of the few facilities in this part of the world with the depth that can accommodate a ship like Cunard’s Queen Mary.”

As cruise vessels get bigger, avoiding congestion at any of the island’s ports is a high priority. “Port Royal will only ever accommodate one vessel, and while Montego Bay has room for three large vessels, with one at anchorage, ideally we’ll have just two at any time,” he says. “Two ships can bring more than 8,000 passengers to the port, and it’s important that they all have a positive experience and are able to get where they want to go.”

Looking to the longer term, Tatham says Jamaica has the size and geographical make-up to offer additional ports. “Jamaica has a number of areas where there is no shipping right now, but which have the natural environment to perhaps be looked at as future ports of call,” he says. “Once we’ve completed our upgrades and delivered the best experience we can at our existing ports, we think there are future ports of call in Jamaica to be looked at and developed, that can open up other parts of the island and highlight other waterfalls, rivers, natural and historical sites and so on.”

Niche cruise lines, with their smaller vessels and experiential cruise experiences, suggest possible opportunities. “We recognise that those cruise lines don’t want to go where the big lines are,” says Tatham. “They’re looking for a very different experience so we’re thinking about areas in Jamaica that are off the beaten track, where some of those smaller lines can find those unique experiences for their guests. For example, the Black River area on the south coast of Jamaica is within an hour’s drive of the spectacular YS Falls, Lovers Leap which is 1,700 feet above sea level, and the Appleton estate where they make Jamaica’s most famous rum. You can go for incredible tours there where you’ll see flora and fauna including crocodiles, and there is a unique bar on stilts half a mile offshore, which was made by a fisherman. People love to pull up in a boat, have a beer and then head back to wherever else they were going.”

With many smaller ships happy to provide their own anchorage, the niche market could provide a cost-effective way for Port Authority of Jamaica to test out new locations. “We’re willing to discuss with them parts of Jamaica that are unexplored or are not traditional stops, to find ways to make it work,” says Tatham. “That means working with other government agencies too, but we’re confident that we can do that and in the long term, if an area proves popular, we may look for a geographical location – a natural harbour or something nearby – that could be developed further.”

Whatever the cruise market brings, Tatham says Jamaica has the space and the diversity to meet its needs. “Jamaica is big enough,” he says. “It has enough to offer to create great experiences for the entire spectrum of the cruise market, from the giants to the smallest ships. That puts us in a great position to respond to the market and its growth.”

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Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths
29 March 2019

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