The great cruise comeback in the Florida-Caribbean region

The burgeoning Florida-Caribbean industry has struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is now firmly back on track towards a rapid recovery thanks to the tireless efforts of the cruise lines, ports, destinations and other key stakeholders. Rebecca Gibson reports

The great cruise comeback in the Florida-Caribbean region
Governor Ron DeSantis, pictured speaking onboard a cruise ship pre-pandemic, has been instrumental in restarting cruising from Florida

From swimming with pigs off the coast of Great Exuma in The Bahamas, to white-water rafting and rum tasting in Jamaica, diving and snorkelling in the Lesser Antilles, enjoying exclusive shopping and dining opportunities in St. Barts, and much more – the Caribbean offers an array of bucket-list experiences for cruise guests of all ages.

Each year, millions of passengers embark on Caribbean cruises from Florida, USA, eager to explore the diverse destination and experience these activities for themselves. However, the renowned cruise capital of the world’s booming cruise industry flatlined after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order on 14 March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The order remained in place until 20 October, when it was replaced by a conditional sailing order, which introduced requirements for cruise lines to sail with at least 95 per cent of people vaccinated or perform test cruises to demonstrate safety procedures.   

In April 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis filed a lawsuit against the CDC for what he deemed to be “obstructionist” regulations, claiming that the test cruises would be prohibitively expensive and that vaccine rules were discriminatory to those who did not qualify for vaccinations. Following several months of legal battles, the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court determined on 23 July that cruise lines could resume operations immediately and consider the CDC rules as recommendations.   

“I’m glad to see the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse its prior decision and free the cruise lines from unlawful CDC mandates, which effectively mothballed the industry for more than a year,” said DeSantis.   

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and its cruise line members have commended DeSantis for his leadership and support of the cruise industry, noting that it had “facilitated a path to resumption of cruises throughout the USA”.   

“Governor DeSantis has been fighting for the cruise industry, arguing against the federal government bureaucracy that singled out the industry for unfair, unscientific, devastating restrictions,” says Christina Pushaw, press secretary for the executive office of DeSantis. “The cruise industry is essential to Florida’s thriving economy. More than 159,000 people in Florida work in the cruise industry, and many more make a living from the numerous businesses that provide products and services to cruise ships and passengers.” Fortunes are changing in Florida. Tourism marketing corporation VisitFlorida estimates that tourism in the state was 223.4 per cent higher in the second quarter of 2021 than during the same three-month period in 2020. In addition, domestic travel between 1 April and 30 June 2021 was six percent higher than in the same period of 2019, which was a record year.   

“Domestic tourism in Florida is doing really well and we’re seeing high-occupancy levels in accommodations across the state,” says Dana Young, CEO of VisitFlorida. “Internationally, there is a strong demand for Florida holidays. Rather than cancelling, a lot of people have been moving their holidays to later dates. Talking to our tour operator partners, we know that people are booking as far out as 2024. We’re confident that Florida’s tourism numbers will bounce back.”  

According to Pushaw, Florida’s rising tourism numbers, coupled with the changing CDC regulations, indicate that the cruise industry will recover in 2022 and beyond. “Although these figures about the state’s economy and tourism are not specific to the cruise industry, the general trend is very positive for hospitality, travel, and leisure in Florida,” she says. “This should be encouraging for the rebound of the cruise industry.”   

To further accelerate Florida’s cruise and tourism recovery, VisitFlorida has implemented a series of promotional initiatives targeting both the domestic and international markets.   

“We’ve remained active throughout the pandemic, staying engaged with our audiences to ensure they keep Florida front of mind, which put our state in a good position for when people started travelling again,” says Young. “Our short- to medium-term plans include marketing domestically and in key international markets (Canada, UK and Ireland, Germany, Brazil and Mexico). We’ll be focusing on consumer advertising and creating content for social media and public relations, as well as working closely with tour operators on co-op marketing.”  

As part of these efforts, VisitFlorida will focus on promoting ‘cruise and stay’ itineraries to Florida. “Florida has a variety of options for cruise travellers who extend their holiday and explore off the beaten path,” she says. “The state is known for its world-class beaches, but we also have 700 crystal clear freshwater springs where you can swim, paddleboard, kayak, take a glass-bottom boat ride or even swim with manatees. We also have more than 175 state and national parks with opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and more.”   

Organisations like Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) have also been instrumental in helping to facilitate the safe, sustainable and successful restart of cruising from Florida to destinations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Mexico. This year, the association hosted two in-person events – the FCCA-PortMiami Return to Sail Summit and the FCCA Cruise Conference – both of which enabled hundreds of port and destination representatives to meet with executives from FCCA member lines, which collectively operate over 90 per cent of the global cruising capacity. Discussions focused on how cruise lines, ports, destinations and other stakeholders can work together to capitalise on new opportunities for homeporting, longer port stays and multi-port itineraries in destinations.   

“We cannot be more honoured by the continued support of our member lines and partners throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America,” says Michele Paige, president of FCCA. “Constant mutual exchanges between those parties have propelled cruising’s restart in our partner destinations, and we are proud that we could again bring together cruise executives and stakeholders at our keynote event to have these exchanges in person and further develop business and relationships.”  

Meanwhile, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) has been working with its members and other stakeholders to showcase how Caribbean destinations are rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic. In November, for example, it joined with several partners to celebrate Caribbean Tourism Month, taking the opportunity to showcase the region as a safe destination that offers a diverse range of tourist attractions and experiences.   

“Our member countries have worked tirelessly over the past 19 months to adapt to the ever-evolving environment thrust upon us by the pandemic,” said the CTO when promoting the event. “They have implemented a range of initiatives, and stringent protocols, to ensure post-Covid competitiveness and to rebuild confidence in the sector.”  

In its Quarterly Statistical Review, which was published in June 2021, the CTO predicted the Caribbean would see a “quick rebound” in cruise tourism, noting that “cruise activity is expected to pick up during the remaining months of the year”.   

Certainly, cruise lines have been flocking back to Florida since the CDC regulations became voluntary, scheduling calls to destinations across the Caribbean, such as Aruba, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Curaçao, Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, St.Kitts, and more.  

Celebrity Cruises made history on 26 June when Celebrity Edge departed on a seven-night Caribbean cruise from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, becoming the first cruise ship to sail from a US port with paying passengers in more than a year. The vessel embarked on a rotating schedule of Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from the port, which hosted almost four million passengers annually pre-pandemic, making it one of the three busiest cruise ports in the world.   

Since this momentous milestone, Port Everglades has served as the departure port for various Celebrity Cruises ships, including Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection and the new Celebrity Apex. Some of the other vessels homeporting in Fort Lauderdale this year include Silversea Cruises’ Silver Whisper, Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam, and Viking Orion and Viking Star, which are offering Viking’s first-ever series of cruises from the port to the Caribbean and Central America until 2022.  

Port Everglades celebrated another milestone on 6 November when it welcomed six cruise ships to the port – Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Reflection, Princess Cruises’ Emerald Princess, Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, Royal Caribbean International’s Odyssey of the Seas and Viking Cruises’ Viking Star. This made it the busiest cruise day since the pandemic.   

“Six of our eight cruise terminals will be in use, so it is not the port’s record, and the ships were not filled to capacity, but it was a sight to behold and is a solid sign of recovery,” said Jonathan Daniels, CEO at Port Everglades. “We have gone from three cruise ships starting up in June and July, to more than 20 ships that will be sailing in November.”   

Port Canaveral, which is located in the east central part of Florida and is ranked as the world’s second-busiest cruise port in terms of multi-day embarkations, has experienced a flurry of homeporting calls since it reopened for cruise business in September 2021. The season started with roundtrips from Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream and Royal Caribbean International’s Mariner of the Seas. By the end of 2021, Port Canaveral will have served as a homeport for two vessels each from Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, as well as three Carnival Cruise Line ships and six from Royal Caribbean International.   

Meanwhile on Florida’s West Coast, Port Tampa Bay welcomed its first homeporting cruise ship in more than 18 months on 16 October when Royal Caribbean International’s Serenade of the Seas embarked on her Bahamas and Caribbean itineraries. The vessel was soon joined by Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Constellation and Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Pride, and by December, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Dawn and Royal Caribbean International’s Brilliance of the Seas will be based in Tampa too.   

“The return of cruising has a far-reaching impact on our region, with many local businesses standing to benefit,” said Raul Alfonso, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Port Tampa Bay. “It’s estimated that a ship like Carnival Pride generates an average of $334,000 in passenger and crew onshore spending per call.”   

Homeporting cruise calls have also been ramping up at PortMiami, which bills itself as the cruise capital of the world. Some of the highlights of the port’s 2021 season have included departures from Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Magic, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Pearl, and the US debut of Virgin Voyages’ new Scarlet Lady. The latter is now sailing a mixture of four- and five-night voyages to both the Caribbean and Mexico.  

Now that the US Government has lifted a ban on international travellers who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 from entering the USA, MSC Cruises has also based MSC Seashore and MSC Divina in PortMiami for winter 2021-2022.   

“We have eagerly awaited the US Administration’s date to re-open the country for fully vaccinated travellers from many parts of the world that love to cruise,” said Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises. “The Caribbean is a popular destination for our guests from across Europe and other regions of the world, particularly during the winter, and many more of them will now be able to fly to both Miami and Orlando to board our three ships that offer a range of different itineraries in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico and our unique private island in The Bahamas, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.”  

The Florida-Caribbean comeback looks set to continue well into the future, with operators scheduling cruises from Florida ports for their upcoming vessels as far in advance as 2023.   

Carnival Cruise Line, for example, will base the new LNG-powered Carnival Celebration in Miami after her delivery in late 2022, while Norwegian Prima will begin her inaugural season sailing from the Port of Orlando to destinations across the Western Caribbean in December 2022. In the same month, Disney Wish will begin offering three- and four-night departures from Port Canaveral to Nassau in The Bahamas and Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line’s private island. Meanwhile, Silversea’s new Silver Dawn will embark on a 20-day cruise from Port Everglades in December 2022, calling at 12 ports in 11 Caribbean countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Kitts, Grand Cayman and more.  

Other cruise operators are solidifying their commitment to the Florida-Caribbean cruise market by strengthening partnerships with ports and destinations to help jointly revitalise the cruise industry.   

Royal Caribbean Group, for example, has signed a memorandum of understanding to extend its preferential berthing rights at cruise facilities in Crown Bay, St. Thomas, and Frederiksted, St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands. The group has also committed to collaborating with the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) to add a third berth to the Crown Bay cruise terminal to enable it to accommodate Icon- and Quantum-class ships from its Royal Caribbean International fleet. In addition, the organisations will work with the Government of the US Virgin Islands to develop and enhance the overall visitor experience in St. Croix, generating new business opportunities for locals and boosting the economy.  

“Royal Caribbean is the leading cruise company in the industry, and it has committed to a major infusion of capital as well as guaranteed cruise visits to our islands,” said Carlton Dowe, executive vice president of VIPA. “In this currently strained economic climate, this substantial commitment indicates Royal Caribbean Group’s dedication to the people of this territory and our economy.”  

This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

Share this story

Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
24 January 2022

Theme picker