Find Your Beach


By Paul Benecki 2016-04-20 21:28:08

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2016 edition.)

[By Paul Benecki]

It's getting difficult these days to find a port you can't reach by cruise. The industry offers more destinations every year – over a thousand in all for 2016 – and more global coverage than ever with new stops on every continent. From luxurious resort experiences to adventures in East Africa, cruise lines have itineraries for every passenger and every taste. If it's accessible by water, the odds are good that a cruise line can get you there.

Private Islands

The Caribbean is by far the largest cruise market with a wide variety of itineraries: popular ports like Nassau and St. Maarten, seamless excursions on “cruise line private islands” and – new for 2016 – access to Havana from American shores.

Every year, cruise lines add more destinations for Caribbean passengers, and occasionally they build them themselves. The development of the cruise line private island dates to 1977 when Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) bought Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas from an oil company and turned it into a custom-made resort. Ever since, the island has offered passengers a hassle-free experience: A tender brings them to shore where they can buy drinks with their NCL key card, enjoy NCL-operated attractions, and take in the sun and surf before returning to the ship.

Most major lines have followed NCL's lead. Thirty years ago Royal Caribbean opened its Labadee private port, a fenced-off community on an isolated peninsula in Haiti. The venture has been very successful: As of 2013, Royal Caribbean's ships alone brought enough passengers to put Labadee ahead of Antigua, Barbados and St. Lucia as cruise destinations.

The concept has benefits for customers and cruise lines alike. For the passenger, ease of transactions, freedom from crowds and the security of a private resort make these havens easy to visit. For the lines, private ports offer the opportunity to benefit from shoreside commerce, create a consistent branded environment and increase quality control. “We [ensure that] every decision we take keeps each of our ships true to the promise of our brand,” says MSC Cruises’ Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago. He adds that the firm's new private island, Ocean Cay, will be a “magnificent extension of our shipboard experiences.”

Cigar, Anyone?

For cruisers looking for a richly cultural port experience, several lines have announced that this year, for the first time in five decades, cruise ships will once again sail to Cuba from American ports. “We have announced Havana as one of our ports of call for our new Fathom brand when it launches service to Cuba in May . . . we believe there is pent-up demand,” said Roger Frizzell, Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for Carnival.

Cuba is no stranger to cruise ships – the Celestyal Crystal and MSC Opera already make weekly round trips between Montego Bay in Jamaica and Havana. But the advent of regular sailings from Miami opens the possibility of high volume. South Florida has the three busiest cruise ports in the world, and Miami, the “cruise ship capital of the world,” accounts for nearly five million trips a year.

PortMiami faces stiff competition, but Director of Public Affairs Andria Muniz-Amador is confident in its ability to stay at the top: “The minute a cruise passenger sets foot at PortMiami, their vacation begins. From the dynamic skyline of downtown Miami just across the causeway to the sparkling waters of Biscayne Bay, PortMiami delivers a tropical experience like no other port in the world.”

Thirty miles up the coast, Port Everglades has become a tough competitor, especially after adding Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas – the largest cruise ships in the world, at least until the arrival of Harmony of the Seas, due at Everglades later this year.

Port Tampa Bay, with its amenities-rich harbor for midsize vessels, looks to compete directly with Miami for the Cuba market. And as so many cruisers in the Caribbean are American and so many reside on the eastern seaboard, ports well north of Florida are eager to attract traffic with easy, local access to a cruise vacation.

The Big Apple and More

Before cruising really took off, New York City was the hub of the transatlantic ocean liner trade, and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 still speeds from New York to Southampton in seven days. But the Big Apple also offers departures for New England, Canada and the Caribbean from its modern piers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. If one wants to take in the limitless offerings of New York's cultural scene, plus the private resort experience at Great Stirrup Cay, an NCL cruise will take you to both in the span of a week, 30 weeks a year.

Like its neighbor to the north, the Port of Baltimore welcomes the Caribbean cruise industry as well. “Passengers regularly come to Baltimore from all over the East Coast to take a cruise,” says the Maryland Port Administration's Director of Communications, Richard Scher. “Our terminal is located only three miles from Baltimore’s world-famous Inner Harbor. It is only 30 minutes from beautiful Annapolis, the sailing capital of the world, and 45 minutes from Washington, D.C.”

For those looking for something adventurous, the global cruise industry has endless options beyond the Caribbean. The neighboring ports of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have both opened mega-terminals in the last two years, and the Chinese market is taking off as well. But there are also plenty of options for those looking for something out of the ordinary and away from the crowd.

Norway is a classic cruise destination for nature-lovers. Lofoten, an archipelago with high peaks rising above its fishing villages, has hosted cruisers for over a hundred years and remains quite popular. It offers rock climbing, skiing, fjord tours and horseback riding, among other attractions. For three months in the summer, outings can go late into the evening with round-the-clock daylight, and in winter Lofoten is a great place to see the Northern Lights. The islands are linked by road, and it's possible to take in all five in one day.

Cruise Norway Managing Director Sandra Diana Bratland says the islands are a natural cruising destination. “Lofoten is a fascinating blend of high mountains and white sandy beaches with several small picturesque villages in between. It is a mixture of old and new – alongside traditional fishing boats one finds high-speed RIB boats and a popular golf course.”

Norway also offers cruisers the rare opportunity to board a cargo-carrying passenger freighter.  Hurtigruten, founded as a steamship line in the 1890s, operates some of the few remaining vessels of the type, bringing cruisers to more than thirty Norwegian ports, including Svolvaer in Lofoten and Svalbard in the Arctic.

Danger Zones?

In addition to global expansion, new destinations and remote offerings, cruise lines small and large are rediscovering places that until recently were considered too dangerous.

With maritime security off the coast of East Africa improving, Kenya is looking to get back into cruise tourism again. Tour operators Abercrombie and Kent expect ten cruise ships to call at Mombasa in 2016, up from zero in 2012. “Following a decline in pirate attacks, thanks to the efforts of the Kenya Defense Forces and naval forces from the international community, cruise ships are now coming back,” states Kenya Ports Authority spokesman Haji Masemo. The authority is planning construction of a modern cruise terminal for Mombasa, reflecting the region's new confidence. 

Only time will tell if Kenya's optimism for its “safari port” will come true. As of January, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have travel warnings for parts of Kenya's coast due to attacks by the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, and Australia advises its citizens to “reconsider” any visit to Mombasa. Kenyan business organizations have appealed, citing improved security measures.

Travel advisories need not impede a port's growth, however. Nassau has had a “critical” crime rating from the U.S. State Department for years. Despite the risks (as noted in Stephen Caldwell's related article), Nassau’s passenger arrival numbers have only increased. According to the most recent data, more cruisers sail to Nassau than to any other port – by a wide margin.

Mombasa could also look to a Latin American port for turnaround inspiration. Mazatlán, Mexico, once a popular destination for American tourists, lost the bulk of its port calls in 2010-2011: High crime rates and a number of well-publicized violent incidents gave the major lines cause for concern. But thanks to millions in government investment in security cameras, policing and infrastructure, those troubles now seem a thing of the past, and cruise lines have noticed.

Departures from the Port of San Diego to Mazatlán and the Mexican Riviera are rising again, especially with a new commitment by Holland America to more than double its southbound passenger volume. “The safety situation in Mexico continues to improve, and we’re seeing quite a high demand for [the region],” notes Captain Simon Douwes, Senior Director of Deployment and Itinerary Planning for Holland America. “Cruise lines in general increase their fleets all the time . . . so definitely for San Diego, things can only get better.” 

Comfort Zone

The same could be said of cruising. Whether to a tropical island or a remote coastline, an Arctic outpost or a white sandy beach, cruisers can go to more places than ever before. So what are you waiting for? Find your own beach! – MarEx  

Paul Benecki is a reporter for the MarEx Newsletter. This is his first appearance in the magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.