Carnival Cruise Lines has dropped Key West as a port of call on 30 cruises this year, instead making stops at Royal Caribbean International’s private island in the Bahamas.
The arrangement is highly unusual because cruise companies generally try to use the islands they own to differentiate products and itineraries.
But as fleets continue to grow, scheduling is making it harder to stick to that pattern.
Both Carnival ships that will be calling on Royal’s Coco Cay operate five-day cruises from Florida.
From Jacksonville, Carnival deploys the Fascination on a route that currently takes it to Nassau and Key West. When it calls on Coco Cay on April 14, it will be the first of 19 such calls this year.
From Port Canaveral, Carnival Ecstasy sails a five-day itinerary that calls in Freeport and Nassau. In addition, it will now visit Coco Cay, also known as Little Stirrup Cay, 11 times in 2013.
Although the altered itineraries will save fuel, a top priority for all cruise lines, Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said that the primary reason for the change was to offer a better cruise for guests.
“The addition of Little Stirrup Cay provides us the opportunity to expand and diversify our port-of-call choices for our guests, particularly within the Bahamas,” Gulliksen said.
Nassau, Freeport and Coco Cay all sit in a fairly tight cluster, with Coco Cay lying about 50 miles north of Nassau. By contrast, Key West is about 262 miles west of Nassau, taking ships farther away from their north Florida homeports.
The decision to stop at Coco Cay means that Royal Caribbean will likely garner all the revenue Carnival guests spend on equipment rental, activities, shopping, drink purchases and the like.
Carnival might also have to pay a fee to dock at Coco Cay. However, Carnival last week would say only that it had reached a “commercial agreement” with Royal. It did not disclose the financial terms of the arrangement.
Two other cruise lines controlled by Carnival Cruise Lines’ parent company, Carnival Corp., operate private islands in the Bahamas. Holland America Line has operated Half Moon Cay, about 100 miles southeast of Nassau, since 1997. Carnival Cruise Lines vessels also use Half Moon Cay but seldom on the same day as Holland America Line ships. (Click here or on the image, right, for a larger view of the cruise lines' private islands in the Bahamas.)
Princess Cruises, meanwhile, stops at Princess Cays, a beach on the southern tip of the sizeable Bahamian island of Eleuthera, about 80 miles east of Nassau.
Gulliksen said Carnival investigated the possibility of using either Half Moon Cay or Princess Cays as a substitute for Key West.
“We decided to include Little Stirrup Cay because, given the short duration of the cruises and the other ports of call on these itineraries, it would be difficult to reach Half Moon Cay and still maintain the ships’ published schedule,” he said.
The itinerary from Port Canaveral gives Ecstasy passengers a full day each in Nassau, Freeport and Coco Cay, plus a day at sea before returning to port. The distance covered is about 620 miles, compared with more than 1,000 miles on the itinerary that includes Key West.
From Jacksonville, the Fascination has a day at sea before arriving at Key West at 7 a.m. It departs at 2:30 p.m. but doesn’t get to Nassau until noon the next day. It then departs eight hours later and has another day at sea before arriving back in Jacksonville.
By going to Coco Cay, guests can spend from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Nassau, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Coco Cay, bookended by days at sea. The distance covered is about 300 miles less.
Key West expects to host about 299 cruise ship calls in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, port director Jim Fitton said, down from about 340 the year before. Fitton said the number of calls had been expected to be down even before the Carnival decision.
“All they told us is that they were changing the schedule,” he said. “There was no explanation about why they were doing it or what they were doing in its place.”
Fitton added that it isn’t unusual for cruise lines not to explain their deployment decisions.
Carnival will remain the most active cruise line at Key West, accounting for about 60% of calls there, Fitton said.
There will be a small decline in port revenue in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, which includes two-thirds of the lost calls. “It’s about a $60,000 hit to us, which is not great, but we usually pick up a half-dozen or so calls each year when storms go through Mexico or the Cayman Islands,” he said.
Scheduling more calls for Carnival ships at Half Moon Cay could be difficult. For example, on May 9 when the Fascination is scheduled to visit Coco Cay, the Carnival Pride will be spending the day at Half Moon Cay.
Between them, the two ships carry more than 4,000 passengers.
A Carnival ship is already scheduled to call at Half Moon Cay 18 days in May, including two calls by the Fascination and five by the Ecstasy. The lone call by a Holland America ship is the Maasdam on May 2.
Royal has 20 calls scheduled at Coco Cay in May, according to the Cruise Port Insider website.
Gulliksen said it is not uncommon for cruise lines to use facilities owned by competing brands. He cited as examples Carnival-developed ports in the Turks and Caicos, Cozumel and Roatan, in Honduras.
Cruise lines that have used the Roatan port include Regent Seven Seas Cruises, while Silversea Cruises has used the Grand Turk Cruise Center.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.