Caribbean cruise port competition
"Certainly having another cruise destination in the region puts all of us on notice in terms of making sure we do the investments that we have to in our product," Nicholson-Doty said in an interview at the Seatrade Cruise Global convention in March.
"If you look at the Virgin Islands in particular, we're a mature destination," she said. "A lot of people have been to St. Thomas. Some individuals oftentimes are repeat visitors. So we have to be conscious of how do we make sure every time someone comes to the U.S.V.I., what can we give them that's new?"
Nicholson-Doty said one improvement in the works is a water transportation link between three of the key tourist areas in St. Thomas, which will enable visitors to see all three in one day.
The administration is also working on infrastructure improvements in several towns, Nicholson-Doty said, and it is reopening the colonial fort in St. Thomas, the territory's oldest building, which has been closed for repairs since 2007.
Another nearby destination, Jamaica, is also making improvements. It has targeted the port at Ocho Rios for expansion, Bartlett said, and it will seek to revive cruising in Kingston, a cargo port that was once a hub for cruise ships.
"The truth is that in the early years, in the 1940s and 1950s, the itinerary was Havana-Kingston," Bartlett said. "That is where the center of cruise was."
But, he said, when Carnival Cruise Line picked Montego Bay as a port of call for its first ship, the Mardi Gras, it shifted the focus to western Caribbean itineraries.
Bartlett said Cuba and Jamaica have a cooperative tourism agreement that should enable Jamaica to benefit, rather than suffer, from growth in Cuba's cruise business.
"Cuba is going to offer a new opportunity for a reconfigured northern Caribbean, and from that will emerge a number of new itineraries," Bartlett predicted. "And Jamaica is at the center of that."
Perhaps no destination has more to lose from a resurgence in calls to Cuba than the Bahamas, which at its closest point is only 13 miles from Cuba. Nassau and Freeport have already lost a combined 25 calls from the Norwegian Sky when Norwegian Cruise Line changed its itinerary to provide 33 weekly cruises to Havana starting in May and running through 2018 on the Sky.
Erica Ingraham, senior director of cruise and maritime development for the Bahamas, said the destination is taking the loss in stride.
"We're not necessarily concerned about Cuba opening," Ingraham said. "There's enough business to go around for the entire region. We applaud their efforts."
But in addition to applauding a new rival, the Bahamas has been working hard to nail down and expand its own cruise business. It recently signed an agreement with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) that grants the company the right to build a pier at its Bahamian day stop at Coco Cay but also commits RCCL to an accelerated hiring of Bahamians on its ships as well as a new hospitality training program.
In addition, the Bahamas is helping to develop a private island for MSC Cruises near Bimini and to redevelop Norwegian's private island at Great Stirrup Cay. It is also in advanced talks for Carnival Cruise Line to build a beach destination on Grand Bahama.
"These have been in negotiation for a long time," Ingraham said. Together, they will ensure that the big Florida-based cruise lines have a vested interest in ongoing calls to the Bahamas, she said.
Roger Blum, principal at Cruise & Port Advisors, a Miami consulting firm, said Cuba's opening to U.S.-based passenger ships represents more benefit than harm to other Caribbean destinations.
"The way that most of the itineraries have developed, Cuba will be part of an itinerary," Blum said. "There's not a lot [of cruise lines] that are doing only Cuba."
For example, Royal Caribbean International offers five-day itineraries from Tampa that stop at Cozumel and Key West in addition to stopping at Havana.