No fewer than 30 ships will be sailing in the Caribbean this summer, including one each from Jacksonville, Fla., and Charleston S.C.; two each from New Orleans, Tampa and Baltimore; three from Galveston, Texas; five from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale; and six from Port Canaveral in Florida.
Year-round, Carnival Cruise Lines alone will offer 1,600 cruises to the Caribbean or the Bahamas in 2014.
One result has been a decline in prices that has made it harder for cruise lines and travel agents alike to make money.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that there were too many ships chasing too few passengers in the Caribbean this year. A 19% industrywide capacity increase was destined for trouble.
Kevin Sheehan, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, described the Caribbean train wreck as a product of "the lemming theory."
"We all sat in our rooms, and we did our itinerary planning -- on our own, of course -- and we all concluded it made sense to go into the Caribbean," Sheehan told investors in April. "And, lo and behold, we all announced pretty much at the same time, and it's like you show your hand and everybody's in the Caribbean, with the capacity being up 20%."
As for the factors that led to the convergence in the Caribbean, perhaps the biggest single trigger was the sour experience that cruise lines had in Europe from 2010 to 2012. Ships that had been stationed in Europe filled slowly because of weak European economies -- especially in southern Europe -- and the reluctance of some North Americans to pay high transatlantic airfares. (Click here or on the map for a larger image with a key to the map showing the lines with ships now sailing in the Caribbean.)
In response, cruise lines pulled back from that market. Royal Caribbean International drew down its capacity in Europe. Carnival Cruise Lines went without a ship in Europe this year.
Those vessels returned to North America for the most part, adding cabins to the Caribbean.
Brand strategies also played an important part. MSC Cruises, a big player in Europe, had never had a ship year-round in the Caribbean. Its executives were determined to change that, and they brought one of the line's newest vessels, the year-old, 3,300-passenger MSC Divina, to Miami.
Norwegian Cruise Line also put a ship in Miami year-round, the first time in a decade that it felt it had the resources and the hardware to compete in the seven-day Caribbean market.
The 4,000-passenger Norwegian Getaway, custom-tailored to Miami and chock full of whiz-bang features, will be in the Caribbean year-round, whereas the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, which is moving to Europe, was there for half the year.
Both MSC and Norwegian are aggressively growing their fleets, playing catch-up to some big competitors.
But it seemed like everyone was reading from the same playbook in the Caribbean. Princess Cruises, which had typically been a seasonal Caribbean player, also picked 2013-14 to go year-round.
Executives of all the lines say that having a year-round presence avoids having their brand fall off the radar with travel agents, building sales momentum throughout the year.
Another factor is the simple growth in the size and number of ships that the cruise industry operates. Carnival line's year-round Miami ship, the 2-year-old Breeze, is the biggest in its fleet, at 3,690 passengers.
All those factors combined to make the supply of Caribbean berths more than plentiful this year.
Market inventory or move it
On the demand side, there is a feeling in some quarters of the cruise industry that the additional capacity sent to the Caribbean didn't receive a corresponding boost in marketing.
"It's not over-capacity, it's under-demand," said former Carnival Cruise Lines president Bob Dickinson, who advocates more TV advertising and more agent-friendly policies as a cure for what ails the Caribbean.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president for fleet deployment at Carnival Cruise Lines, agrees that marketing is part of the solution. "There is so much more potential demand that we're not attracting," he said.
But fixing the problems in the Caribbean will take more than marketing dollars, even if they can be found.
Wall Street analyst Robin Farley said the cruise industry has been in need of a structural change that might reconcile supply and demand, and that Royal Caribbean International's recent decision to send a new ship, the Quantum of the Seas, to China might point the way to the future.
"We believe the emergence of China as a major sourcing market can provide new demand for tonnage that can be redeployed from more mature markets, which could also potentially drive pricing in those existing markets," Farley wrote in a May 13 note to clients of UBS Investment Research.
After a six-month stint in New York, from November to April, the Quantum will offer Chinese vacationers cruises year-round from Shanghai. This will cut cruise capacity by 1.5% in North America and 3% in the Caribbean region.
The downside for U.S. agents is seeing potentially lucrative newbuilds such as the Quantum go somewhere other than North America, where they traditionally sail in their early years.
China will also get another ship from Costa Cruises, which is moving the Costa Serena there full time starting in April 2015. That potentially removes another 1% of Caribbean capacity if Costa shifts a vessel from the Caribbean to cover the Serena's current Mediterranean itineraries, Farley said.
Elsewhere in Asia, Australia, too, is attracting more ships, including the Holland America vessels Ryndam and Statendam, which will leave the HAL fleet next year to join P&O Princess Cruises.
The Ryndam is scheduled to offer western and southern Caribbean cruises from Tampa this winter.
As European economies improve, some of the new ships that were sent to the Caribbean are also returning to Europe. The MSC Divina will return to Europe for the summer of 2015 after MSC cut prices to as low as $299 on a seven-day cruise this fall.
"When we announced we were coming [to Miami] with Divina year-round, that was March 2013," said Ken Muskat, MSC's senior vice president for marketing and sales in North America.
"That was prior to all the other cruise lines bringing their ships back into the Caribbean in the summer," Muskat said. "Shortly after we announced it, the Caribbean became oversaturated with inventory, and pricing is not where any of us want it to be."
So the Divina is being withdrawn for the summer months, although Muscat said it would still being marketed to North Americans while in Europe and will return to the U.S. in the fall of 2015.
Patrick Scholes, an analyst with the SunTrust Robinson Humphrey brokerage firm in Atlanta, said all these moves bode well for better pricing in the Caribbean.
"It sounds like capacity, at least for the first half of next year, will be down simply because the ships are moving to Asia and Europe," Scholes said. "So that will be a positive."
Mixing it up
But not every cruise line is pulling down its Caribbean capacity. At Princess Cruises, the new 3,560-passenger Regal Princess replaces the 3,082-passenger Crown Princess as one of five ships sailing the Caribbean this winter.
Because it is also offering more short cruises, Princess will offer 204 departures on 16 itineraries in 2014-15, up from 160 departures on 14 itineraries this year.
Carnival Cruise Lines, by far the biggest player in the Caribbean with 1,600 annual departures, is set to reduce its capacity in the region slightly this year when the 2,124-passenger Carnival Legend moves to Australia full time in September.
Carnival also hopes to prompt new demand for its Caribbean cruises by varying its itineraries and cruise lengths and making other changes to keep things fresh and interesting.
A perceived lack of fresh, interesting products in the Caribbean is a complaint frequently heard from travel agents.
"I have customers who have gone to every single port in the Caribbean, and they say, 'If you've seen one island, you've seen them all,'" said Alex Sanchez, a Cruise Planners franchisee in Miami Lakes, Fla. "They say, 'I want to try something new.'"
Thornton said Carnival is trying to oblige by throwing some curve balls into its mix of pitches. So, for example, it arranged to cruise to Little Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, a private port of call operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., in order to offer a new itinerary from Charleston.
From Galveston, it is offering an Eastern Caribbean itinerary for Texans who are tired of visiting Mexico. On short cruises, newer vessels are sometimes being used instead of the older ones that are typical for that submarket.
And it is varying its cruise lengths, such as an eight-day itinerary from Port Everglades on the Carnival Freedom, which goes deep into the southern Caribbean to visit Aruba and Curacao.
Although Carnival Cruise Lines doesn't view longer cruises as core products, it is adding a few to the mix.
"We try to keep new and different itinerary options even within the constraints of the duration of the cruises," Thornton said.
He added, however, that the Caribbean, for all of its issues, remains appealing to most cruise passengers. It has a casual vibe, good beaches, nice weather, water sports, shopping alternatives that aren't available at home and a light dose of cultural difference.
The area also lends itself to family vacations during the summer months, even if the weather is mild at home, he said.
Some industry observers said the cruise lines' itineraries play a part in creating conditions that are weakening demand for the region as a cruise destination.
When multiple megaships arrive on the same day in a port, the experience is degraded, said Richard Doumeng, who runs a resort in St. Thomas and is president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
"I think the cruise industry could contribute more to infrastructure improvements on these small island towns that they come to thousands of people at a time," Doumeng said.
Sensitive to such criticisms, cruise lines have increasingly been designing their own custom-tailored ports of call. At Carnival Corp., these ports include Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, Grant Turk Cruise Center in the Turks and Caicos and Mahogany Bay in Honduras.
At private ports, cruise lines have more control over how many people arrive on a given day.
Thornton said ports that are partly or wholly developed by cruise lines benefit from the industry's knowledge of its customers.
"The top six- or seven-rated ports we visit are ports that we have either developed or been involved in," he said.
In Carnival's guest-satisfaction surveys, Half Moon Cay, developed by Holland America Line, is the highest-rated stop in the Caribbean, he said.
To try to build on that success, Carnival Corp. and a partner are developing Amber Cove, a $65 million port on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. It will have sufficient berth capacity to accommodate two of Carnival's largest ships at once and will offer 30 acres of waterfront property and a transportation hub.
Thornton said one of the exciting aspects of Amber Cove will be the chance for a variety of shore excursions that a sizeable island like Hispaniola offers, including nature hikes, whale-watching and a nearby aquarium.
"That area of the Dominican Republic just has so many things to do," Thornton said.
Because it is on the north shore of the island, Amber Cove will also offer a lot of fuel-efficient itineraries, Thornton said.
It is expected to open in late 2015.
Other cruise lines are also spending money to freshen their product lineup in the Caribbean. Along with a partner representing the government, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is developing Sugar Point in Barbados, a $250 million sugar- and rum-themed project near Bridgetown. When fully built, will have four piers with enough capacity to handle up to seven ships.
The first phase of the project is expected to open in 2016.
And Norwegian Cruise Line, which developed the original private island at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas in the 1970s, is planning Harvest Cay, a $50 million ecology-themed port of call in southern Belize. On its website, Norwegian includes the port on its western Caribbean itineraries from Houston, New Orleans and Tampa starting in November 2015.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.