Irma knocks out marquee cruise ports in eastern Caribbean

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St. Thomas cruise port
St. Thomas is normally one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean.. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Cruise lines are hoping to return to normal operations for the first time since early September, but there are holes in their itineraries to the eastern Caribbean that won't be plugged soon.

Several of the busiest ports of call in that region appear to be out of service for weeks, if not months. Among them are the French/Dutch island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

St. Thomas and St. Maarten in particular are mainstays of many eastern Caribbean cruise vacations.

Roger Blum, principal at Cruise & Port Advisors, a Miami consulting firm, said that in addition to being "incredibly popular" destinations, they are at a strategic spot. "They're pretty much as far as you can get on a seven-day cruise from Florida," he said.

Other destinations to the south escaped Irma but are too far to travel for a weeklong voyage.

Royal Caribbean International said it will be substituting St. Croix for St. Thomas on eastern Caribbean cruises of the Adventure of the Seas. It will substitute St. Kitts for St. Thomas and St. Maarten on Allure of the Seas voyages and St. Kitts for St. Thomas on Harmony of the Seas voyages.

Norwegian Cruise Line said it will offer only western Caribbean routes through November on the Miami-based Norwegian Escape.

The ravaged destinations aren't ready for tourists but will suffer from losing the ship calls, each one of which is worth an average of more than $500,000, according to a 2015 study done for the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association.

St. Maarten and St. Thomas each draw about 1.6 million cruise tourists a year, more than all but a few other Caribbean ports. Key West recorded 696,887 cruise passengers in 2016 and was ahead of that pace through the first seven months of 2017.

While most cruise lines visit the affected islands on itineraries that start and end in Florida, several small-ship cruise lines fly passengers to the Caribbean to begin their voyages there. SeaDream Yacht Club turns some of its cruises in Marigot, St. Martin. Windstar uses St. Maarten, San Juan and Bridgetown, Barbados. Neither line has made a decision about how to proceed with the 2017-18 Caribbean season.

If there is a silver lining, it is that September and October are the slowest months of the year in the Caribbean. In Tortola, for example, there are only five calls on the schedule for September and six in October, before jumping to 21 in November and 25 in December. Tortola expanded its pier to more than 1,000 feet in 2015, attracting regular calls by Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line.

In Key West, cruise arrivals in September 2016 were only about one-third of the 88,264 attracted in the peak month of December.

No one can yet forecast how long reconstruction will take in ports such as Key West or St. Thomas, where damage assessment is ongoing.

Blum said the stricken ports will be desperate to get cruise passengers back because of the revenue they provide and the sense of normalcy they offer. Therefore, cruise infrastructure will be the focus of early rebuilding efforts.

"The tougher comeback is for the hotels," he said.

Another question mark is the cruise industry's fragile toehold in Havana, which had been generating new excitement for Caribbean cruising. At least a half-dozen cruise lines have published itineraries that include Havana, where Hurricane Irma caused fatalities, building collapses and severe flooding.

Norwegian spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello said the Sept. 18 Norwegian Sky cruise plans its regular itinerary but is "awaiting updates from our partners on the ground to ensure Havana is ready to accept guests." The Sky on Mondays typically does a four-night cruise roundtrip from Miami that includes stops in Havana and Great Stirrup Cay. 

While some ports like Havana took direct hits, others to the east of Florida are already open. The Bahamas got less damage than many had feared and cruise lines scheduled shortened cruises departing Sept. 13 and 14 to Nassau and Freeport.

Grand Turk, where Carnival Cruise Line has a private destination, has reopened. Carnival's port at Amber Cove on the north side of the Dominican Republic is reported to be in good condition.

Blum said that there shouldn't be too much competition in the western Caribbean for ship berths through November because many ships are in Europe or elsewhere at this time of year. Should the eastern Caribbean remain offline through the winter, congestion will be an issue, he said.
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This report was updated Thursday with Royal Caribbean's substitute ports of call for eastern Caribbean cruises and Norwegian's immediate Cuba plans.

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