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
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
"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
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
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.
This report was updated Thursday with Royal Caribbean's substitute ports of call for eastern Caribbean cruises and Norwegian's immediate Cuba plans.