Not ready for big ships, Bermuda suffers drop in cruise visits

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If Bermuda failed to anticipate facing a significant loss of cruise business next year, it has no one to blame but itself.

That’s the view of the mayor of Hamilton, the one Bermuda official who had the chutzpah to say what many others were no doubt thinking last month as three Carnival Corp. brands announced significant cutbacks in visits to the island.

“We had very lengthy discussions, going back some 14 years, about changes coming in the cruise industry, about its moving away from smaller — say, 800-passenger — ships to much larger ships,” said Mayor Charles Gosling, a former president of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce. “St. George’s and Hamilton have not listened to that argument, but the government decided to develop the Royal Naval Dockyard for Panamax ships, using King’s Wharf and Heritage Wharf.”

RoyalNavalDockyardBermudaAccording to Laurence Jacobs, transportation coordinator for the Bermuda Department of Tourism, the maximum ship length the two Dockyard berths can accommodate is 1,020 feet. With some mooring modifications and minor dredging, he said, ships up to about 1,100 feet could be berthed there.

“We are considering that for the future,” he said.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class ships are in that size range. The Freedom of the Seas is 1,112 feet long; Oasis-class vessels are 1,187 feet long.

The problem is that the dockyard is located at the far west end of the island, not in convenient proximity to the tourist enclaves of Hamilton and St. George’s.

But those two ports can only accommodate vessels up to 720 and 900 feet long, respectively. A more challenging obstacle to reaching those ports is the narrow cuts the ships must sail through to access the harbors.

“The town cuts could be dealt with,” Gosling said. But he added that widening the St. George’s Harbor cut “could have a serious environmental impact, bringing ocean swells into the harbor. The residents don’t want it. I would be very surprised if it ever happened.”

Hamilton Harbor is protected by two sounds, however, and there is a proposal to widen that cut, known as Two Rock Passage.

“If we could do that, we would build a transportation hub in Hamilton, and St. George’s is close by,” he said.

Gosling said he and others are working to get approval to widen the Hamilton cut, and government and community meetings are scheduled for this month. He anticipated that plans could be in place by the end of 2012, with construction completed two years later.

There are other challenges in Bermuda, including public transportation service from the dockyards into the towns. Even when big ships call, service is spotty and typically rife with problems.

On virtually all of Bermuda’s local media websites, comments posted by residents and tourists alike voice the frustrations that result from unreliable bus service, too few buses and expensive taxi fares.

/uploadedImages/All_TW_News/Cruise/_410x232_photos/BermudaCruiseMap.jpgTwo high-speed ferries from the dockyard into the two towns are available. (Click on map). One ferry accommodates 350 and the other 700 people, which is not always sufficient to transport cruise passengers in a timely manner.

Capacity cuts
Bermuda officials and business owners are still digesting the negative economic impact that will result from the capacity reductions announced in recent weeks by Princess, Carnival and Holland America Line, all Carnival Corp. brands.

Princess, which called at Bermuda 10 times this year, will visit just twice in 2012.

Carnival pulled into port 16 times this year; in 2012 it will make one call.

HAL is repositioning the Veendam away from Bermuda altogether in 2013, after serving the destination on regularly scheduled cruises from New York since 2010.

“These were unrelated, independent decisions made by each of these brands on Bermuda deployment,” said Jennifer De La Cruz, Carnival Cruise Lines’ director of public relations.

The three lines each cited different reasons for their actions. Princess said that it is boosting its presence in Alaska next summer. Spokeswoman Karen Candy said, “As we have increased our capacity in Alaska for 2012, we don’t have a ship sailing to the Caribbean out of New York for the summer 2012 season. As a result, our visits to Bermuda have decreased.”

Princess will send two ships to Bermuda next fall: the 3,100-passenger Caribbean Princess on Oct. 29 and the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess on Nov. 14.

Holland America’s plans for the Veendam aren’t yet known.

“The 2012 season will mark three years of Bermuda cruising roundtrip from New York, and in 2013 other destinations are being considered as part of our overall global deployment,” the cruise line said in a statement, adding that it would “continue to call in Hamilton occasionally on other itineraries.”

From Carnival's perspective, De La Cruz said, “We would like to have a significant Bermuda program. However, there are currently only two berths that can accommodate our ships. These berths are contracted to other cruise lines, which leaves us with very limited availability.”

Generally, she said, berths are only available to Carnival very early or very late in the season, or for weekend arrivals, which “do not provide our guests with as favorable an experience as they would receive otherwise.”

That’s because, among other things, weekend shopping is limited in Bermuda, since stores in the Royal Naval Dockyard are the only ones open on Sundays.

On the bright side

Even so, all is not lost.

Transport Minister Derrick Burgess noted in a speech to the Bermuda House of Assembly last month that while the drop in cruise ship visits will affect local revenue — an estimated $3 million will be lost as a result of Carnival’s action alone — some 160 cruise calls will be made to the destination next year. The final schedule is due out later this month.

The government estimates that cruise passengers will still contribute close to $80 million to the economy in the form of government taxes, retail purchases and shore excursions.

Royal Caribbean’s 2,500-passenger Enchantment of the Seas will visit Bermuda on six- and eight-day cruises out of Baltimore, and its 3,100-passenger Explorer of the Seas will call there on five-day cruises from Cape Liberty.

NorwegianStarThe 2,000-passenger Celebrity Summit will include Bermuda on its seven-day sailings from Cape Liberty, and Holland America’s 1,350-passenger Veendam will continue to call there on seven-night cruises from New York through the 2012 season.

Norwegian Cruise Line will have the greatest presence in Bermuda in 2012. Its 2,400-passenger Norwegian Gem and 2,240-passenger Norwegian Star, both sailing from New York, will call at Bermuda. The 2,240-passenger Norwegian Dawn will offer Bermuda cruises from Boston.

The destination’s cruise season begins in April and typically ends in late October or early November.

Burgess acknowledged the berths dilemma.

“The premium berths are from Monday to Friday, between mid-May and Labor Day,” he said. “This is when demand for cruises to Bermuda is at its highest and cruise lines can charge higher ticket rates. Our long-term cruise partners, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, currently occupy these premium cruise berths, leaving the less desirable berths available for other cruise lines.”

Burgess said inadequate public transportation and Sunday store closings are “a challenge,” and that “a lack of activity on weekends impacted [passengers’] perception of Bermuda.”

Burgess also said in his speech that he would consider working toward changing the country’s casino regulations, since allowing cruise ships to keep their casinos open while in port might go a long way toward assuaging other frustrations.

Changing the casino rules would take time, however, and not all of Bermuda’s lawmakers support the idea.

‘Clients love Bermuda’

Agent Patrick Theberge, owner of Cruise Vacations Inc., in Medford, Mass., said he was surprised to learn some of the lines were cutting capacity in Bermuda.

Theberge, who served on the advisory committee for the recent redevelopment of Boston’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, said Bermuda bookings are very strong in New England.

“I have many clients who book a Bermuda cruise every single year, often on the same ship, the same week, even in the same cabin,” he said. “They’re like the vacation renters you see down on Cape Cod, the people who rent the same cottage every year. That’s what it’s like. It’s a regular thing for a lot of people in the Boston area.”

Moreover, Theberge said he doesn’t typically hear complaints from clients about Bermuda.

“I rarely get a complaint, and if I do it’s usually about the ship, not the destination,” he said.

Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.

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