The seven ports at which the Oasis of the Seas will call have the distinction of playing host to the largest cruise ship in the world. And each of those ports has made or promised substantial investments to earn that distinction.
All seven were willing, even eager, to do whatever was necessary to secure a hot economic opportunity: the upwards of 6,000 passengers and about 2,000 crew members the Oasis will bring to their shores each week.
Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas, with its 5,400 lower berths, will begin operations in December, making its maiden cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; and Nassau.
The ship will alternate that Eastern Caribbean itinerary with a Western Caribbean sailing, beginning next May, to its private destination, Labadee, Haiti, as well as to Mexico’s Costa Maya and Cozumel.
In late 2010, it will drop Costa Maya and begin sailing to Falmouth, Jamaica, a port being built especially for the Oasis and its upcoming sister vessel, the Allure of the Seas.
Each of those ports has made infrastructure investments, ranging from a $2 million pier lengthening n Costa Maya to major dredging projects in the Eastern Caribbean ports and Cozumel, to a $75 million investment in a state-of-the-art terminal at Oasis’ homeport, Port Everglades, and the new, $121 million port of call in Falmouth.
The port cities believe those investments, along with the controversies some have created, will be more than worth it.
“The terminal will enhance the profile of the Jamaican tourism product,” said Pat Belinfanti, the Port Authority of Jamaica’s assistant vice president for public and government relations.
Once Falmouth is completed, which after a setback is now slated to be in November 2010, it will be the only port in Jamaica capable of accommodating the Oasis-class ships.
Belinfanti said the construction phase, which includes building a new pier, terminal and landside facilities, will create some 600 jobs. Upon completion, the project will create 1,000 jobs in the new retail outlets and additional attractions being developed for visitors, he said.
Jamaica will recoup its investment with the revenue from the two Oasis-class vessels alone, he said, although he didn’t specify a time frame.
In Port Everglades, port director Phil Allen said that the $75 million in capital outlay to triple the size of its existing Terminal 18 would be paid back in six years.
In exchange for building Terminal 18, the largest single-ship cruise terminal in the world, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. has promised that its brands, including Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises, will be tenants for at least 10 years.
RCCL guaranteed the port that it will keep each Oasis ship there for a one-year minimum, but the company also guaranteed the port 18 million passengers over 10 years, which can arrive on any RCCL brand.
“If they are not sailing the Allure or the Oasis, they’d have to replace them with other ships or passengers,” Allen said.
An economic impact study found that by the fifth year of the 10-year agreement, an estimated 8,012 jobs will be supported by the project. Those jobs are expected to generate $356.5 million in personal income and $32.8 million in state and local taxes.
Those permanent jobs are in addition to the 1,414 construction jobs that the Terminal 18 expansion created.
According to Allen, the 240,000-square-foot terminal will enable both embarking and debarking passengers to be processed simultaneously, expediting the process so much that Allen has famously said passengers can expect to be on the ship 15 minutes after arriving at the port.
“The aspiration goal is to move passengers from curbside to shipboard in 15 minutes,” he said. “We think it’s doable.”
Allen said that is possible because separate areas of the terminal will be used to process each group. The clock doesn’t start, he said, until customs clears the ship (which can take hours even when it’s not the Oasis of the Seas).
Every time a Royal Caribbean passenger embarks or debarks, the port will charge the ship $10, which Allen called its normal port charge, as well as an additional $5.70 in capital recovery. Because it’s based on “per-passenger movement,” the fee is charged twice per cruise.
RCCL’s contract gives all three brands preferential berthing rights at Terminal 18. But if none of its ships are using it, other cruise lines’ vessels can be assigned there.
One of the reasons Port Everglades is such an attractive port is its proximity to Fort Lauderdale’s airport, 15 minutes east.
But while the port touts that convenience, Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, hopes that not everyone will take advantage of it to slip in and out of the city — not both ways, at least.
Grossman spearheaded an initiative to capture some of the thousands of Oasis passengers and get them into local hotels and attractions. She expects that the ship will introduce 525,000 new visitors to greater Fort Lauderdale.
“If we generated 10% of these new cruise passengers, and right now we get 10% of cruisers, that’s 50,000 new visitors and 100,000 new room nights,” she said.
To entice them, the CVB started a “We Love Cruisers” program and has done some targeted advertising in certain markets.
This month, for example, travel agents who book clients on certain cruises for two or more pre- or post-cruise hotel nights in Fort Lauderdale will receive a $25 American Express gift card on top of the hotel commission.
In addition, passengers who do pre- or post-cruise stays in the area will receive a “beach starter kit” with a beach towel, flip flops and two Cruise and Play VIP cards for free admission to many activities.
Costa Maya, Mexico, was a last-minute addition to the Oasis itinerary when Royal Caribbean realized that the Falmouth project would not be ready by May 2010.
The delay was partly caused by the recession, which left banks tentative about lending money to finance the project, Belinfanti said.
The Oasis will call in Costa Maya every other week from May until December, if Falmouth is indeed operational.
Teofilo Hamui, president of the Port of Costa Maya, said that despite that short window, it was worth building a $2 million, 40-meter extension to Costa Maya’s pier.
“It’s going to generate a lot more work and jobs and a lot more tours,” Hamui said of the Oasis, specifically pointing to the 80 people hired to do the construction, the additional security guards to accommodate the Oasis passengers and the increased shore excursions that will be sold.
Royal Caribbean was able to get a fast commitment from Costa Maya because the port, a purpose-built cruise destination, was designed to accommodate the new generation of large vessels.
Destroyed in 2007 by Hurricane Dean, Costa Maya set its sights on ships like NCL’s Norwegian Epic, which will call there when it debuts next year, and the Oasis-class vessels.
“Our investment [in the Oasis itinerary] was not as big as it was in other places,” Hamui said. “We already had the infrastructure, and they knew that we could deliver quickly.”
He also noted that the accommodations being built for the Oasis are ones any ships can use.
Hamui would not say that the port is soliciting future calls from the Oasis or the Allure after December 2010, but he did say that the passenger experience alone could persuade Royal Caribbean. Passengers, he said, “will be our voice.”
Cozumel, Nassau and St. Maarten are dredging their harbor approaches to accommodate the Oasis’s nearly 30-foot draft. Nassau was quick to offer to undertake the $44.2 million project.
“As a cruise destination, we could not afford not to do this,” said Vernice Walkine, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “We lost out two years ago when our cruise facilities could not accommodate the Freedom class of cruise ships. The [Oasis] ships are even larger, and we did not want to lose this opportunity.”
Walkine said the project was an “immense undertaking” that is on schedule due to not being interrupted by any hurricanes up to this point.
More than 1.9 million cubic yards of material are being dredged from Nassau harbor to widen and deepen the approach channel to accommodate the Oasis ships.
The dredged material is being stockpiled on nearby Arawak Cay for use in future government projects, which include the revitalization of downtown Nassau. The harbor project also includes the installation of three mooring dolphins or long piers at Prince George Wharf at the cruise terminal.
The dredging project in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, became the center of an environmental controversy earlier this year. An environmental group tried to stop the project and the dumping of the dredge spoil in Lindbergh Bay, St. Thomas.
Last week, St. Thomas Gov. John de Jongh, said that while the island explored alternate sites for dumping the dredge, the ship would have to call in Crown Bay instead of at the West Indian Co. dock, as originally intended.
“Crown Bay is an interim solution and quite frankly, it is not the ideal with respect to passenger experience,” de Jongh said in a statement. “There will be issues of security screening, transportation, an economic impact on passenger spending. However, it does ensure that the destination is able to keep the Oasis of the Seas as a port of call.”
Gay Nagle Myers contributed to this report.