by The Cruise People’s Kevin Griffin writing in cybercruise.com
Back in 1977 NCL, then known as Norwegian Caribbean Lines, opened up its own private island at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. When I became one of the private island’s first visitors in 1978 I found it to be a rather vapid place, although the warm beach weather was grand.
Now, however, more than three decades later, cruise lines are opening up whole new cruise ports such as Grand Turk, Costa Maya, Roatan and Falmouth, Jamaica. But just as private islands were regarded as rather synthetic at the time, do new cruise ports really meet with the approval of to-day’s cruise passengers?
Mainline cruising to-day has become an industry of amusement rather than travel and exploration as was once the case. First we had large show lounges, then shopping, then alternative restaurants, then spas, then private islands, then agreements for on-board entertainment with the likes of Nickelodeon and Dreamworks Animations and new ports. Now we have cruise-line owned and developed ports to add to cruise line coffers.
As Mark Tré called them in this column in November 2009, these “Coney Islands of the Seas” are about anything but exploration. They offer shopping, bars and other diversions. Cruise Critic puts it well when it says “Costa Maya is what you’d expect if, say, Disney World decided to create its own private island in Mexico: a man-made tourism village with bars, restaurants, shops and pools at the ready. The faux village itself was created solely to woo cruise passengers.”
These places tend to style themselves after North American suburban malls, with the more recent addition of amusement rides bringing them into the realm of theme parks (remember that when hiring to-day, some cruise lines regard experience in theme parks as good as cruise or hotel experience).
This year’s newest cruise port, created by Royal Caribbean for Oasis and Allure of the Seas, is Falmouth, Jamaica, opened just six months ago by Oasis of the Seas. Located between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, it will cater for Royal Caribbean’s new jumbo ships as well as others, but unlike some other new ports has been developed as a heritage renewal project.
Like Cozumel and Grand Turk it will eventually have shoreside beer bars and “retail experiences” galore, but the real difference is that Falmouth is home to one of the Caribbean’s largest historic colonial districts, with a collection of intact Georgian homes. While early visitors say that there is not much infrastructure there yet this will happen with time.
Meanwhile, to the east, Grand Turk, a Carnival Group & PLC port, boasts of the Caribbean’s largest Margaritaville bar, restaurant and store, and 45,000 sq ft shopping centre. Previously an isolated out-of-the-way island of 3,700 souls, it had not seen regular passenger service since the old Clyde Line called there a century ago, Grand Turk has now come to the fore as it is relatively close to Miami, and only thirty miles south of the Bahamas.
It is mainly Carnival, Costa, Holland America, P&O, Princess and Seabourn that call here although it does also see occasional calls from Crystal, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas.
The appeal of these new ports has been called into question recently, however, by the results of a Cruise Critic poll and by no less a personage than Arthur Frommer,the famous travel writer. Earlier this month, Cruise Critic published the results of the following poll: “What do you think of custom-built Caribbean ports like Falmouth and Costa Maya?”:
I’ve never been to one 41.9%
They’re cheesy, give me a real place 28.8%
Easy access to tours, so they’re fine 23.9%
Love the shopping opportunities 5.8%
Then last week, Frommer weighed in with his own rather interesting comments, while somewhat rephrasing the question in his own way:
“A recent poll at Cruise Critic set out to determine what they thought of the various private beaches, private islands, and phony port cities that the cruise lines are busily throwing up all over the Caribbean. The results weren’t favourable to these artificial communities. Forty-two percent of the persons polled responded that they had either never heard of or never experienced a private island, private beach or phony port, which means they never really felt the need for such a facility.
Nearly thirty percent responded that they regarded these artificial facilities as ‘cheesy,’ something they could do without. The near-thirty percent went on to say that they preferred going to a ‘real’ port. Only a small twenty-four percent opined that they enjoyed these newly-built stops, and a tiny six percent said they liked them but only for the shopping options they provided.”
“Interestingly enough, one of Cruise Critics’ readers responding to the poll told of taking a long bus ride from the artificial port (Costa Maya) to see actual ruins, while their in-laws remained at the port. Those in-laws later told ‘horrible stories about being pressured to buy items in this tourist-built port from retailers.
The retailers complained to my mother-in-law that she had to buy something because they only had two cruise ships in port and they weren’t making enough money… She’ll never go to Costa Maya again.
“The readers who had gone on the motor coach tour leaving from the phony port told of passing nearby wooden barracks erected to house the people who worked there, who otherwise found they could not live in the nearest actual community because it was too far away. All in all, not a very encouraging response to these phony port cities, private beaches and private islands.”
Frommer has obviously formed his own opinion of the new cruise ports but if one is not looking for “amusement,” it is quite simple to book an alternative cruise on lines such as Azamara, Crystal, Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea, Star Clippers or Windstar that will take you in smaller ship to more out of the way ports. But even then, some ships from Crystal and Oceania now call at Grand Turk.
In fact, if one looks at the berths offered to-day by just the lines that are named above it comes pretty close to the entire capacity of the cruise market in the 1970s, something that itself confirms the fact that “amusement” cruising is just a new development of an old product. While “amusement” cruising attracts most of the attention these days, it almost has to if Royal Caribbean are to be able to fill more than 10,000 berths on its two largest ships sailing from Fort Lauderdale every week, week-in week-out year-round.
Allowing for a two-week drydocking for each ship, that’s half a million passengers a year for just two ships, larger than most of the world’s national cruise markets. But once should never forget that there are always alternatives to the mass market.