Last updated: 04:38 PM ET, Thu March 05 2015

Jamaican Tourism Leaders Lament Ocho Rios’ Cruise Traffic Decline

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | March 05, 2015

Jamaican Tourism Leaders Lament Ocho Rios’ Cruise Traffic Decline

PHOTO: Falmouth has emerged as Jamaica’s top cruise port. (Photo by Brian Major)

In October the Jamaican resort town of Ocho Rios launched a newly renovated cruise ship terminal, part of a larger local infrastructure improvement program financed through the government’s Tourism Enhancement Fund.

Local stakeholders clearly hoped the facility would drive Ocho Rios to regain its one-time status as Jamaica’s top cruise port. Ocho Rios’ cruise traffic has declined sharply since 2011, when the once-sleepy city of Falmouth opened a $220 million cruise port in partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

Yet despite its newly renovated terminal, Ocho Rios remains in the cruise industry’s rear-view mirror. The facility will host exactly one cruise ship making periodic calls between April and the end of 2015, say tourism officials. According to local leaders, the lack of cruise traffic will harshly impact tourism-dependent businesses in Ocho Rios.

"That is going to be a major stifle on the tourism product," said Michael Belnavis, an Ocho Rios political leader, in a Jamaica Observer interview earlier this month. Belnavis said local craft vendors and transportation operators who cater to cruise-ship visitors were already in rough straits before the most recent downturn. He said the situation will worsen when most ships depart for the year beginning in April.

Belnavis has called for a meeting with Jamaican tourism minister Wykeham McNeill to discuss Ocho Rios’ cruise decline. He estimated it would take 18 months to attract new cruise ships to the town. “That is 18 months of famine,” Belnavis told the Observer.

Jamaican government officials agree Ocho Rios has already weathered a significant decline in cruise traffic. In 2013 Falmouth hosted 615,857 cruise ship passengers, 50 percent of the country’s total, according to Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) statistics. Ocho Rios hosted 400,680 passengers (32 percent), a decrease of 4.2 percent compared with 2012. Montego Bay’s port hosted 223,102 passengers (18 percent).

William Tatham, PAJ’s head of cruise shipping, confirmed in December that Ocho Rios would experience a significant drop in cruise passenger arrivals in 2015. In a Jamaica Gleaner interview, Tatham said Falmouth would receive an average of 10,000 to 12,000 passengers per week in the summer of 2015, while Ocho Rios would host approximately 2,700 passengers three times a month during the year.

Jamaican businessman Joey Issa agreed with the downbeat forecast for Ocho Rios. While 15 to 20 years ago the city hosted 800,000 cruise visitors annually, “Those numbers have dropped to 400,000," he told the Gleaner during an editor’s forum in Ocho Rios. "The situation needs to be addressed immediately," he said.

Long a strong point for the island, Jamaica’s cruise business has boomed in recent years. In 2014 a total of 1,423,797 travelers visited the county via cruise ship, a robust 12.5 percent increase over the 1,265,268 who arrived in 2013.

The 2014 total places Jamaica sixth among 28 Caribbean Tourism Organization destinations in terms of cruise arrivals, trailing only the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cozumel, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and St. Maarten. Jamaica of course is the third-most popular Caribbean destination for land-based tourists, behind only Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

In fact Tatham said many of the cruise ship vacationers who arrive at the Falmouth port end up visiting Ocho Rios attractions, including Dunn's River, Mystic Mountain and Dolphin Cove.

Falmouth is located about half-way between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, Jamaica’s other main resort town. The port’s planners selected Falmouth in part because its location enables cruise visitors to easily access attractions in both towns.

The renovation of the Ocho Rios cruise ship terminal was the second phase of a $3.5 million improvement project initiated in 2013 by the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment. The first phase, completed in last March, featured the re-development of Turtle River Road from Ocho Rios’ Main Street to the cruise terminal.

The second phase focused on renovation of a public promenade from the port to the Ocean Village shopping center and Main Street, and included pedestrian, drainage and aesthetic improvements. Spaces for small shops to sell food and beverages were positioned along the promenade.

The area also includes the waterfront area between the cruise pier and the former Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort and Spa. Palace Resorts recently purchased the property in 2014 and will re-launch the resort in May as the Moon Palace Jamaica Grande following a $50 million renovation. 

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