Last updated: 01:50 AM ET, Mon October 29 2012

Jamaica’s New Falmouth Port of Call

It was a clear and sunny early morning as Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas pulled stern first alongside the long dock at Jamaica’s new $220 million Falmouth cruise port. I stood among a group of passengers looking down at the dock and out across the town from the ship’s Deck 15, hundreds of feet above the pier.

The world’s largest cruise ship slid in with remarkable grace and silence, broken up occasionally by excited chatter from passengers at the rail. On the dock we could see port officials gathering to arrange the welcoming ceremony and ribbon-cutting that would celebrate the Falmouth cruise port’s official launch.

From atop the ship, the crystal-clear skies offered a sweeping view of Falmouth and the port facility. Significant progress had been made since my previous visit here last fall. Several port structures, including security and passenger-processing facilities and retail buildings, were newly finished. In the distance I spotted the city’s 200 year-old Georgian-style courthouse, whose stone walls and central exterior staircase were grey and dusty last year. This time the courthouse was resplendent in the sun, sporting a new coat of stately yellow paint with creamy white accents.

Soon I was disembarking Oasis to attend the opening event. The dock swarmed with passengers and crew; government, port and cruise line officials; security forces; media members and other visitors. Many at dockside were outfitted in suits and business attire, an unusual phenomenon on this normally casual island. Falmouth’s mayor, Colin Gager, was conspicuously attired in a light-colored suit draped with a baroque gold chain made of interlocking medallions, the largest of which read “Mayor.” The amazing apparel heightened the sense of excitement and anticipation evident in the faces of almost everyone on the dock.

A short while later I sat underneath a tent that fluttered wildly in a stiff breeze as the opening ceremony finally began. This moment must have been a long time in coming for many of the officials at the gathering. Certainly the path to reach it was at times blocked by unforeseen obstacles.

The Falmouth port had been scheduled to open as early as January. But when construction delays plagued the early going, Royal Caribbean and the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), which had partnered to develop the port, pushed the port’s debut back first to Feb. 17 and then to March 22. The 32-acre site was simply not ready to receive a large influx of cruise vacationers in January as had been planned, to the chagrin of many. “The prime minister himself needs to say, ‘This is it, I want it to happen now!’” said Dwight Seiveright, president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, after the latest delay.

Three months later, Bruce Golding, Jamaica’s prime minister, stood beneath the flapping tent, calmly cataloging the range of obstacles that had to be faced. “It has not all been easy,” he said. “It has not all been smooth sailing. There were several issues that we have had to wrestle with and challenges we had to overcome. There were times we had to stop to ensure we were getting it right, and start again. There was land that had to be acquired, and land that had to be re-claimed from the sea. We had to build a sea wall. We had to re-locate people. There were sections of the town that had to be re-configured. There were environmental issues that had to be resolved. There were cultural issues we had to deal with because we had to ensure the construction showed respect for and enhanced Falmouth’s historic character. The people of Falmouth had to be consulted, they had to be engaged.”

Even so, much work remains before the port development is complete. Construction continues on several buildings in the port’s Georgian-style village, as does the building of the broad esplanade and plaza that will span the development. Many infrastructure improvements in the historic town of Falmouth surrounding the port also have yet to begin. Of these, Golding said the most pressing need is “investment in the expansion of the sewage capacity,” as the once-sleepy town prepares to welcome a regular influx of visitors. Golding added that construction of an earlier planned but frequently delayed new police station for Falmouth will begin in April. Mayor Gager said Falmouth also is building a transportation center to ease traffic congestion resulting from that fact that a number of streets now only accommodate pedestrians under the port plan.

Yet those ongoing initiatives stood firmly in the background at the pier side ceremony. The speeches quickly gave way to the traditional ribbon-cutting. Golding and Gager joined Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.; Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister of tourism; Noel Hylton, president and CEO of PAJ; and Michael Henry, Jamaica’s minister of transport and works, in the ceremonial duties, after which Fain sought to put the new development in perspective.

“Jamaica has done itself very proud, and we are not only proud of the facility but over the economic impact this will make,” Fain said. “More than 300 local Jamaicans will work in operations at the port and more than 500 were involved in the construction.” Moreover, under terms of its partnership with JPA, Royal Caribbean is guaranteeing a minimum of 667,000 passengers per year for 10 years.

The opening of the port “will create investment and create jobs,” said Golding. “It is a remarkable day for the people of Falmouth, and indeed for all of Trelawny, because the port will spark the development and growth of all of this part of Jamaica.”

In practical terms, the new terminal also will increase Jamaica’s cruise capacity from four large ships each day to six, with two in Ocho Rios, two in Montego Bay and two in Falmouth, which will be the only one of the three ports equipped to accommodate Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, the two largest cruise ships in the world.

In emotional terms, however, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to measure what the new port will mean to Jamaica’s tourism industry and the future of the once-forgotten but historic town of Falmouth. For more information, visit www.falmouthport.netor

Brian Major is executive editor covering the Caribbean and Latin America for