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Nearly three years after pandemic struggles absent from other travel segments virtually scuttled Caribbean cruises, nearly every major port has reopened, as destinations work with operators to expand regional homeports and drive visitor growth.
Several leading Caribbean ports are reporting strong 2023 passenger arrivals, continuing a growth trend established last year, when several destinations' cruise visitor numbers out-paced pre-pandemic 2019 totals.
"The cruise industry was impacted heavily, probably more so than any other part of the tourism and hospitality industry during the pandemic," said Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer at Discover Puerto Rico.
"So it's been a rough couple of years, not just for us, but for every destination that received cruise ships," she said.
Puerto Rico's cruise business has since rebounded strongly. The territory hosted 21,000 cruise passengers aboard five ships in January said Chandler. "That was just in the first part of the month, so that's a strong a strong start for us," she added. "We have a lot of confidence we're going to continue to see those numbers grow."
Other top ports are also reporting increased shipboard arrivals. Chester Cooper, the Bahamas' minister of tourism, said recently the territory's 2022 cruise arrivals increased by nearly 400 percent over 2021 and "were less than one percent below 2019 cruise arrivals."
After an 18-month period during which no cruise ships visited the destination, the U.S. Virgin Islands' 2023 passenger arrivals are expected to surpass 2019 totals, reaching 1.8 million guests, said Joseph Boschulte, commissioner of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
In a St. Thomas Source interview, Boschulte said cruise ships are sailing at near full capacity sooner than expected, with most arriving at 90 percent capacity, levels not expected by analysts until late 2023.
Among the last Caribbean countries to re-open to visitors post-outbreak, the Cayman Islands hosted 743,394 cruise passengers in 2022 despite permitting cruise calls beginning only in March.
"Confidence in the destination due to our measured and phased approach to reopening led to pent-up demand which accelerated our visitation volume once all travel restrictions were dropped," said Rosa Harris, the Cayman Islands' director of tourism.
Even some of the smallest Caribbean countries are welcoming increased cruise calls. Dominica has hosted 139 cruise ship visits through February 28, bringing 216,489 passengers to the country shores, said Discover Dominica officials quoted in local news reports. Officials expect 196 cruise calls through the end of 2023.
The combined data augurs well for cruise lines' continued expansion in the Caribbean, the industry's primary deployment region. The Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were all among the top 10 CTO-tracked destinations in terms of cruise visitation in 2019.
Earlier this month Neil Walters, acting secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), said the cruise industry "is anticipated to continue recovering and expanding to meet increasing demand, with 32 to 33 million cruise passenger visits expected" in 2023, representing a "five to 10 percent increase over the pre-COVID baseline figure."
Several Caribbean countries are also seeking to extend cruise operations in their countries via agreements with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), whose operators represent more than 90 percent of global cruise capacity.
Earlier this month, FCCA and the British Virgin Islands government signed an agreement to boost cruise ship visits and formulate new shore excursion options.
The agreement will also "facilitate new experiences to offer cruise companies and collaborate with the local private sector to maximize any opportunities." U.S. Virgin Islands officials signed a similar agreement with FCCA in February; St. Maarten officials also reached a pact with FCCA earlier this year.
"Although we have not yet surpassed 2019's numbers across the board in every jurisdiction, the needle is certainly moving in the right direction," said Kenneth Bryan, CTO's chairman and minister of tourism for the Cayman Islands.
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Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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