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Why Cruise Lines Are Expanding Ties to the Bahamas and Caribbean

Why Cruise Lines Are Expanding Ties to the Bahamas and Caribbean

The cruise industry’s largest companies are extending their ties with the Caribbean, already their primary deployment region, with projects to build and expand several private islands and exclusive visitor “destinations” that will roll out across the Bahamas and other Caribbean countries in the next few years.

The Bahamas is at the center of the cruise business’ Caribbean development boom, highlighted by Carnival Corp.’s agreement with the territory’s government to launch a port destination on Grand Bahama Island and expand Half Moon Cay, the company’s private island on Little San Salvador.

Top operator MSC Cruises will open its own land-based Bahamas development, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, in December. The private island and nature reserve, constructed on the site of a former industrial sand extraction site, is scheduled to open in December following a recent delay attributed to adverse weather and “operational challenges.”

Royal Caribbean International meanwhile is planning a port development that promises to revitalize the Bahamas’ faded Freeport visitor district. The cruise line is partnering with Mexico-based ITM Group to form Holistica, a global port development firm whose first project will be a $275 million redevelopment of the shuttered Grand Lucayan Resort property and cruise facility.

Royal Caribbean’s latest project follows the line’s successful debut of Perfect Day at Coco Cay, an extensive redevelopment of its existing private Bahamian island. Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s president and CEO, said earlier this year Perfect Day at Coco Cay is Royal Caribbean’s top-rated global destination.

Royal Caribbean International’s Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas (Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean International)

Cuban Exile

Cruise lines are focused on the Bahamas in a timely confluence of chance, opportunity and planning according to Giora Israel, Carnival Corp’s senior vice president of global port and destination development.

In a recent TravelPulse interview, Israel said the U.S. government’s halt of cruise lines’ deployment in Cuba earlier this year led Carnival Corp officials to re-focus on their long-held plans for a Bahamas expansion.

The brief Cuba traffic was not only extremely successful for cruise operators, but the business also represented “forbidden fruit” for the South Florida-based cruise lines, which throughout their history were barred from launching itineraries to the “fascinating” island only 90 miles away, Israel said.

Meanwhile, Carnival’s Bahamas plans took a back seat. “The expectation was that sooner or later Cuba would open and ultimately allow for a traditional cruise product,” said Israel. “But that did not happen. A new president came into power and shifted back to the old [Cuba] regulations, and then shut the door down completely [for cruise lines],” he said. “In the meantime, additional development in the Bahamas kind of fell asleep.”

Those plans included a private Bahamian island for Carnival Cruise Lines to complement sister brand’s Holland America Line’s Half Moon Cay, which opened in 1997.

Carnival Cruise Lines never had a private Bahamian island,” said Israel. “We wanted to have an island close to where all of the other private islands are, close to the U.S. cruise ports of Orlando, Port Everglades and Miami.”

In terms of the larger cruise industry, The Bahamas’ proximity to those three main Florida cruise ports and the U.S. East Coast, coupled with the Bahamas’ sunny skies, warm temperatures, beautiful beaches and cultural activities, make the territory a can’t natural target for cruise operators.

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“The Bahamas has again become very important for the cruise lines,” Israel said. “The cruise lines’ private island developments in the Berry Islands are all important projects and also contribute to the economies of those locations.”

Carnival’s Grand Bahama port will embody more than a traditional cruise line private island, said Israel. “It will be the first time a real port will be developed on a populated island in the Bahamas,” he said.

“We are developing an exclusive destination for Carnival capable of taking up to two large ships.” The new port will encompass 329 acres, more acreage than all of Carnival Corp.’s other private island destinations combined, Israel added.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian across Grand Bahama Island made the development plans especially timely, Israel said. “Our investment, which is a major investment into the port, will be a major injection into the economy,” he said.

The Bahamas is far from the only Caribbean country where cruise lines are spending significantly to develop new guest attractions and amenities. Cruise lines are planning new ports and land-based projects in several Caribbean nations following the success of other recent cruise port projects in countries Belize, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

In October Royal Caribbean unveiled plans for a Royal Beach Club in Antigua. The new beach “destination concept” for cruise guests will open in 2021 and offer private cabanas, a family “splash pad,” a pool with a swim-up bar, and jet skiing, paddle boarding and snorkeling, plus beach barbecues and live music.

Also in October, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises signed an agreement with Saint Lucia’s government to form a joint venture that will design, construct and operate a new cruise port in the Vieux Fort district. The partnership will also manage the island’s existing cruise pier and terminal facilities at the Port of Castries.

“It is essential that we continue to diversify what we have to offer, grow our brand and ensure that different sectors in our island’s economy benefit from the growth in cruise tourism,” said Allen Chastanet, Saint Lucia’s prime minister.

The cruise lines’ expanding Caribbean development and deployment is supported by strong cruise-ship visitor numbers, say Caribbean Tourism Organization officials. Caribbean destinations reported a record 16.7 million cruise visits the first six months of 2019, 1.3 million more than in the same period of 2018. The present 8.1 percent passenger growth “eclipses that for similar periods in the last four years,” officials said.