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Snooze of a cruise

Cruise operators are touting new Caribbean ports of call and other attractions to counter the “been-there-done-that” passenger syndrome.


By STEVE HUETTEL
Published October 15, 2006


[Carnival Corporation photo]
Two Carnival ships are shown docked at the new Grand Turk Cruise Center. It features an 800-foot-beach, a swimming pool, cabanas and the Margaritaville-themed restaurant operated by Jimmy Buffet.

Steve Faber describes his ship’s port call last year at St. Maarten, a standard stop for eastern Caribbean cruises, as an exercise in gridlock.

Passengers who ventured out to shop in town quickly turned around, unable to get through mobs of tourists from five other cruise ships in port.

Others spent more than half a day fighting traffic for what was supposed to be

FAST FACTS


Caribbean Destinations: Hot and Not

 

NOT

Tortola: This tiny eastern Caribbean island has few attractions, and they’re easily overwhelmed when just one large cruise ship arrives. Its signature beach at Cane Garden Bay can get “jammed nearly as elbow-to-elbow as Coney Island,’’ says the Web site www.cruisecritic.com

Cozumel: Once the busiest cruise destination in the world, the port on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is recovering from last year’s Hurricane Wilma. With its docks being rebuilt, passengers must take small, slow-moving boats from the ship to the city and back.

St. Maartens: A standard stop on eastern Caribbean cruises, the island is often overcrowded and repeat visitors struggle to find new things to do. The best advice: look for a boat trip leaving St. Maartens for an island like Anguilla or St. Barth’s.

HOT

St. Barth’s: Popular among celebrities for its French flavor and pristine beaches. Great water sports, shopping and perhaps the Caribbean’s best dining. The government protects its charm by limiting the number of cruise ships that can visit.

St. Lucia: Largely unspoiled despite heavy visitation, the island has stunning mountains and large, protected rain forests. The 18th-century town of Soufriere has historic charm and a “drive-in’’ volcano where you can get close to colorful, if odorous, sulfur pools.www.cruisecritic.com

a 3½-hour driving tour.

Such experiences leave cruise passengers three choices: don’t leave the ship, take a day trip off the island or go somewhere else next time, says Faber, a freelance writer who covers cruising.

Travel agents worry customers are increasingly choosing option No. 3.

Many experienced cruise buffs are complaining about cruise lines selling the same old trips to overcrowded Caribbean stalwarts like Nassau, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman.

They worry that attitude — dubbed by one agent as the “been there/done that syndrome’’ — is contributing to weak sales of Caribbean cruises.

Nine of 10 agents said “boredom with the Caribbean’’ was a factor in slow sales and lower prices for cruises in the region, says a June Internet survey of more than 90 travel agents.

The response ranked slightly behind fear of hurricanes and even with economic uncertainty and negative publicity about cruise ship accidents.

“It seems like a bit more of a chronic problem,’’ said Robert LeFleur , an analyst with Susquehanna  Financial Group, an institutional research, brokerage and trading firm that conducted the survey. “They aren’t making any more (land in) the Caribbean.’’

Cruise companies say sales are strong in Europe and Alaska, but the Caribbean remains sluggish.

That’s sparked deep discounting this fall. Carnival Cruise Lines had a one-day sale last month offering five-day Caribbean cruises from Tampa as low as $179. Rates for fall start at $279 for a four-day and $299 for five-day cruises, plus government fees and taxes.

Two busy hurricane seasons in a row scared off potential customers, say Carnival parent Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean International, whose brands carry nearly 90 percent of the region’s passengers.

They also blame an economic squeeze on middle-class travelers, the prime target for inexpensive Caribbean cruises.

“That part of the market ... is more severely impacted by fuel prices and interest rates going up,’’ said Howard Frank, Carnival’s chief operating officer in a Sept. 21 conference call on quarterly earnings with financial analysts. “There’s lots of evidence travel by that group is down.’’

When Benchmark Co. analyst Helane  Becker asked if customers might be switching from the Caribbean to more exotic destinations, he said that wouldn’t explain the “dramatic fall off” in business from 2005.

Frank noted, however, that Carnival wants to create more destinations in the Caribbean and might build some itself.

The company sank $40-million into a cruise center that opened in February on the sleepy eastern Caribbean island of Grand Turk.

It has a swimming pool, changing rooms, a 800-foot beach, shops and the Caribbean’s biggest Margaritaville, the restaurant chain owned by musician Jimmy Buffett .

Carnival is in “the very early stages’’ of scouting port developments in Central America, said spokesman Tim Gallagher.

“We recognize there are a lot more ships operating in the Caribbean today than there were 10 years ago,’’ he said. “That has made (destinations) crowded on certain days. So, we need to find alternative ports.’’

Some repeat Caribbean customers want new destinations, he said, and Carnival tries to steer them into its cruises in Alaska and Europe.

Royal Caribbean has received “no indication’’ from customer comment cards that passengers are tired of the Caribbean, said spokesman Michael Sheehan.

Travel agents such as Robin Smith tell a different story.

“Repeat passengers are tired of the same old ports,’’ says Smith, owner of Caladesi Travel in Palm Harbor. “Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Cozumel — once you’ve done the highlights, there’s no reason to go back.’’

For many customers, the ship itself is the main attraction, says Robi Adaskes , travel manager at AAA Travel in Carrollwood, north of Tampa.

Royal Caribbean has packed its newer vessels with rock-climbing walls, putting greens and ice skating rinks. The Freedom of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, features the FlowRider , a 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long surf simulator.

Still, says Royal Caribbean’s Sheehan, customers consider the destination as the most important selling point. The company has come under criticism for running the vessel on run-of-the-mill Caribbean routes.

“They’ve got their fanciest boat on the most pedestrian of itineraries,’’ says LeFleur, the Susquehanna analyst.
Many seniors are happy making the same Caribbean trips, says Adaskes, but “Baby Boomers and younger people who have done the eastern and western Caribbean are looking for new destinations.’’

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified October 15, 2006, 16:30:44]


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