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Could COVID-19 Keep Cruise Lines Homeporting In The Caribbean Indefinitely?

Will the decision by several U.S. cruise lines to home port in the Caribbean this summer become a permanent fixture, or is it just a temporary workaround?

The widespread suspicion that it is the latter, was succinctly voiced in one recent online posting on Tribune242’s website in The Bahamas: “These cruise people aren’t coming here because we’re such an attractive destination to home port in. They’re coming here because they think we’re a bunch of dummies who will do anything they say, and they don’t have to put up with ironclad safety travel restrictions.“

For government and the tourism industry, however, the test will be whether home porting arrangements agreed for this summer can be retained or whether the cruise lines will simply return to Florida when the pandemic and the strict U.S. hygiene restrictions on sailings out of U.S. ports end.

In normal times, the principal reason for choosing a home port relates to ease of passenger access from a line’s principal markets and proximity to the locations included in cruise itineraries. It also depends on the ability of a port to be able to provide the support, fuel and supplies the lines require, and a country’s willingness to facilitate the movement of crew.

Other requirements relate to port infrastructure and efficiency, an ability to handle a large number of passengers simultaneously, the availability of local transport and other passenger services, security, proximity to an international airport, and generally a satisfactory regulatory and fiscal environment. For these and other reasons, Florida has developed over time as the location of choice for the principal U.S. lines that sail into the Caribbean.

Uniquely however, several pandemic-related factors have created a window of opportunity this year for the Caribbean to change its relationship with the cruise lines through homeporting.

Firstly, the cautious approach being taken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention means that it may well be November at the earliest before cruise companies are able to resume near normal sailings out of the U.S. to the Caribbean. Before then, its Conditional Sailing Order requires a phased approach to the resumption of cruising, involving simulated voyages with volunteers for those lines which cannot meet the requirement that almost all passengers and crew on each sailing are fully vaccinated. Secondly, a politically-driven legal challenge by the governor of Florida against the CDC is underway. This relates to the CDC’s requirement for mask wearing while boarding cruise ships. Florida State law now bans the use of digital health passports and forbids businesses to base entry based on vaccination status. The issue, which the courts have sent for mediation, has seen Norwegian Cruise Line’s Chief Executive Office Frank Del Rio indicate that it may move its ships out of Florida and observe that it “can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would have gone to Florida.”

Some Caribbean governments and port authorities have sought to demonstrate during the pandemic that they have the facilities the cruise companies require by offering safe haven to the many idle cruise ships moored in Caribbean waters. Some, like Barbados, have additionally gone out of their way to demonstrate they are a “trustworthy partner” by continuing to honor pre-existing provisioning and other obligations while helping facilitate humanitarian support and arrangements for the repatriation of stranded crew.

All of which has caused several cruise lines to consider what they had largely previously resisted: home porting some of their vessels in the Caribbean.

In recent weeks, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC, Seabourne, Crystal, Viking Cruises, Celebrity and others have announced that they will be variously homeporting this summer season in Antigua, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republican, Jamaica, and Sint Maarten, bringing significant new economic benefit to each of the ports and countries concerned.

At best, this should offer new commercial opportunity to local suppliers, employment, and the wider hope that cruise visitors sailing out of Caribbean ports will subsequently return for a longer stay.

As Lisa Cummins, Barbados’ minister of Tourism and International Transport observes, Barbados and other Caribbean governments have wanted to see for some time more homeporting operations and hope that the incorporation of pre- and post-stay vacations will encourage cruise passengers to return. The island also intends to use the experience to develop a southern Caribbean cruise alliance for summer itineraries based on Barbados.

Caribbean tourism is structured in such a way that hotels and others onshore bear the brunt of the sector’s tax burden, contributing heavily to destination improvement initiatives and local social causes, by helping to market their destinations, and enhancing and protecting the environment.

That is why this column has pointed out before the need for a cruise industry that is genuinely Caribbean-focused and developmental rather than just using the region to benefit the owners of the big cruise companies. Homeporting would be one way of proving this, and if viable and popular with passengers, it should become an annual summer feature of sailings in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, the cruise lines have proven over the decades to be fickle commercial and developmental partners, playing off to their advantage one country against another, raising well-documented concerns that range from the environmental to the extent to which they leave revenue behind.

It is true that in times of crisis, the cruise lines can be a good corporate partner as they recently demonstrated in St. Vincent, but they should be doing more. They need to be wholeheartedly engaged. Apart from better protecting the region they make use of, they should be assisting the development of the Caribbean tourism product, supporting local business and playing a direct role in post pandemic economic recovery.

The homeporting of some ships each summer would demonstrate this.

This is the moment when there ought to be a much wider regional discussion on what it would take post-pandemic to incentivize the use of summer homeporting hubs in the region and to explore whether “multi-porting” around larger islands should be encouraged. It would also be a good time to attract the owners of the large number of smaller “expedition” cruise ships now under construction and better suited to smaller ports to locate permanently in the Caribbean.

— David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org.

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David Jessop

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