More cruise passengers are staying onboard the ships, especially in the Caribbean

More cruise passengers are staying on ship, especially in the Caribbean

TORONTO — Cruise ships docked in Caribbean ports used to be as quiet as the onboard library. Now more than one-third (34%) of travellers say they would prefer to stay onboard the ship for most if not all of their cruise.

Not long ago passengers who chose to stay on ship on a day in port were the exception as just about everyone else disembarked for the cruise line’s shore excursions. These days many of the mainstream cruise ships with thousands of passengers are almost as busy in port as at sea.

Shore excursions have long been a lucrative revenue stream for cruise lines but now with a travelling public that’s savvier (and also a bit skittish), not to mention a trade trend of pre-booking commissionable shore excursions for clients with third-party suppliers, cruise lines are having to up their game particularly in the Caribbean.

Cruises are seen as one of the safest vacations out there but global security concerns could be having a trickle-down effect to the ports of call, with safety worries cited as the top reason in the survey (36%) for not disembarking. The survey was commissioned by Allianz Global Assistance.

Next on the list were disinterest in the destination (17.7%) and fear of not getting back to the ship on time (16.8%). Close to one out of every 10 travellers (9.4%) said they didn’t want to see their inclusive food and drink deals on the ship go to waste. Almost as many travellers said they would stay onboard because they hadn’t pre-booked a shore excursion (8.3%). About 7% said they had already visited the destination, and 5% didn’t want to be out of touch, literally, citing the lack of Internet/mobile connectivity in port for their desire to stay on ship.

Not mentioned in the study – but surely a consideration especially for passengers onboard the newest, action-packed ships – is the fact that cruise ships are now destinations in their own right.

Mega cruise destinations have embarked on huge-spend projects to boost their cruise product propositions.
At the recent Seatrade Cruise Global conference Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett and Director of Tourism Paul Pennicook announced the island’s Cruise Jamaica initiative, with the goal of increasing Jamaica’s cruise ship calls and new developments at the country’s cruise ports, hotels and attractions.

Right now Jamaica gets about 7% of the Caribbean’s cruise arrivals, but it wants 10%. Last year Jamaica saw 518 port calls and 1.6 million cruise passengers. Jamaica is projecting to achieve 2 million cruise passengers by the end of 2017. By 2020, Jamaica wants 5 million cruise passengers. Philip Rose, Regional Director, Canada for the Jamaica Tourist Board, says “all cruisers will find what they are looking for in Jamaica”, from thrill seekers to culinary enthusiasts to culture junkies. “With more tours and attractions than any other Caribbean island, Jamaica offers something for all visitors.”

Mega cruise destinations like Jamaica and the Bahamas will also have to start looking over their shoulder at Cuba, even though the competition is barely a blip in the early days of Cuba opening up to American visitors.
Just about every major cruise line sailing the Caribbean now has its own private island too. Carnival Cruise Line recently announced it will build its own exclusive-use port on Grand Bahama Island, with a pier capable of accommodating two of Carnival’s largest cruise ships simultaneously and capacity for up to 1 million guests annually. Carnival is one of the few major cruise lines without its own private Caribbean island, although it has access to sister line Holland America’s Half Moon Cay.
With 34% of travellers saying they want to stay onboard the ship, that still means 66% want to disembark and explore. Cruise lines are taking a hard look at their shore excursions in an effort to raise the bar on quality and selection.
Earlier this year Royal Caribbean International introduced PADI dive centres, allowing guests to become certified scuba divers as part of their vacation. Instruction begins onboard, but adventure seekers can then ‘dive in’, exploring hundreds of shipwrecks in destinations like St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands. The cruise line’s PADI dive centres are found on 10 ships across the fleet, including Oasis-, Freedom- and Voyager-class ships, as well as Quantum-class’ Anthem of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean also introduced Private Journeys customized shore excursions, allowing guests to craft personalized shore excursions “to immerse themselves in local culture, cuisine and adventure” across 288 ports of call in 77 countries. Multi-Day Adventures are available as well. Vacationers are so well travelled now and many are looking for more authentic experiences in their ports of call.

And who is booking these shore excursions for passengers? Usually the passengers themselves, since rare is the cruise line that pays commission on shore excursions – MSC Cruises does (and some high-end cruise lines include shore excursions in the base price).

Offering a commissionable alternative for agents, and usually at a lower price, several third-party shore excursion operators in the U.S. are doing big business mostly with U.S. travel agents but with a growing number of Canadian agents as well, all looking to book away from the cruise lines’ non-commissionable shore excursions.

Sandra McLeod with RedDoorTravel in LaSalle, ON, says her Europe cruise clients disembark in every port “as the whole idea is to see the cities” but are more likely to stay onboard if they are on a Caribbean cruise. “If they are booking the cruise line excursions, they do it themselves. Many like to book through me rather than the cruise lines to get smaller groups or private excursions.”

Third-party shore excursion supplier MyExcursions.com starts with a base 10% commission when working as a travel agent’s back-office tour provider. “Some agents do like to have us work directly with their clients and we provide a 5% referral commission on that service,” says MyExcursions.com’s President and Owner, Tim Harwood. Net rates are available as well. Harwood says his company doesn’t mention commission in any PDF documents it provides to agents for their clients. Client payments are processed only in USD so far, says Harwood.

Another option, ShoreTrips, has a healthy business relationship with many Canadian travel agencies, says ShoreTrips co-owner Barry Karp. The company started in 2001. “Our goal was to offer memorable experiences … we use only the vendors whom we have met [and] we visit our vendors – shore excursion providers, activity operators and city guides,” says Karp. Some 95% of ShoreTrips’ sales are commissioned to agencies, he adds. ShoreTrips also allows agents to register their clients in order to protect their commission in the event that the client books directly with ShoreTrips.

This article appeared in the May 4, 2017 issue of Travelweek.