A proposed southern loop could help boost the number of cruise ship visitors to Trinidad and Tobago

The contribution of cruise ship visits to the wider tourism industry is subject to some debate. It is generally agreed that Trinidad and Tobago receives fewer cruise ship visits than other parts of the Caribbean. Some propose policies to correct this and try to attract more ships. Others argue that cruise ship tourism – described as bringing in large numbers of visitors with a low per capita spend – should simply be given less priority within the overall mix of different types of tourism.

Cruise Arrivals Up in 2014

According to figures from the Port Authority of T&T, cruise ship passenger arrivals in the country, which had fallen by 33.2% in 2013 to 32,915, recovered by 48.3% in 2014 to end that year at 48,820. Cruise arrivals tend to be greatest in the first quarter of the year (during the winter season in the northern hemisphere), in the January-March period. The cruise business can be very volatile on a year-on-year basis, and Tobago tends to be a stronger attraction for cruise ships than Trinidad itself.

Too Far South

One factor limiting the cruise ship business is geography. According to Dillon Alleyne, economic affairs officer at the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Port of Spain, the Caribbean can be divided into three main zones. The northern Caribbean includes Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. The central Caribbean is the area based around Antigua. And T&T forms a natural hub for the southern Caribbean.

Alleyne told OBG that T&T is too far south to attract more substantial cruise ship business. A range of other analysts made the same point. Many cruise ships collect their passengers from hubs like Miami, start the cruise in the north, and work their way down to a more southerly point before doubling back up to the home port. Many of these loops do not stretch as far south as Trinidad. The argument is also made that after a series of north-to-south island stops and excursions, from the passenger’s point of view, there is a degree of repetitiveness that has set in, that makes T&T “one stop too many” at the tail end of the archipelago.

In response to this, the government has been promoting the idea of a different cruise ship “loop” – one that starts in the south and works its way north before coming back to the port of origin. In November 2014 Gerald Hadeed, the minister of tourism, held consultations with his colleagues from Grenada, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on precisely this idea, which is known as the Southern Caribbean Cruise Initiative (SCCI). Hadeed told OBG that the SCCI is “intended to create a year-round platform with an itinerary circuit to T&T, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Saint Lucia”. “It will launch T&T as the primary home port for the SCCI itinerary circuit, due to its fuel bunkering and room stock capacity, as well as creating linkages with other sectors,” he added.

Discussions on the SCCI have been under way for some time between the four countries. Tracy Davidson-Celestine, the secretary for tourism and transportation at the Tobago House of Assembly, has said that one of the aims of the SCCI is to attract 50,000 additional cruise ship visitors per year. “For us in Tobago it’s a very good thing because our mandate is to ensure that we develop the cruise industry as much as possible and we will be working with the minister, his team and all the representative governments who are part of this initiative to promote it as much as possible,” she said.

Seeking Cruise Partners

The success of the SCCI will depend on the detailed proposals that are agreed, and will need some of the major cruise lines to come onboard in support of the project. Traditionally, cruise operators have taken a tough negotiating stance, preferring to maintain maximum flexibility over their ports of call and minimum commitments to the countries on their itineraries. However, in the past four decades the cruise industry in the Caribbean has gradually changed and has begun to invest in port development. Several players have recently agreed to co-fund tailor-made port terminals in locations like the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Carnival), Barbados (Royal Caribbean Cruises), Belize (Norwegian Cruise Line) and Tortola (Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney). While many lines are now looking to develop Asian cruises, the Caribbean still accounts for 37% of the industry’s deployment. Adam Goldstein, president and COO of Royal Caribbean, said at the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) conference in October 2014 that purpose-built cruise ship port facilities routinely generate more revenue for the cruise lines.

In this context, it is likely that T&T’s SCCI plans may require a deal with one or various of the main cruise lines. Officials would like the SCCI to function as a year-round platform, taking advantage of the country’s fuel bunkering and hotel facilities. In addition, they also want to leverage the local manufacturing industry as a resource base for provisioning cruise ships ( including food and beverage supplies) and to maximise “onshore spend”. But to achieve these goals they will need to convince cruise operators that there is a strong prospect of operating a southern loop itinerary on a profitable long-term basis. The tourism ministers from the four participating countries said they hoped to be able to announce the launch of the SCCI formally at the meeting of the FCCA due to be held in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in June 2015.

Arguments Against

A number of people active in the tourism sector question the desirability of attracting more cruise ships to T&T. Stephen Broadbridge of ecotours specialist company Caribbean Discovery Tours, told OBG “We keep pursuing cruise ships, and I see no use in them, unless they are really small ones.” His argument is that cruise ships bring large and disruptive numbers of low-spending visitors into the country for very short periods of time. He also believes cruise lines constantly renegotiate the rates they pay tour operators for excursions, driving prices down to the point at which the quality of the visitor experience is unacceptably low, and generates adverse comment on the internet, “which can damage other types of tourism”.

Some in the industry also note that T&T does not have the capacity to deal with a sharp increase in cruise ship visitors, citing congestion on key roads between ports and visitor attractions. Broadbridge prefers a strategy focused on the development of ecotourism, which involves smaller, more manageable numbers of visitors who will stay in local hotels and guest houses and thus will have a much higher per-capita spend. Developing more upscale tourism would in his view be more consistent with Trinbagonian culture and infrastructure.

A factor affecting the 2014/15 cruise season has been a degree of worry among passengers over health issues. In November 2014 the arrival of the Saga by what parent company Saga Cruises called a “zero tolerance” approach to enforcing health regulations. The company said that it was observing all World Health Organisation and Cruise Lines International Association protocols. The Port Authority of Port of Spain, the tourism and health ministries, and the TDC cooperated to manage pre-arrival health clearance procedures.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015

Tourism chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015

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