Making Caribbean cruising sustainable

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A report from Cruise and Ferry.

What sustainability means may differ slightly from one destination to the next. Although a destination’s natural resources are almost always part of any sustainability discussion, the environment is not the only factor. Culture, economy, business relationships, adaptability and numerous other aspects that play a role in creating the long-term demand for a destination’s tourism product are often central to sustainability efforts. This is most certainly the case with the Caribbean cruise sector.

Environmental sustainability is, of course, a critical component to the overall sustainability of the Caribbean cruise industry. It’s a significant part of the region’s appeal for visitors and is most certainly an area where more cooperation is needed to minimise the industry’s footprint on the region. However, it’s just a small part of a much larger dialogue that needs to take place between cruise lines and Caribbean destinations to assess the long-term viability of the cruise sector.

With few exceptions, the majority of the travelling public suffers from an acute variation of ‘been there, done that’ syndrome. The explorer within all of us is driven to visit new destinations and seek out new experiences. And for a while, this was a major selling point for Caribbean cruises. Why settle for one destination when you can experience four ports on one holiday?

Cruising has traditionally been one of the most popular ways to experience the Caribbean due to this variety of experiences passengers are afforded. However, after decades in the top position as the most popular cruise region, a survey of frequent passengers revealed one important fact which may give the Caribbean a reason for pause: they’ve visited most ports on numerous occasions.

Despite a few slight variations, there are primarily three cruise routes in the Caribbean. Once passengers have travelled the Western, Eastern and Southern Caribbean cruise circuits several times each, it becomes difficult to find something they haven’t already experienced. It’s hard not to see a direct correlation between this reality and the rise in popularity of river cruising. After so many Caribbean cruises, these frequent passengers are seeking exotic new destinations.

Fortunately, the cruise industry has continued to expand. This growth has ensured ample new passengers are drawn to the Caribbean Sea to offset the region’s losses to river cruising. And with the US economy doing well, this increase in passenger traffic shows no sign of slowing anytime soon. But there will come a time when the region will have to address the lack of diversity within Caribbean cruise routes.

In addition, the traveller demographic is also changing. As cruising has traditionally had the greatest appeal to the mature market, this shift represents a challenge for the cruise industry in general. Research commonly finds that millennials want to see and experience more than their predecessors. On the surface, this might seem like a good thing for cruising. After all, what’s better than four destinations for the price of one, right?

Unfortunately, the millennials tend not to approach decision making in the same way that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers do. They often seek a more in-depth experience of a destination – complete with culture, cuisine, nightlife and plenty of authenticity – but the brief jaunts they are afforded at cruise ports barely scratch the surface. This isn’t to say that millennials aren’t interested in cruising at all; on the contrary, they too want to experience tourism on the water. But once the novelty of cruising wears off, these travellers scour their Instagram feeds in search of new bucket list destinations. And chances are they’re not going to find them on an ocean liner.

While cruise lines aren’t exactly struggling to fill their cabins today, new approaches to sailing the region’s waters must be developed as part of the process of sustainability. Though any new experience in general could serve to lure ‘been there, done that’ cruisers who have fallen irrevocably in love with cruising as a lifestyle, a careful examination of tomorrow’s traveller should inform the development of new Caribbean itineraries to ensure long-term viability. To create demand among younger travellers, cruise lines need to engage Caribbean destinations in new and more meaningful ways. First and foremost, authenticity is a vital element for any cruise experience designed to appeal to millennials.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization is actively working with member countries to develop off-the-beaten-path experiences that define the regional landscape – such as rum tours – to both diversify the regional tourism product and provide opportunities for passengers to engage in the culture of the Caribbean.

Currently, efforts to create meaningful excursions highlighting the region’s culture are constrained by the typical cruise format. Passengers are generally limited to a cursory experience of each port of call before moving on to the next island. This circles back to the original value proposition for cruising – the appeal of seeing multiple destinations by sea versus a single one by land.

Based on this logic, it makes perfect sense to schedule as many ports as possible into each itinerary. However, when one considers how younger demographics approach travel decisions, perhaps it is time to rethink this strategy? Instead of spending just enough time at each port for one excursion, why not dock overnight and give passengers more time to explore other aspects of the destination, including the nightlife they typically miss?

While some passengers may still want to see a new destination every day, others may opt for a more in-depth tour of fewer – or perhaps even just one – destination. It would unlock new possibilities for passengers, enhance the impact of cruise traffic in local Caribbean economies, and help the cruise lines more effectively tap into a rapidly growing demographic.

One might argue that this development needs to happen sooner or later to ensure the sustainability of the Caribbean cruise sector. Perhaps it is just waiting for one innovator to step up and show the industry how successful such a venture would be.

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