Aided by the country’s natural resources, a strategic geographic location outside the hurricane belt and growing global cruise demand, Trinidad and Tobago’s cruise segment is set gain new importance in coming years. Popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Dominica, the British Virgin Islands and Sint Maarten suffered the worst effects of Hurricane Maria and Irma in September 2017, which caused an estimated $6bn in damages to key transport, tourism and port infrastructure, according to the UN Development Programme. As a result, cruise liners had to seek undamaged ports, such as the ones in T&T, to fill gaps in their itineraries. With recovery estimated to last until 2020, it is expected that T&T will benefit from the windfall of liners looking to safely dock.
Officials have already seen an increase on the number of cruise passengers to T&T. According to the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), ship arrival numbers grew by 168% in the 2017/18 winter season beginning in mid-October, from 48,878 passengers in 2016/17 to 126,392. According to Shamfa Cudjoe, the minister of tourism, 71 cruise liners called into T&T ports over the period, an increase on the 47 visits initially planned. Tobago, traditionally the primary destination for maritime tourism in the country, saw the majority of this increase with 47 liners docking there, while 24 ships stopped in Trinidad, generating respective passenger arrivals of around 75,000 in Tobago and 61,000 in Trinidad.
These figures put T&T in a strategic position to capitalise not only on the sudden interest in its ports, but also on the rising global popularity of cruises. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, between 2006 and 2016, cruising worldwide increased by more than 65% from 15.1m passengers to 24.7m, outpacing general global tourism, which rose by 44% from 856m to 1.2bn people in that same 10-year period. The Caribbean region is also home to the most popular cruise destinations. As a measure of available bed days, in 2016 nearly 40% of global cruise passengers, or 61.9m people, originated from North America. Of that figure, 89.1% visited destination in the Caribbean region.
Vessels servicing both islands during the 2017/18 season included US companies Seabourne Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises; Germany’s TUI Cruises; and UK-based firms Fred Olsen Cruises, Carnival UK and Marella Cruises, among others.
This sudden influx of arrivals has prompted a new focus on increasing port infrastructure capacity. T&T is currently home to 12 ports between the two islands. Of those, only two ports are equipped to handle cruise liners: the Port of Port of Spain (PPOS) on Trinidad and Scarborough Port on Tobago’s southern coast. Scarborough Port currently operates at near full capacity as it accommodates both inter-island cargo shipments and ferry operations, with the latter carrying nearly 1m passengers per year. The situation at the PPOS is similar. “Port infrastructure in the country is lacking, particularly in Port of Spain,” Charles Carvalho, CEO of local tourism operator Carvalho Agencies, told OBG. “The larger ships in the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, for example, cannot call into Trinidad as they require adequate facilities to handle the volume of passengers.” Carvalho also pointed out that the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) Fantasia, with a capacity of 3900 passengers, was largest cruise to arrive to Trinidad during the 2017/18 season, making biweekly calls. To compare, some of the biggest ocean liners in the Caribbean have maximum capacities of over 6300 passengers. If Tobago had the capacity, it is likely that larger vessels would also visit the twin islands. Currently, there are discussions to relocate the passenger terminal at the PPOS to a less congested area, Brian D Frontin, CEO of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association, told OBG. “Infrastructure upgrades in the ports will be central to ensuring sustainable growth in cruise tourism,” he added.
The government has earmarked cruise tourism as a niche segment to be further developed. Colm Imbert, the minister of finance, announced several initiatives aimed directly at supporting the expansion of cruise and maritime tourism along with more general measures, including increasing funding in the 2018 national budget for cultural activities and accommodation upgrades. “We have already started to forge closer links with cruise lines and strengthen our marketing efforts to increase the number of port calls to our destination,” he told Parliament in October 2017. “We are working to provide an enhanced visitor experience for our cruise ship visitors.” A portion of the additional budget will also go towards facilitating repayment terms for state-backed loans to tourism operators.
The growing number of cruise passengers also presents the opportunity for the private sector to provide excursions, shopping and other activities for passengers looking to leave the ship. In March 2018 Trinidad saw the highest number of cruise ship passengers in a single day when a total of 6500 people arrived on the MSC Fantasia and Island Princess luxury liners, according to the MoT. Visitors that day were dispatched to 12 tourist sites throughout the island. Also during the 2017/18 season, with the arrival of the Caribbean Princess cruise ship, T&T recorded the highest number of pre-booked tours in its entire itinerary, according to the MoT. Carvalho told OBG, around 40-45% of cruise ship passengers take tours on the islands, meaning that between 112 and 1500 passengers on each ship – depending on the size of the vessel – usually leave to explore the islands. This brings in significant revenue to the country, not only in terms of packaged tours and curated activities, but also in extra expenses such as food, beverages and souvenirs.
Though a smaller island, Tobago is the main recipient of cruise arrivals, which spiked in the 2017/18 season by 236%. However, there are still questions around how to generate added revenues from the increased footfall (see overview). Potential offerings to be developed on the island include a wider range of tour options, activities targeted at cruise passengers, as well as bringing in more lines during the off-season from the middle of April to the beginning of October. “Tobago is an exceptional destination in a cruise itinerary,” Louis Lewis, CEO of the Tobago Tourism Agency, told OBG. “Although we had a good season in 2017/18, we see potential for growth in cruise tourism during the off-season,” he added.
In June 2018 Nadine Stewart-Phillips, the secretary of tourism, culture and transportation, and Louis Lewis held talks with Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Oceania and Regent Seven Seas brands in Miami in a bid to increase business to Tobago.
The government has declared cruise tourism as essential to the entire process of economic diversification, and an increase in ships calling into Trinbagonian ports will no doubt benefit the country. The overall goal will now be to expand the cruise tourism offering in the coming years and continue this growth trend.
Seeing as the 2017/18 season saw T&T already surpass the MoT’s 2020 goal of 100,000 cruise arrivals per year by over 12.6%, T&T needs to update its port infrastructure first and foremost, and continue consolidating the surrounding tourism infrastructure to incite visitors to leave the vessels and explore the islands. T&T would also benefit by collaborating more closely with its Caribbean peers to harness the expected growth in cruise ship tourism, which represents potential benefits for the region as a whole.
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