The Caribbean was hit by a series of strong hurricanes during the autumn of 2017. Judging from the tone of the media reports, many people have the impression that the entire region was devastated. Therefore, they wonder whether it worthwhile to cruise there this winter. Accordingly, having just returned from three cruises that called in ports in the Eastern, Southern and Western Caribbean, I thought I would report on my impressions of the state of the Caribbean as of November/December 2017.
To begin some of the most popular ports did indeed suffer severe damage. These ports included St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Dominica and San Juan Puerto Rico. Dominica is still closed completely.
The ships I was on did not call at any of these ports. However, both San Juan and St. Thomas had already begun to host cruise ships while I was in the Caribbean. Indeed, two of the ships that I sailed on either just had been to or were about to go to these ports. Cruise ship officers said they expected St . Maarten to come on line in December. Unfortunately, Dominica was not expected to recover until well into 2018.
Most ports, however, either sustained no damage or have recovered completely. Indeed, the most apparent lingering effect of the storms was that there were more cruise ships in each port than usual. For example, despite the numerous cruise ship piers in Cozumel, there were ships tendering passengers ashore. In Martinique, there were four ships in this usually quiet port. The reason there were so many ships in each port was that ships were being diverted from the ports that are now closed and the ports that have reduced capacity.
The ports did not seem to have any difficulty absorbing the passengers. Some tours sold out more quickly than usual because there was less space for tour operators to allocate to each ship.
Another effect of the storms was that some ships were adding lesser known ports to their itineraries. The prevailing wisdom in the cruise industry is that most passengers want to visit as many ports as possible. Therefore, if you cannot book your ship into one of the more popular ports, it is better to replace it with a lesser known port than to spend the day at sea.
Visiting lesser known ports has both pros and cons. On the positive side, you get to see the port before it becomes too commercialized. On the negative side, the infrastructure is not as geared toward handling cruise visitors as the more popular ports and thus there may not be much to do in such places.
How is the demand for Caribbean cruises? Of the three ships that I cruised with on this sojourn, only one was sailing at less than full capacity and that ship was sailing on a modified itinerary that included lesser known ports.
Turning to specific ports, the Western Caribbean ports of Cozumel, Costa Maya and Grand Cayman were not hit by the storms and were operating on a normal basis.
Similarly, Barbados, Martinique, St. Kitts, Amber Cove and La Semana showed no signs of damage. Holland America's private island Half Moon Cay was as usual. Neighboring Princess Cays also appeared to be in active operation.
In both Antigua and St. Lucia construction work was being done in the cruise ship harbors. Replacement of the boardwalk next to the cruise ship piers was nearing completion in Antigua. A more ambitious reconstruction of the large cruise ship pier in Castries, St. Lucia was well underway. Whether these projects were hurricane related or were simply harbor improvements was unclear. In any event, the usual array of tours were available in each port, which suggests that it was business as usual on those islands.
Cruise editorial - Cruising the Caribbean is November/December 2017