Where No Cruise Line Has Gone Before

Western Caribbean itineraries explore new sunny ports in Mexico, Central America

By: M.T. Schwartzman

Caribbean cruising has gone exotic. No longer are Caribbean itineraries relegated to lovely but crowded islands like St. Thomas.

Exotic Caribbean itineraries are proliferating in the Western Caribbean region, especially now with the increasing number of ships homeporting in the Gulf of Mexico.

Longtime favorites like Cozumel are being joined by new Mexican Caribbean ports such as Progreso, near Merida, and emerging ports in Central America.

In September, Carnival Cruise Lines will launch a new type of seven-day cruise from Galveston aboard the Elation.

The advent of this itinerary from Texas marks the first time Carnival has brought its weeklong “Exotic Caribbean” product west of the Mississippi. Previously, the line had offered these cruises exclusively from Florida, beginning with the Carnival Spirit in November 2001.

By making the move westward, the company has seven ships deployed at one time or another on “Exotic Caribbean” itineraries in 2003-2004.

Of these, four are new for this year, including one aboard the smoke-free Paradise.

The reasoning behind this expansion is simple, according to Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Carnival.

“I think consumers are looking for new destinations,” she said.

“People who have gone to St. Thomas year after year say, ‘I love cruising but I’m looking for something different.’ ”

Besides repeat passengers, the exotic nature of these cruises can be a strong selling point for converting potential first-time cruisers, especially people who traditionally take their vacations at land-based resorts, Freed suggested. The agents can talk to the land-based vacationer and suggest they try something different this year, she said. “They can say, ‘I have this fabulous cruise vacation that can take you to the most interesting ports of call.’ ”

Norwegian Cruise Line is another company that is focused on new destinations in the Caribbean. NCL was one of the first mainstream cruise lines to feature a call in Roatan, Honduras (see box on page 36), initially on “Texaribbean” cruises out of Galveston, which began in 1997 on the Norwegian Star.

For 2003, NCL has expanded its exotic Caribbean program from one ship to three sailing from Miami, New Orleans, and Houston.

The proliferation of Caribbean cruises billed as exotic is a natural growth for the region, agreed Andy Stuart, NCL’s senior vice president of marketing and sales.

“I think there’s a very large market of people who have done the more traditional Western and Eastern Caribbean and are looking for something new,” he said.

“And there’s a big first-time market that is looking for something exotic in a vacation. So it appeals to both past cruisers and first-timers. It’s another choice, and the market needed another choice in the Caribbean.”

Stuart encouraged agents to present exotic itineraries as an exciting alternative for Caribbean-bound clients.

“We’re getting great passenger feedback. The passengers definitely like it,” he noted, which is why agents should have confidence in the product.

“Start to offer it as a real option,” Stuart advised.

“In our minds there are two types of Western Caribbean itineraries traditional and exotic and we’d love travel agents to be out there selling the two different types.”

Royal Caribbean Inter- national sees a strategic advantage to offering exotic Caribbean ports, which allows the Caribbean to grow without becoming old hat, according to Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, associate vice president of product marketing. “As an industry, we are always looking for new places to take our guests,” she said. “There are lots of ships out there going to ports we have been calling at for years. As these ports get more crowded, we look for options,” she explained. Ports like Progreso, Roatan, Belize and Limon provide just that avenue, she continued.

“These are unspoiled and new,” she said, “and they provide a great experience for something different.”

By positioning its ships in Galveston and New Orleans, Royal Caribbean hopes to make Caribbean cruising accessible to passengers nationwide especially those originating in the West.

“It’s a midpoint for people from the West who want to take a Caribbean cruise,” she said, adding that the company intends to become more aggressive in promoting these home ports and itineraries.

“We’re in these places for the long-term,” she noted. “The West Coast has become a very important market for us.”

So by positioning ships on the Gulf Coast, Royal Caribbean is sending a message to agents and their clients, she said.

“We want you to cruise in the Caribbean and you don’t have to fly to Miami.”