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In 2015, the South Pacific, home to a year-round tropical climate and diverse collection of island nations, attracted approximately 463,000 cruisers onboard more than 50 ships operated by 31 different cruise lines.
And while the region’s tourism officials are hopeful that those figures will increase in the year ahead, the South Pacific’s cruise industry faces a number of challenges that could hamper further growth, including port infrastructure constraints and expensive airfare to the region.
Many of those hurdles were discussed by industry stakeholders who gathered at the two-day inaugural South Pacific Cruise Forum, held in Papeete, Tahiti, last October. The event attracted more than 130 attendees, among them cruise company executives, government leaders and tourism officials from nearly 15 countries, including French Polynesia, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Kingdom of Tonga.
“We’re really hoping to increase cruise numbers and income for our tourism industries,” said Ollivier Amaru, president of South Pacific Cruise Alliance, the forum’s organizer.
“If we are clever enough, and if we build up a code of best practices for the calls, I think we will manage to grab more cruise ships and, therefore, more clientele,” he said.
Amaru says last year’s cruise returns offer hope that improved cooperation between the region’s nations could lead to more substantial growth in the future.
Forum speaker Crystal Morgan, director of itinerary planning for Princess Cruises, also says she believes the South Pacific shows potential for cruise business expansion.
“The itineraries are fabulous, the destinations are wonderful, and so that demand, I think, is there, but it gets limited because we’re not able to upsize,” she said, noting that infrastructure constraints at some of the region’s ports prohibit the addition of larger ships.
“That’s usually how we grow a market,” she continued. “But we have to go from 600 passengers to 3,000 rather quickly, and that’s where the big challenge is.”
Another limiting factor is the often steep price of airfare to South Pacific destinations, which makes it difficult for companies to base ships in the region. Currently, the only nonstop flights from the U.S. to South Pacific nations are operated by Air Tahiti Nui, Fiji Airways, Air France and Hawaiian Airlines.
“When air prices go up, then demand drops off,” Morgan said. “The affordability of that airlift has to be there, because there are great itineraries here, but it’s that cost comparison of the airfare to the actual cruise price that’s crucial.”
Meanwhile, cruise and tourism officials are also considering the consequences of too much growth. Although the South Pacific region covers a substantial portion of the globe, the actual land masses and resources are very limited.
“The islands of Tahiti do not want mass tourism,” said Jean-Christophe Buissou, minister of tourism for French Polynesia, who said he is eager to work with cruise companies to boost arrivals — to a point.
“We don’t want to have four or five ships together at Bora Bora,” he said. “You won’t have the proper experience anymore. You won’t feel the mana [power] of the place.”
Morgan agrees, indicating that too many new cruise arrivals in the South Pacific could ultimately be a mistake.
“The beauty of these destinations is that they’re not well traveled to,” she said. “So striking that fine balance is important. To put a 3,000-passenger ship in Moorea — is that what anybody wants?”