To put it bluntly, if you haven't seen what is happening in the Caribbean in just the last three years you really have no idea what the cruise industry has already become and where it is going. Today we are on a brand new ship, Celebrity Solstice, docked in St. Martin. This ship holds 2850 berths, up to 3250+ maximum.
In port with us are Emerald Princess (3800-passengers), Carnival Liberty (3200+ passengers) and Independence of the Seas (5000+). All four ships are sharing the same dock, two ships on each side. Next to us they are building another dock, presumably to handle the new Oasis of the Seas-size ships (5400 berths, 6300+ total possible passengers).
In other words, there are approximately 15,000 of us walking the narrow shopping street of this island today. That is nearly 30% of the entire population of the entire island added to the populkation just for one day. When the new pier is done, there could be as many as 25,000 passengers alighting on this tiny island on any given day.
This is a stark difference from the days when I worked on cruise ships just about 15 years ago. I spent four months on the Norway, at the time one of the biggest cruise ships in the world at 80,000-tons, and we used to anchor outside the bay here at Phillipsburg because we were too big to turn around. Our tender trip to the city center used to take almost 20 minutes. Today we have ships twice that big docking within walking distance of downtown.
So, what is my point? That just in the last three to five years the cruise industry has grown by over 30% capacity. The average-sized ship visiting these Caribbean islands is 120,000-tons and 3500 passengers. Within three years it will likely be closer to 160,000 tons and 5000 passengers. This industry has skyrocketed, but has it gotten too big?
While you are on any cruise ship, the answer is no, you do not feeel as if the ship is too big. In fact, since it is your home for a week you tend to feel it is just about the right size since it takes you about that long to get used to your surroundings and see just about everything you feel there is to see.
Even in downtown Phillipsburg I did not feel overly crowded. I had the immediate attention of a shopkeeper the second I walked in any store, asking me what fine watch, earrings or camera I was interested in pretending I was interested in today. BUt where I absolutely DID feel overly crowded was on the dock itself. With eight gangways (two for each ship, crew and passengers) feeding a steady stream of humanity onshore.
What I find funny is that if you are listening to Wall Street, you are hearing this industry is in trouble due to the slowing economy whilst all the extra ship capacity is coming online. All I can say is, if there is any crisis in the economy, it is not apparent here in the Caribbean where older cruisers buying designer watches and younger ones picking up game cartridges for thir Wii and XBox consoles are heating up the plastic that makes world go 'round.
Royal Caribbean just laid the keel for Allure of the Seas today, the sister ship to Oasis of the Seas. Four more sister ships to Solstice are coming online in the next four years. That is almost 25,000 berths between the two sister companies coming online before 2012.
Meanwhile, the islands are getting ready - building new docks, and in the case of Jamaica, an entirely new destination port city from the ground up for the Oasis-class vessels. This is a booming business, one where my guess is Las Vegas would be jealous. Only time will tell, but if the excitement of the passengers I am speaking to this week is any indication, cruising will continue growing the same as it always has in the past, and what was considered to be outrageously outsized just a few years ago will be the "norm" tomorrow.
That's the way it has always been, and that is how it shall remain.
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