More Passengers, More Options

Carnivals Osland Safari Adventure in BarbadosWith more than 50 percent of cruise passengers opting to take shore excursions, and the number of passengers aboard ships increasing, are excursion operators and ports straining to handle the load?

“Sometimes you have a few days with no ships and then two or three days with hectic activity,” said Jerome Montoya, manager of St. Bart’s Tours and Travel (SBTT). Island infrastructure can be severely tested, he said.

Certainly, if several ships come into port at one time, cruise lines need to be more efficient with the timing of excursions, noted Mico Cascais, director of tour operations for Carnival Cruise Lines. “We need to use operators who have the equipment to take passengers. Taxi associations have to make sure they have the infrastructure to meet the needs of cruise passengers, not to mention the crew of 1,000 people,” he added.

But, in general there are fewer problems in terms of infrastructure, equipment and local governments than there were a few years ago, Cascais added.

Craig Laforest, director of land programs for Crystal Cruises, said the line coordinates with the tour operator “to make sure we are guaranteed the bookings we have made months in advance and that we will have the allocation available to us.”

In the Caribbean, about 50 percent of guests typically take pre-booked shore excursions, Cascais said, while in Alaska the number rises to 70 percent. “In Alaska, in order for guests to have the experience, you need to go on an excursion. You can’t show up one day and book a helicopter ride.” Cascais said soft adventure and ecoadventure excursions continue to be very popular in the Caribbean and Alaska, from hiking to biking, snorkeling, sailing, diving, flying and jeep rides.

At Crystal Cruises, the Signature Program excursions have been introduced for well-traveled guests. Passengers may be flown to a remote island in the Great Barrier Reef for lunch, for example, or ushered to Africa’s Ngorongoro Crater to see wild animals. Such half-day excursions for 10 to 20 guests range from $300 to $ 1,500, and they usually sell out, Laforest said. Orient Lines also features excursions that are destination- and culture-oriented. Orient vessels will stay in some ports, such as Cape Town, Bali and St. Petersburg, for two days, so that guests can more fully explore the destination. Guests can pick two or three excursions in those circumstances, said Mitch Schlesinger, vice president for North American sales for Norwegian Cruise Line and Orient Lines.

In general, guests are typically told what time their excursion is scheduled to leave a port, while their ticket tells them which tour they are on (several tours depart at the same time). There is a timeline of 45 minutes to an hour during which passengers have to get off the cruise ship and onto the tour bus, explained Charmaine Harrison, managing director of Great Vacations Limited in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. “Some people do it at their leisure. You have to wait on them, and it holds up the timing of the tour.”

“We also have to monitor them coming back,” Harrison said. “Sometimes when they get to Dunns River Falls, and they have such a good time, the tour guide cannot get them to go back.” Obviously this creates a problem; groups need to be back onboard at least half an hour before the ship sets sail.

Lee Bailey, chairman of CCS (Caribbean Cruise Shipping and Tours), based in Montego Bay, said he would like to see excursions to Dunns River Falls extending into dusk, so guests can enjoy candlelight climbing there.

According to Cascais, many ports are building facilities with the cruise ship passengers in mind. St. Kitts, for example, has announced it will be rebuilding the Sugar Train, a scenic ride with spectacular views, by the end of 2002 or 2003. In Ocho Rios, Island Village opened in March. Built by Chris Blackwell, the Village includes duty-free shops, a reggae museum, a cinema, beach, Margaritaville restaurant, American Express and Western Union Offices, art gallery, casino and concert stage.

In selecting an excursion operator, cruise executives look for a good track record. When Carnival works with a new operator, Cascais said they do quite a bit of due diligence to see whether anyone in the industry is using that operator. “We call our colleagues at Royal Caribbean, Cunard and Princess to see if they know about the operator,” he said.

Carnival’s excursion manager and a group of people will experience the excursion first-hand to evaluate it. “Safety is the number-one concern,” Cascais said. “We want to see if it’s safe and something the guests will enjoy.”

Schlesinger said Orient Lines has developed relationships with operators over a long period. “We know as much about the ground operation as we do about the cruise side,” he added. The key for operators is that they must know their destination, he said.

“We are always refining programs,” Laforest said. “We do elaborate research on destinations. We look at the feedback we get from guests and staff. When we find a program that works we build on it.”

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