Time to ask difficult questions about the value of cruise tourism

Cruise tourism has become a big business, with the Caribbean now accounting for more than 35% of all such vacations globally. This year more ships will sail in or through Caribbean waters than in any other part of the world, with many of the hundreds of new vessels under construction destined to do the same.

Despite this, no government or industry body has yet been able to come to terms with how little the cruise lines contribute to the local economy, government revenues or Caribbean development. Nor have they found ways that equitably relate cruise tourism to the national economic importance of the hotel sector, the ancillary onshore demand that long stay visitors create, or the higher taxes they pay.

Statistics produced by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) show that there were 29.2m cruise ship arrivals into the Caribbean in 2018, a figure roughly equal to the 30.2m long stay visitors who came by air to stay in hotels and other onshore facilities.

However, these figures are misleading. Cruise ship passengers almost all stayed for only a small part of a day and visited multiple countries, raising questions about double counting. In contrast visitors who arrived by air stayed on average in a single location for seven nights contributing according to CTO 11.5 times more than cruise passengers to the local economy and government revenues.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little in the way of consistent or reliable recent reporting as to exactly how much either category of visitors spend.

Figures produced by the cruise industry, governments and tourist boards provide some in indication, but for not well explained reasons vary significantly from country to country and are not up to date.

Reports relating to 2015 indicate that cruise visitors to the USVI spent between US$138 and US$158 while the average visitor arriving there by air spent between $200 to $250 each day of their stay. However, figures for other destinations for the same year are much lower with, for example, cruise visitors to the Bahamas recorded as spending US$83 and to Barbados US$78.

Help is however at hand to better understand the impact of cruise tourism.

In June, the Washington-based Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) published a detailed and balanced study. ‘Cruise Tourism in the Caribbean: Selling Sunshine’ edited by the organisation’s outgoing Executive Director, Dr Martha Honey, sets out for industry professionals the ways in which governments, tourist boards, citizens and the industry might change the nature of future discourse with the cruise lines.

Apart from containing a contemporary analysis of cruise tourism, its environmental and social impacts, and the effects of climate change and overtourism, its 180 pages outline the reforms needed if cruise tourism is to bring greater benefit to the region. 

Although some of the solutions it proposes will undoubtedly prove controversial with the cruise industry. the publication identifies y practical ways to resolves the many conundrums the industry has created. It offers ideas as to how to address the issue of the low head taxes that the cruise lines presently pay to government, suggests the need to incentivise home porting, indicates the important lessons to be learned from the negative experiences of Venice and Barcelona, discusses length of stay, and points to the positive models elsewhere the region might emulate.

But more importantly ‘Selling Sunshine’ suggests the need for a cruise industry that is genuinely Caribbean focused rather than one that exists solely to benefit the big cruise companies. As such its narrative and recommendations require serious consideration by any Caribbean politician who genuinely has at heart the need for national and social development.

The publication follows an earlier just as interesting commentary by Robert MacLellan, the Managing Director of MacLellan & Associates, the Caribbean based hospitality consultancy.

He suggests that to have the normally intransigent cruise companies bring greater benefit, Caribbean governments should learn from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and establish an Organisation of Tourism Economy Countries (OTEC). He argues that the weak negotiating position of individual Caribbean and Central American governments has many similarities to OPEC member states sixty years ago and that a ‘rebalancing’ strategy should now be pursued by the Caribbean when it comes to the cruise lines. In this way, he suggests, not only could the issue of head taxes be addressed but other issues of benefit to the region might be considered.

Recent conferences on tourism held in Jamaica and Washington demonstrate that there is a growing appetite and anger among Caribbean participants who believe that what is required is a more equitable basis on which cruise ships operate in the region.

As they, Martha Honey and Robert MacLellan suggest, the time has come to ask difficult questions about the value of cruise tourism.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at


Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

8 September 2019

The views and opinions expressed in the Business of Tourism are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.