When travel ceases to be an experience

In an age when most in the industry are seeking higher yield millennials and baby-boomers by selling authenticity, it is perhaps puzzling that another rapidly growing industry segment is now wants to deliver just the opposite.

Type the words private islands into a search engine and it is immediately evident that this element of the industry reflects a new and rapidly growing phenomenon.

To be clear, this is not about elite destinations like Richard Branson’s Necker Island, or the upscale exclusive small resorts that exist for example in the Grenadines, but about a new form of mass market Caribbean tourism that is being developed by the cruise companies.

The concept involves large cruise lines such as Norwegian, Disney or Royal Caribbean buying or leasing small islands in locations close to their home ports, and developing on them facilities which they control.

For the most part, these locations have deep water berthing facilities that enable the lines to bring some of their largest ships directly onshore. This enables them, quite literally, to transfer the many thousands of passengers each ship carries, to beaches which have an adjacent mix of amenities and attractions in a way that most Caribbean destinations do not.

The effect is that a significant part of the visitor market which wants to travel to the Caribbean is coming to see these private islands, like the cruise ships on which they travel, as a safe, relatively upmarket substitute for one might describe as the real Caribbean.

So far, it seems that with two exceptions all such facilities are in the Bahamas, and offer everything from swimming pools to spas and bars, water sports and live music and even minor injuries clinics in order to provide a ‘safe’ environment.

From the cruise companies’ perspective not only do such facilities offer a controlled version of the Caribbean for the nervous, often older middle-market traveller who wants, as it were, to see the Caribbean ‘in safety’, but the opportunity to retain their expenditure.

While the cost of investing in developing small forgotten islands in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere is substantial, the cruise companies belive they have found a way of delivering hundreds of thousands of their passengers to Caribbean locations, avoiding the grittiness or worse that some visitors have experienced onshore in the region. Their objective, they say, is to develop facilities, attractions and even engineer beaches and the environment in a manner that ensures their clients experience the white sand and waving palm tree paradise they have imagined.

Recent reports in the travel trade press suggest that the concept is expanding with Carnival for example looking not just at the Bahamas but at Honduras as well.

For the companies, which stand to significantly increase their profits from this approach, the private island concept, and the control they can exercise over the visitor experience and passenger security in a potentially hostile world is what matters.

Surprisingly perhaps, this category of cruising is in great demand. Surveys suggest that it is highly popular, indicating that many travellers may be less interested in where they are going and more desirous of a safe experience in a tropical climate that feels Caribbean but offers little in the way of authenticity.

Employment and passenger taxes apart, how this can be of any long-term value to the Caribbean is a mystery. Worse, it ignores tourism’s ability to create relationships and understanding though people-to-people contact, let alone the experience and sense of wonder and adventure that travel provides.

Cruise ships offer an important way for those less travelled to see and experience regions like the Caribbean. However, if the companies concerned are now intent on creating their own sanitised pastiche of Caribbean reality, governments and the rest of the industry need to think long and hard about the implications.