Steven Jackson, Business Reporter
Jamaica now ranks as the fastest growing cruise destination in the Caribbean based on the pull of the Falmouth Pier, launched a year ago, and one key official estimates visitor-spend to surpass US$100 million (J$8.7 billion) or 25 per cent more than earlier year's levels.
Jamaica received its highest number of cruise visitors in four years at some 1.14 million passengers for 2011, or one-quarter more than 2010, according to latest Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) data.
Nearly half of those visitors docked at the Falmouth Pier with one-third at Ocho Rios and the balance at Montego Bay and Port Antonio.
This rise in arrivals allowed the island to beat 24 Caribbean countries in terms of growth arrivals at a time when nearly half recorded steep declines. William Tatham, vice-president Cruise Shipping & Marine Operations, Port Authority of Jamaica, told The Gleaner he expected the island to top the region based on the newness of the pier which attracts cruise liners.
"It's not a surprise. We knew that building Falmouth Pier would increase 50 per cent berthing capacity, which would have allowed us to accommodate excess vessels during the busy winter period," said Tatham.
"Before Falmouth, we were turning away business on peak days at Ocho Rios and Montego Bay."
Tatham expects cruise arrivals to virtually double over the next four years before peaking, based on berthing space and commitments from Royal Caribbean but also Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line.
"They have made a significant commitment to Jamaica and that commitment is bearing fruit. Cruise arrivals will continue to climb over the next three or four years. Is it sustainable over long term? Well, the potential is for 2.0 to 2.5 million cruise visitors," he said.
The average spend was US$87.35 per cruise passenger in 2010, according to that year's Annual Travel Statistics published by the Jamaica Tourist Board, but it could rise this year as passengers are spending more at higher-end shops within the Falmouth Pier, Tatham said.
"There is about a US$100 spend," he said. "We have higher-end, duty-free companies that have never come to Jamaica before, including Diamonds International. We have three or four companies that have invested from outside, and I wouldn't be surprised if the spend is higher."
The port executive said the statistics arm of the tourism ministry would likely conduct a survey on Falmouth Pier and that he expects the results to confirm his assessment on spending.
"My belief is that it is higher," he said.
The growth in Jamaica's cruise arrivals coincided with the launch of the Falmouth Pier. It enabled the world's largest cruise liners to dock in the island for the first time while offering additional berthing space for vessels unable to dock at Montego Bay or Ocho Rios during peak periods.
The pier was developed by PAJ in partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruise Limited (RCCL), whose investments were estimated at US$167 million and US$102 million, respectively.
The new growth puts Jamaica, previously one of the worst performers in the region, above the formidable cruise destinations of St Maarten and Antigua & Barbuda which grew by double digits in 2011, based on travel data from Caribbean Tourism Organisation, which tracks regional cruise statistics.
Over the last five years, Jamaica placed closer to the bottom of the region, ranking 12th in 2010, 19th in 2009, 16th in 2008 and 21st in 2007.
The island's rise, however, comes at a period when 11 of the 24 territories recorded declines year to date including Martinique down 69 per cent, Dominica down 39 per cent, St Vincent & the Grenadines down 24 per cent and Cayman Islands down 12.7 per cent.
Tatham reasoned that some of Jamaica's growth came at the expense of other islands. Specifically, Jamaica's growth far outpaces the projected five per cent growth for the region set by the World Tourism Organisation, an agency of the United Nations.
"We did take some market share but at the same time Royal Caribbean also brought a lot of vessels back to the region during the winter months," he said. "The Caribbean goes through its own period of popularity. There are times when the eastern Caribbean is hot and then western Caribbean, that's a natural trend that will continue. Basically, the (vessels go for) what's new and Falmouth is new and refreshing to the western itineraries."
The Falmouth Pier accommodated its first cruise liner on February 17, 2011. The official opening and docking of the world's largest passenger vessel was realised in March, however, construction continues at the facility.
Last March, RCCL promised to flood the historic town of Falmouth with eight million cruise-ship passengers over 10 years. The port boasts modern high-tech facilities and allows for the docking of the world's largest cruise ships. It also has the capacity to handle at least two mega ships concurrently.
On completion, the facility will include a terminal building to house customs, immigration, and port security. Other areas will include restaurant services, retail shops as well as a transportation centre. Subsequent phases will include on-site attractions.