Time to rethink Caribbean itineraries
Last year, more than 28,000 Australians took a cruise in the Caribbean; this year, the region has been devastated by a particularly brutal hurricane season. Four massive storms thrashed the islands last month, with little breathing space in between, and the effect on Caribbean cruising is unprecedented.
The most destructive was Hurricane Irma, which forced about 150 cruises to be cancelled or altered and 25 ports shut down. Some areas remain uninhabitable and cruise ships won’t be back anytime soon. Among the hardest hit were St Thomas, St John and St Croix in the US Virgin Islands; St Bart’s, Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands; the twin nations of St Maarten and St Martin; the Turks and Caicos; and most of Puerto Rico and Dominica.
But the Caribbean is almost three million square kilometres, so there are plenty of places that suffered no damage. A benefit of the moving nature of a cruise ship is that it can easily sail to alternative ports including Jamaica’s Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Falmouth; the so-called ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao; Mexico’s Cozumel and Costa Maya, as well as Grand Cayman, Belize, Roatan, Labadee, St Kitts, St Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbados. It was much tougher during the storms when Carnival was announcing changes and cancellations within 48 hours of sailing. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Oceania, Windstar, MSC, Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line also switched ports or cancelled cruises. This left many travellers, especially Australians, stranded as they had flown in days before their cruise.
Many October and November cruises are still impacted and some ships have been re-routed through to the end of the year. MSC Divina has revised voyages as far ahead as January and February and the new MSC Seaside, scheduled to launch in December, is substituting St Maarten until March. (Princess Cruises, Silversea, P&O, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Costa, Crystal, Viking, Seabourn and SeaDream have not yet announced long-term plans.) When booking a future cruise, the best options are Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries from Barbados, Western Caribbean from Gulf ports, and some departures from South Florida. In the US, ships have resumed calling at Key West since Hurricane Maria and at Galveston after Hurricane Harvey hammered the Texas coast. The Bahamas and Cuba are operating normally. While many Caribbean destinations have seen minimal damage to tourist attractions, it would be wise to lower your expectations in case some activities are unavailable or the islanders are not quite so carefree. Understandably, some people may feel uncomfortable having fun where the locals might be struggling. It’s reassuring to know that the tourism-dependent places want you to visit and spend your cash at their businesses. Cruise lines and ports are working together to ensure tourists do not obstruct recovery efforts. Cruise ships were also used to evacuate residents and deliver supplies to battered islands.
Travellers can assist by donating money or school supplies; ask your cruise line or travel agent what you can do to help at your ports of call. Every passenger can do their part in supporting these communities, and it can be done in your lunch break. Don’t go back to the ship to eat the free food. Stay ashore and buy some jerk chicken or a pina colada.
Louise Goldsbury is the senior editor of cruisecritic.com.au.