San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Central America angles for more cruise ships

ROATAN, HONDURAS – Roatán didn’t receive its first cruise-ship visit until 1979. Today, within the space of three decades, the once sleepy island off the Honduran coast has surpassed Belize to become Central America’s leading cruise-ship destination.

Last year, Roatán received more than 771,000 passengers, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA). That’s a 178 percent increase in the last five years. Belize, by comparison, welcomed 706,000 cruise passengers last year, a drop of 12 percent from 2005 figures.

Overall, Central America cruise passenger arrivals have climbed 29 percent in the last five years, with the fastest growth seen by Guatemala’s Puerto Quetzal. Volume there shot up by 381 percent since 2005 to reach 47,000 last year, says the FCCA.

Other leading Central American ports include Panama’s Colón (218,400 passengers last year), Costa Rica’s Puerto Limón (193,000) and Puntarenas (89,000), Panama’s Cristobal (51,200) and Guatemala’s Santo Tomás (51,100).

While in port, cruise-ship passengers spent the most money in Belize (an average of $87.96 per passenger in 2010), followed by Roatán ($70.39) and the three Costa Rican ports of Limón, Puntarenas and Caldera ($67.28). Nicaragua, none of whose ports made FCCA’s top 10 list, recorded the lowest per-passenger expenditures at only $35.63.

John Tercek, vice-president of com-mercial development at Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., said “there isn’t a lot of Central American activity in the future,” at least from the Caribbean side.

“We’ve already developed Roatán island, there’s already a cruise port in Belize, Guatemala doesn’t really work for long-term growth because it doesn’t deliver from the Caribbean as a tourist destination, there’s a cruise-ship port in Colón, Panama, and one occasionally used in Puerto Limón, and that’s really it,” he said in a phone interview from Belize. “The Pacific is probably better-suited for long-term growth, but the whole industry is shifting its pattern because of the challenges in Mexico.”

Costa Rica’s three cruise-ship ports all saw passenger volumes decline in 2010. Volume fell by 1 percent at both Limón and Puntarenas, and tumbled 21 percent at Caldera, which received 19,000 passengers last year.

 Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines both have major operations at Roatán. Royal Caribbean opened its Town Center at Coxen Hole in January 2009 at a cost of $16 million. It was designed by Coastal Systems Inc. and includes a hotel and waterfront village development that serves as a cruise-ship destination port by day, with nightlife for local residents. Town Center now receives more than 300,000 passengers annually, while Carnival is getting 400,000 visitors a year at its much larger Mahogany Bay port.

Located at Coral Cay, this $50 million project has room for three cruise ships to dock simultaneously, and is the biggest single private tourism investment in Honduras.

“Both projects are working well. We’re both enjoying good traffic and we’re very happy,” said Tercek. “Ours operates as a modest-sized facility, but within that context, it’s been very successful. We already get the Norwegian Epic [a 4,200-passenger, 153,000-ton vessel belonging to Norwegian Cruise Lines]. Freedom of the Seas has also called there. There are no plans for Oasis of the Seas to visit Roatán, but we can handle it if we had to.”

To raise the region’s profile as a cruise-ship destination, FCCA is sponsoring a Central America Cruise Conference in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The May 3-7 event – first proposed by Norwegian Cruise Lines CEO Kevin Sheehan – will bring together cruise-ship companies, tour operators, travel agencies, suppliers, ship agents and tourism executives from the seven countries that form Central America, along with Colombia.

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has also been invited to the event, scheduled at the Hilton Princess Hotel in San Pedro Sula.

“Central America’s opportunities are endless,” said FCCA’s executive director, Michele Paige. “But because their governments are so different from those in the Caribbean, it’s very important that we address their needs.”

Because of their much larger size and population, she explained, the nations of Central America have a “multitude of different players that don’t exist in the Caribbean, and layers of federal and municipal governments. In the Caribbean, there’s usually only a prime minister, a minister of tourism and a commissioner of public works.”

Noting that Central America is relatively unknown compared to the more familiar English-speaking Caribbean, Paige said, “there’s a lot of pent-up demand. People want to go to new places. That’s why for us as cruise executives, this conference is so important.”

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