Remaining option

With all the “doom and gloom” lately regarding the local cruise industry it is good to learn that both the total number of ships’ calls and passengers in reality went up last year, with the latter topping 1.6 million for a 2.2 per cent hike compared to 2018 (see related story). The latter also puts into perspective persistent complaints by especially downtown merchants that business has been slow.

If they think so now already, things probably won’t get much better anytime soon, with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) predicting a drop of between 25 and 30 per cent in calls for the entire 2020. And despite positive figures for 2019 the negative trend has begun, as Port St. Maarten itself predicts a decline of 10.4 per cent in vessels and 15.4 per cent in passengers for the high season that started on November 1 and ends on April 30.

All this has to do with increased competition in the area also because facilities damaged by the hurricanes of September 2017 have been fully repaired, while a growing number of cruise lines are creating their own private destinations.

The government-owned Harbour Group of Companies acknowledges the problem and is calling for adjusting the island’s product to younger generations of cruisers who are on average more about experiences and less into material items. There is nevertheless a need for additional berths by restoring Pier One and expanding Pier Two.

The main reason is that – despite the current dip – the sector’s future looks promising enough, with 70 new ships to come online in the next eight years. Not only that, but certain cruise lines that sail to the island are not FCCA members and some growth can also come from them.

One of the concerns among key players in the sector is road congestion and the ability of passengers to move around. The lines particularly from the popular Maho Beach area and Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) back to the ships in Pointe Blanche during the afternoon can be something of a nightmare, especially with many yachts requiring more frequent and longer Simpson Bay Bridge openings, because arriving late is obviously not possible.

Much has been done in the past to alleviate this situation, but one unused option still remains: Make the so-called “Cay Bay Pass” that runs from GEBE to the roundabout overlooking Cay Hill available at least to one-way traffic heading towards Philipsburg, just like Alexis Arnell Road was opened in the opposite direction.