The cruise sector might be a small niche of the tourism industry from a global perspective, but it’s big business in the Caribbean. The region’s series of picturesque islands dotting turquoise waters are well-suited to cruise tours, which allow passengers to take in a range of experiences as they hop from one island to the next in the Caribbean Sea, from Jamaica and the Bahamas in the north-west to Barbados and St Lucia in the south-east.

Barbados, one of the smaller Caribbean nations, is no exception. Tourism as a whole is an incredibly important part of the Barbadian economy, as it is for many other islands in the region – in 2016, tourism accounted for nearly 13% of the island’s gross domestic product, and 62.1% of its exports. Around 40% of Barbados’ workforce (approximately 51,000 people) are directly employed or indirectly supported by the tourism sector.

Cruise tourism has claimed an outsized slice of Barbados’ tourism pie; in 2015, cruise ships delivered more than half of the 1.3 million tourists who visited the island. Given the fundamental importance of cruise traffic to the country’s economy, reports of strained infrastructure and limited onshore engagement from cruise passengers are a pressing concern for many citizens, as well as Barbadian Minister of Tourism and International Transport Kerrie Symmonds. So what’s going on in Barbados’ cruise sector, and what needs to change to set it on a brighter course for the future?

Barbados cruise trends: warning signs amid traffic growth

At a glance, the raw passenger numbers suggest that all is well. Last year saw record cruise passenger throughput at the country’s main port in Bridgetown, which processed 818,752 arrivals for the year, up 12.9% from 2016. Passengers from the UK represented the largest chunk of business at 33.5% of arrivals, reflecting the historic and Commonwealth connections of the two countries, but increasing traffic from the US (28.4%) and Canada (12.8%) showcase some of the country’s other tourism-related advantages, for example the use of English as a native language and the island’s relatively low crime rates. Barbados’ deep experience with the cruise industry, which stretches back to the 1970s, has given time for the emergence of a small but well-developed local market of service providers catering to cruise clients.

“It is never easy as a mature tourism destination to maintain growth at these levels in the competitive business landscape in which we operate, but I am pleased that through strategic marketing efforts we have once again proven Barbados’ value as shown by the record number of arrivals at both the air and seaports throughout 2017,” said Barbados’ former tourism minister Richard Sealy, who was replaced by Symmonds after the general elections in May this year.

While the topline numbers look encouraging, it doesn’t take long to reveal the cracks in the façade. Symmonds has cited major issues in several areas of the country’s cruise offering that don’t bode well for the long-term sustainability of the industry. The biggest problems include a lack of port infrastructure, especially for the new generation of super-sized cruise vessels being introduced by the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation.

Among the other persistent issues raised are substandard onshore facilities and, perhaps most worrying of all, a downward trend in the amount of money being spent by cruise passengers if and when they leave their vessel.

Declining passenger spend

Despite seeing the number of onshore visits from cruise passengers increase by 33% between 2005 and 2015, Barbados has recorded a 30% decline in the per-passenger onshore spend for the same period, down from $111.82 to $78.03. This drop in spend is severely hampering the revenues that the island earns from its cruise sector, despite the strong growth in passenger numbers.

With total annual passengers in Barbados breaching 800,000 last year, the lack of onshore spending from each visitor adds up to a great deal of money being left on the table.

“Ten years ago, Barbados was earning $57m per year from cruise,” said Symmonds at a press conference held in  August, during which he declared that the industry is in “a state of very deep crisis”.

“Today, Barbados is earning $57.3m from cruise. So we have grown, over ten years, by $300,000. When you factor in inflation, we have not grown, we have not stagnated – we have actually started to go backwards. Against our competitors in the region, we are $42 below average in terms of passenger spend, and $100 below the top-flight destinations in the Caribbean…If you’re going to talk about being slightly over $100 [in per-passenger spend], the truth is you could stand to earn an extra $100m, which we are now allowing to go begging.”

Giving visitors a reason to spend

So why is onshore spending so low, and what can be done about it? The root cause appears to be the declining reputation of the island’s shore-based activities, shopping and basic facilities. Survey results presented by an August 2017 report written by Jack Daly and Karina Fernandez-Stark of the Duke University Global Value Chain Center in Durham, North Carolina, tracks this downward slide.

“At the same time expenditures have declined, the perception of Barbados’ tourism products [has] slipped,” the report notes. “The most dramatic regression is associated with satisfaction of purchased tours (Barbados ranked 24th of 35 in the 2014/15 season compared with 10th in previous years), although the quality of port infrastructure also remains a concern.”

Part of the problem, the report argued, is the local dominance of Foster & Ince Group, which provides shore excursions, transport and other activities for cruise passengers. While the report notes that the company’s expertise in the cruise sector is an asset, it may also be making it difficult for small businesses to crack into the sector that is in urgent need of diversification. Fostering a more encouraging atmosphere for small providers, possibly through government agencies such as Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority, could help the country to identify activities that will persuade cruise passengers to come ashore.

In his public statements, Symmonds, who was contacted for this piece but was unavailable to comment, has argued that a general reinvigoration of the facilities and infrastructure at Bridgetown Port – and more widely – will be needed to persuade cruise visitors to spend more time (and money) on land. Many upgrades will require long-term planning and financing arrangements, but in the short-term Symmonds has argued that there are small improvements to facilities and activities that could make a difference.

“The initial recommendations, therefore, we will seek to implement in a timely manner for some visible changes to take place before the winter, and thereafter there are going to have to be more long-term improvements to the cruise sector,” he said in August, also pulling out restroom upgrades and accessibility for disabled visitors as an example of changes that could have a big impact for Barbados’ cruise demographic.

The Barbadian market received some sage advice on increasing passenger spend from Jamaica’s tourism minister Edmund Bartlett in response to questions from Barbados Today at the end of September. Bartlett advised the island to “encourage the building out of local experiences” and make better use of its natural advantages.

“88% of the world travels for food and there is no better food that what is provided in Barbados,” Bartlett said. “There is also shopping, because 67% of the world travels for shopping, so Barbados can build out its shopping experiences or take products from outside and add value to them.”

Urgent need for port capacity, but financing remains elusive

Bridgetown Port, meanwhile, will struggle to keep up with the increasingly large ships being brought into service by operators. Symmonds noted that the port “on its best day” can handle throughput of around 10,000 passengers a day, but with Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class cruise ships able to accommodate up to 6,200 passengers, he notes that the port’s operations will become impaired and unable to meet demand by 2020-21.

Increased capacity could come from a number of quarters. Symmonds has noted that there is demand for more berthing spaces on the north side of the island, especially at Holetown and Speightstown, for smaller cruise vessels.

“In both instances some infrastructural work would be required, but it is not a bad idea for us to look at the other two ports as well,” Symmonds told reporters in August.

In Bridgetown itself, there have been extensive discussions about the construction of a new $300m cruise terminal dubbed ‘Sugar Point’, which would ultimately be able to accommodate seven extra cruise vessels in an area separate from the main port, which processes both cruise passengers and general cargo.

These plans were first reported in 2012 but there appears to have been no significant development work since then, despite a high-profile partnership between Barbados Port and Royal Caribbean. Barbados Port’s annual report for 2016 found that there had been no progress on the project, noting that “the main stumbling block relates to the cost of financing the project”. However, Symmonds reportedly met with Carnival Corporation in late September to discuss a potential developmental partnership with the company, so partnering the industry in co-development deals may yet yield investment results.

In light of the issues surrounding Barbados cruise trends, the Barbadian Government has announced the creation of the National Cruise Development Commission to get to the bottom of the problems and recommend a path forward. The commission was formed in early September and will spend twelve weeks consulting with stakeholders and the public before submitting a report to the government. From financing to commercial development and infrastructure improvements, there will be plenty for the commission to consider, but for the sake of Barbados’ tourism-dependent economy, the pressure will be high to get the recommendations right.