As cruising remains in limbo due to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s only one thing for sure: the industry won’t look the same when it comes back. While cruise lines will unquestionably have to rethink onboard programming (buffets, for instance, are a no-go), it looks like they might have to rethink their itineraries as well. Some popular cruise ports will remain closed for at least another year—Canada, for instance, will not welcome ships at any of its ports until spring 2022—while others are looking into making more permanent changes. Residents of Key West, Florida, have voted to ban large cruise ships on their island, while the Cayman Islands government is weighing the implementation of cruise ship restrictions to create a more balanced tourism industry.
Banning large cruise ships is not a pandemic-induced concept by any means. Overcrowding has long plagued popular ports like Dubrovnik, Croatia: when I visited the seaside destination in 2013, the proprietor of my guesthouse shared the week’s cruise ship schedule with me, advising me to avoid sightseeing while the ships were docked, as the crowds of tourists would swell to frustrating size. In 2019, Dubrovnik officially placed a cap on the number of cruise ships that could dock at its port on a single day. Venice, Italy, another popular cruise ship destination, banned large ships from its historic center that same year, following a collision that saw five people injured.
Then in the Caribbean, there’s also the environmental concern of large ships. “Georgetown, Grand Cayman, has long resisted developing a cruise port due to concerns for their coral reef system,” said Billy Hirsch of CruiseHabit.com. “For this reason, guests tender, or take small boats from the ship, to the island. Though pre-COVID, there was progress, for better or for worse, in the effort of building out a port.”
But the pandemic shutdowns have allowed the Cayman Islands to rethink their tourism strategies. “Having had to do without cruise tourism for a year, I think, has told us what the consequences of that [are],” Cayman Islands premier Alden McLaughlin said during a press conference last month. “I think it is [a] clear signal from the business community, from local people, is we don’t want to go back to the large number of visitors.”
Travel agent Denise Ambrusko-Maida of Travel Brilliant suggests these kinds of restrictions reflect changes in the cruising industry at large. “I think cruising is taking two very different directions. The first is the introduction of the mega-ship, which makes the onboard experience the major focus,” she said. “On these ships, the ports of call almost become a secondary consideration for travelers. Instead of looking at the cruise itinerary, these cruisers are looking for onboard entertainment.”
The second direction, however, is the small boutique ships. “With these cruises, the ability to visit smaller ports and have deeper, more culturally rich off-ship experiences is the motivating feature for clients,” said Ambrusko-Maida. Those passengers would certainly benefit from the reduction of crowds in a given port.
The restrictions aren’t necessarily universally beloved, though. In January, Florida senator Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) introduced a bill that would allow large ships to frequent the Key West's port, citing cruise tourism's economic incentives.
And in some cases, the restrictions don’t do as much for overcrowding as you might think. “The restrictions in various Mediterranean ports often end up resulting in fewer ships, but more workarounds,” said Hirsch. Ships in Venice, for instance, dock farther away from the city center and shuttle their passengers into town—hardly reducing foot traffic.
Even if the cruise restrictions in Key West and the Cayman Islands don’t hold forever, the conversations surrounding them certainly bring up valid concerns for both tourism officials and tourists themselves to consider. “I think these restrictions will change how travelers book their itineraries in a way that makes them more thoughtful of the vacation experience they truly want to have,” said Ambrusko-Maida. “This will help maintain the overall positive impact tourism has on these destinations."