San Juan becomes a cruise hot spot

The Monster zipline at Toro Verde adventure park, at 1.57 miles long, has been certified as the world’s longest by the Guinness Book of Records.
Blessed with a natural harbor, San Juan has been working on attracting more cruise traffic and is having success with new calls and turnaround operations scheduled from several lines.
One of the most awaited is a visit from Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, in December.
Norwegian Cruise Line has several week long cruises for the Norwegian Gem scheduled from San Juan in November and plans to return to seasonal home porting there from next November to early January 2018.
Windstar Cruises is in its second year of San Juan winter departures, after expanding its fleet in 2014.

Piers 3 and 4 can accommodate up to four large ships at a time, such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels.And starting in October, Viking Cruises began regular calls in San Juan, sailing its 930-passenger Viking Star on 10- and 11-day southern Caribbean itineraries.

“We’re super-excited about that,” said Mari Jo Laborde, chief sales and marketing officer for the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. “It’s their first immersion into [Caribbean] sea cruises, and they’re doing it out of Puerto Rico.”

San Juan is a traditional gateway to the southern Caribbean because it is well positioned geographically and has the biggest airlift in the Caribbean. Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have long had seven-day ships in the market. Currently they are the Fascination for Carnival and the Adventure and the Jewel of the Seas for Royal.

In 2014-15, Puerto Rico hosted a record 1.5 million cruise visitors. “It’s looking like we’re going to break it again in two years, in 2017-18, at 1.6 million,” Laborde said, as 2017 visits from Norwegian, Viking and others are added up.

San Juan has been paving the way for new arrivals with improvements to its piers and facilities.

In 2014, Pier 3 was lengthened for use by Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships, including the Harmony. During the recent Florida-Caribbean Cruise Conference, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said that Duty Free Americas would be investing $8 million to add a two-story building at Pier 3 that will offer duty-free shopping, restaurants, galleries and entertainment for arriving passengers.

Four large ships can be docked simultaneously at Pier 3 and the adjacent Pier 4, which is mostly used by Carnival.

Piers 3 and 4 can accommodate up to four large ships at a time, such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels.

Piers 3 and 4 can accommodate up to four large ships at a time, such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels. 

Once ashore, there are new things to do, Laborde said. An exciting new zipline called the Monster has been added at the Toro Verde adventure park, in Orocovis, about 90 minutes from San Juan by motor coach. The 1.57-mile cable has been certified as the world’s longest by the Guinness Book of World Records. The zipline ride costs $135, and the park draws 80% “excellent” reviews on TripAdvisor.

Another new attraction closer to town is the Vivo Beach Club, in San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood near the airport. “That’s been doing very, very well among cruise lines, because they offer packages for passengers to go and spend the day,” Laborde said.

A redevelopment of the former Tropimar Beach Club, it features a pool, a beach area, a restaurant and an event space for concerts as well as a microbrewery, Laborde said. She said prices vary by cruise line.

Another arrival in San Juan is the Mall of San Juan, which opened in 2015 and has a lineup of high-end retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, putting it a step above the Plazas las Americas mall.

Also new in the Condado tourist area are several stands that offer bike rentals and stand-up paddleboard tours, Laborde said.

Close to the port is the Bahia Urbana, a redevelopment of some old piers into a park that opened in 2013. Bike rentals are offered by a shop in a condo across the street.

The pool at the Vivo Beach Club, a popular shore excursion in San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood.
The pool at the Vivo Beach Club, a popular shore excursion in San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood. 

There are also several new places to stay, mostly around the 10-year-old Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest in the Caribbean. Additions in the last few years include a Hyatt Place and a Hyatt House, which complement a Sheraton that adjoins the convention center building.

“You basically walk to the convention center,” Laborde said. “It’s so much easier.”

The FCCA convention and trade show in September, held for the first time in five years in San Juan, attracted 1,000 delegates and resulted in between 2,500 and 2,700 room nights, with an estimated economic impact of $2 million, Laborde said.

The convention will go to Mexico next year and then return to San Juan from 2018 to 2022. That’s a departure for the organization that has previously rotated the event each year around the Caribbean.

“The FCCA is basically changing its strategy,” Laborde said.

San Juan’s facility affords the show the chance to grow, with an eventual target of 3,000 delegates, Laborde said. Just on hotel bookings alone, Puerto Rico could see an impact of up to $25 million during the four-year run, she said.

By the time the convention returns in 2018, San Juan will also be receiving calls from the 4,140-passenger MSC Seaside. Royal Caribbean also plans more regular visits with its Oasis-class ships, Laborde said.

Royal Caribbean history, as seen through its ship naming’s

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Anthem of the Seas Christening
By Tom Stieghorst 
The Harmony of the Seas christening was as grand as the ship itself, an impressive feat of logistics and technology that took place within the confines of the 226,000-ton behemoth, rather than dockside.
It involved Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd chairman Richard Fain and godmother Brittany Affolter at the aft of the ship in the Aqua Theater, an oversized bottle of champagne rigged to the ship’s zipline in the middle of the ship, and somewhere deep down in the innards, a robotic bartender as a relay of Affolter’s signal to release the champagne.
Oh, and bagpipers. 
I’ve come to understand that bagpipers are a Royal Caribbean christening signature. In this case, it was the Dunedin Pipe Band from Dunedin, Fl., doing the honors as part of the warm up entertainment before the christening.
They seemed as out of place as ever on a ship, but also provided a kind of familiarity and continuity that I’m sure is part of the intended effect. If memory serves, bagpipers were part of the first Royal Caribbean christening I witnessed, the 1990 naming of the Nordic Empress at the Port of Miami.
That event was notable chiefly for the grit of the godmother, Miami Sound Machine singer Gloria Estefan, who was still in a back brace recovering from a bus accident while on tour three months earlier.
Royal Caribbean has learned a few things about christenings since then. The dockside Miami Empress event was sweltering in June. With the Harmony, although Royal took delivery in May it sailed the ship in Europe for the summer and then christened it on a picture-perfect evening in November.
Also, when Estefan swung the 77-pound bottle of California sparkling wine into the side of the Empress, it bounced rather than smashed. No second attempt was necessary for the Harmony’s French champagne, which exploded on cue.
Twenty-six years after it was christened, the Nordic Empress is sailing alongside Harmony of the Seas from South Florida, now offering 4- and 5-day cruises under the name Empress of the Seas, instead of the 3-and 4-day cruises it started with.
And although inflation has made nearly everything more expensive since 1990, a four-day cruise on the Empress of the Seas in January can be had for as little as $219, plus $100 in taxes, fees and port charges.
In 1990, a four-day cruise on the Nordic Empress started at $615, minus a $100 per person deduction for passengers who didn’t need airfare to and from Miami. Port charges ranged from $29 to $32.

Demand and inventory, a delicate balancing act

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When you have more bookings than you know what to do with, that’s the good kind of problem to have in the travel industry, right?

Well, sort of. No travel company ever wants to have too many empty beds/seats/cabins. But not having enough openings to meet demand, that’s a tricky problem too, because that’s when you risk losing clients to the competition.

And when demand is a bit in flux, as it currently is in the river cruise market, it’s hard to plan for unknown growth and an unknown future. For those watching closely, you may have noticed that shipbuilding momentum has eased up in the river cruise industry. Viking River Cruises is only building two ships next year, down from the six it debuted this year, 12 last and the record 18 the company launched in 2014.

AmaWaterways too is only launching one new vessel each in 2017 and in 2018 (the company typically launches two each year). And Avalon Waterways doesn’t have any new ships planned for 2017, after several years of consistently building two or three vessels annually. The shipbuilding frenzy clearly has died down a bit for now, even as some newer players (I’m looking at you, Crystal) have entered the market.

But then there is the issue of pent-up demand following a softer year such as the one the river cruise market just experienced, driven by the terror attacks in Paris and Nice and by high water levels that disrupted some departures. River cruisers who put off the popular travel style in 2016 may now be looking to get onboard in 2017.

Noting pent-up demand from the U.S. market and on the heels of two promising future booking months, AmaWaterways this month announced its 2018 sailings are open for booking. And several other river cruise lines have been promoting their 2018 availability as well. If there really was some pent-up demand as AmaWaterways claims, a shipbuilding slowdown could potentially create a capacity bottleneck that might force river cruise lines to offer up 2018 cabins as an overflow alternative to 2017.

Then again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This past year was a challenging one, and river cruise lines will likely be happy to simply fill their 2017 inventory at higher capacity levels than they did in 2016. If demand for river cruising returns with a fervor strong enough to have some river cruise lines regretting they didn’t put in some additional ship orders, that is a problem they would probably prefer to have over figuring out how to fill empty ships.