Last week, Norwegian Gem embarked on her first Panama Canal cruise, calling to 10 new ports and debuting on the West Coast when she concludes her itinerary in Los Angeles.
On Jan. 10, Norwegian Gem will be the 10th ship of the modern Norwegian Cruise Line fleet to cross the Panama Canal, visiting 10 new port cities during that sailing.
Among the new ports Norwegian Gem is sailing this season is Oranjestad, Aruba; Kralendijk, Bonaire; Santa Marta and Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Willemstad, Curacao; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Los Angeles; Manzanillo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and Corinto, Nicaragua.
“We are very excited to showcase another one of our incredible ships on the West Coast, offering guests there a chance to experience our fleet and enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with cruising Norwegian,” said Andy Stuart, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line.
Norwegian Gem is the final ship of the Jewel Class. She welcomes over 2,300 guests each sailing and features one of the largest suites in the fleet, the Garden Villas.
These suites are over 4,000 square feet and sleep up to eight guests. They include three spacious bedrooms, a living room and a private garden with a hot tub. The ship is also home to a kid’s aqua park, a climbing wall, an expansive casino, over 15 dining options and 14 bars and lounges.
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.
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.
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.