Blessed with pristine beaches, clear blue seas and a seemingly endless supply of affluent North American tourists, the Caribbean has long been the first port of call for the international cruising business. It has a particular cultural significance, too, and since the 1950s, the Caribbean cruise vacation has been a quintessentially American way to spend a summer vacation. But this market dominance is no longer as certain as it once was. Fuelled by the growth of new destinations, the increasing popularity of Europe and a younger, more adventurous customer base, the cruise industry is no longer a static market, so to speak, and the traditional cookie-cutter Caribbean experience isn’t enough anymore.

Michelle Paige, president of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, welcomes this change. For one thing, she argues that while North Americans are more eager to take a cruise in the South China Sea or the Mediterranean, increasing numbers of tourists from those regions may be just as keen to see the sights of St Martin or the Panama Canal.

"It used to be that the bedrock of the industry was North Americans coming to the Caribbean," she says. "That’s all changed; there are Europeans, people from Latin America, people from Asia. So, as markets develop, they’re going to want to come to the Caribbean. One of the things we’re working on now with a lot of brands is having other languages offered for tours."

"From the destination’s perspective, the challenge is in keeping the product fresh, maintaining a vibrancy in the product and looking at new ways to continually exceed the guests’ expectations."

Russell Daya, who serves as director for marine, port, security operations and maritime affairs for Disney alongside his role as operations committee chairman for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, agrees, adding that globalisation allows more capacity for the business overall.

"As new regions open up and provide opportunities for guests and markets around the world, the industry as a whole will grow," he says. "Passenger capacities are increasing in the Caribbean, after all."

Keep ’em keen

Daya and Paige welcome the challenge that an increasingly competitive market offers the business, and they believe that the threat from new destinations will encourage the industry to think up new ways to make sure customers choose to keep coming back.

Paige thinks it’s a "wake-up call", arguing that new competition should encourage operators and, particularly, destinations to reassess their product and work to keep things up to date. The challenge is that customers have grown too familiar with the region, and are increasingly hungry for variety and adventurous destinations.

"Our mandate now is to keep the Caribbean fresh," she says. "We need to keep putting back into our products to have people wanting to come back. The Caribbean is the bedrock for many of the cruise lines, and it’s always the place passengers come to first.

"What we say is there’s a need to put the ‘wow’ back into the product. Many of the destinations are doing just that, and more people want to come back."

For passengers, Daya argues that much of the cruise experience lies with the destination, and while the Caribbean is still one of the most popular places for tourists to visit, the product has often not evolved quickly enough to satisfy guests’ changing needs and expectations.

"From the destination’s perspective, the challenge is in keeping the product fresh, maintaining a vibrancy in the product and looking at new ways to continually exceed the guests’ expectations," he says. "You want the guest to turn their holiday into a repeat trip or a land-based stay after they’ve tested a destination on the cruise line, or come back on the cruise again for another visit.

"It’s absolutely vital to have cooperation in destination development and improvement to keep the region relevant, vibrant and interesting so that guests continue to have great experiences and want to come back," he says.

Good eggs

St Martin is a destination that has rejuvenated itself after having suffered from bad business, according to Paige; the decision of local authorities to give leadership to the private sector brought it back into profitability. Also singled out for praise is Belize – where Norwegian Cruise Line is developing a new port – and Martinique, which has seen a 300% increase in passengers since taking steps to improve through investment in infrastructure, transport and, importantly, a more coherent vision of what it can offer tourists.

"Destinations have to make sure that they are in touch with what is acceptable for the cruise industry," she insists. "You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; you have to have the right infrastructure and the right operational costs."

Experts agree that this approach works best for destinations that want to gain new business or win back customers they may have lost. After all, cruise operators can only bring passengers to the shore: if guests do not have a good idea of what to expect on the mainland, they might not even get off the ship.

Paige argues that many destinations have grown complacent and content with a static status quo, leaning heavily on operators to provide solutions when business suffers instead of being proactive in promoting themselves or improving the experience they can offer visitors.

"A lot of it is communication," she says. "In a lot of respects, we’re not telling destinations to go and invest millions of dollars in man-made attractions – we’re telling them to keep it simple and show what it is that sets them apart."

"We ask them: ‘What message are you giving to people? When they come to your destination, do they know what your customs are? Do they have an opportunity to interface with the local people? When they go into restaurants, do they know what your culinary experiences are?’."

Cruising Cuba? Close but no cigar – yet

It’s not just about improving existing destinations – many forget that the Caribbean is also host to a number of unexplored and up-and-coming places for tourists and cruises to explore.

"Clearly, we at Disney, just like all of the other cruise lines, are monitoring the US-Cuba normalising situation. If and when an opportunity presents itself, I’m sure you’ll find we would explore those opportunities."

In December last year, an extraordinary announcement was made by the governments of the US and the Republic of Cuba: that the two countries would begin the process of normalising relations after 54 years of continual tension and embargo.

The cruise industry joined in the jubilant response from the international community, with stocks of cruise operators rallying, some by up to 3.9%. How does the industry see the new market opportunities that opening up the region’s largest island could lead to? For the moment, caution seems to be the name of the game, but there is palpable excitement about the possibilities of Cuba as a cruise destination.

"I think everybody is waiting," says Paige. "It’s a phenomenal opportunity, and there’s a lot of demand. But the laws haven’t changed, so until that happens, it’s really a moot point. Cuba has a lot of pent-up demand, which is always important when you’re selling a product."

"It’s very early to say what impact this will have on the cruise industry," believes Daya. "I mean, clearly, we at Disney, just like all of the other cruise lines, are monitoring the US-Cuba normalising situation. If and when an opportunity presents itself, I’m sure you’ll find we would explore those opportunities, just like the other cruise lines would."

The strength of the region is that cruise operators and destinations aren’t marketing themselves against competitors, or trying to bring passengers in with gimmicks, according to Paige.

She believes that, in many ways, the beauty of the region, its culture and personality essentially sell themselves, and that all the cruise liner really has to do is simply bring the customer to the shore.

"The people are one of the biggest draws we have, how friendly they are," she says. "We’re using that idea to bring the product and make it better. It’s all about opening up the world to cruising, and opening the Caribbean to the world."