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Why Cruises Start and Stop Where They Do

What it takes to become a port city of a major cruise line.

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When we think of cruises, most of us consider the luxury ships themselves as the attraction — not the ports they visit. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a transport scholar at Hofstra University, says that's an oversight. He's studied cruise itineraries from all over the world and found that companies pay a great deal of attention to port selection as a means of distinguishing themselves.

Rodrigue presents his "geography of cruises" in a recent issue of Applied Geography with Belgian researcher Theo Notteboom. Focusing on the Caribbean and Mediterranean markets, the scholars argue that itinerary is what's really for sale from the cruise industry. As a result, relevant ports cities are competing to become part of a line's unique regional and cultural package of places.

"As we found in our work, that's why people select cruises," says Rodrigue. "They select a specific itinerary, which includes of course a stay on board the ship, but the cruise line is going to places, a specific area of places, so the local experience is very important for the passengers."

Cruise Passenger Visits, 2011. Source: author compilation based on data by Cruise Market Watch

The cities involved in cruise itineraries have a lot to gain (or lose). Caribbean cruises, which make up more than 40 percent of the industry, have created 56,000 jobs. Mediterranean cruises, which make up about a quarter of the market, account for more than 225,000 jobs and $12 billion in expenditures. The local service industry, port workers, and transit operators all have a stake in the game.

Everything starts with the "turn" port, where passengers board. Turn ports have to be major cities with airport and hotel facilities capable of hosting thousands of people at a time and their own set of cultural attractions. Places like Miami for the Caribbean or  Barcelona for the Mediterranean. "They are well-established and they are likely not going to change," Rodrigue says.

From there each cruise line fills in the dots of the itinerary with three-to-five ports for the average weeklong trip. Rodrigue breaks down port cities into three types: destinations, gateways, and balanced ports.

Cruise Passengers Visits, Caribbean, 2011. Source: Data from Cruise Market Watch

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Rodrigue

A destination port is a place where the immediate city itself is the main attraction. Often these are world-class places, such as Venice, that happen to fit well on a cruise loop. Sometimes they're small places where the port and the city are one and the same — little historical towns or old forts or Main Street market areas. Destinations also include "must" ports like Santorini, in Greece, a picturesque island formed from a volcanic collapse that no one wants to miss.

The big destinations can handle the heavy traffic. The small ones can suffer from frequent visitation. "With environmental impacts, and some form of saturation, the place as time moves on becomes somewhat artificial," says Rodrigue. "It loses a little bit of its identity."

A gateway port is simply a proxy for a major city that's not quite on the coast. In the Mediterranean, for instance, the port of Civitavecchia is often used as the gateway for Rome. Travelers disembark and take a short ride into the city for the day. Gateway ports don't generate much economic activity for their own local economies.

Cruise Passengers Visits, Mediterranean, 2011. Source: Data from Cruise Market Watch

. Image Courtesy of Jean-Paul Rodrigue.

Balanced ports have a bit of both worlds. Places like San Juan and Nassau in the Caribbean, and Piraeus and Lisbon in the Mediterranean boast their own cultural amenities and commercial services but also grant access to the region at large.

"You have a culturally rich city, a city with a lot of amenities," says Rodrigue. "At the same time, in the area of the city, there's also a lot of locations that have the potential to attract visitors."

These days ships are becoming so big, carrying several thousand passengers at a time, that many classic port districts simply can't keep up. In some cases a port city will enhance its attractiveness through public and private investments. Local developers will build condos, or a shopping mall, or a convention center, or artificial cultural attractions near the coast.

Rodrigue compares the process to a port version of the "aerotropolis" — little airplane cities — though at a much smaller scale.

The benefits of cruise ships for local economies have been subject to recent controversy. As companies try to keep more passenger money to themselves, some ports were seeing less and less of the revenue. That causes problems for both parties: the ports really need the business, and the companies really need the itinerary options.

Some cruise lines are avoiding the problem by building their own little communities on private land. Royal Caribbean Cruises operates a secured resort in Haiti called Labadee (in the past, reportedly, passengers weren't even informed they'd arrived in Haiti). Rodrigue says the trend is catching on because companies can capture all the passenger revenue in this place without alienating other ports on the line.

"This enables them to be less aggressive elsewhere," he says. "When you enter another Caribbean port, you say OK, use local restaurants and operators, no problem."

Top image: EpicStockMedia/Shutterstock

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