Business

Larger Cruise Ships a Coming Tourism Trend

October 15, 2019, 4:06 PM HST
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Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, the largest cruise ship to ever make port in Kailua-Kona, carries more than 4,000 passengers. PC: Maggie Brown, The Body Glove.

Royal Carribean’s Ovation of the Seas made a Kailua-Kona port call on Sept. 29, indicating the start of a trend that could prove a boon for Hawai‘i Island’s tourism industry.

With more than 4,000 passengers, it was the largest cruise ship in history to settle off Kona shores. Its presence is one signal of a cyclical shift in the industry that is expected to impact local tourism dollars for months, or even years, to come.

Ross Birch, director of the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau, said back in 2005-06 there was a significant influx of cruise ship traffic to the islands. An established cycle of increased ship presence, which intervals every 10-12 years, means cruise ships are starting to “take a harder look at Hawai‘i” as a destination option.

The trend, Birch explained, typically indicates that larger cruise ships will visit Hawai‘i Island ports, but the frequency of visits may decline. Another contributing factor to the projected trend, he said, is newer ships are being put into rotations, which often double the size of their predecessors.

In theory, larger ships sound like an economic boon for local companies. However, adjustments to business models and resource allocation will likely have to be made across the island’s tourism industry.

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“It’s going to be an adjustment we’re going to have to look at down the line,” Birch said. “So many tour companies doing regular tours may have to pull personnel to cover the size of those ships on specific days.”

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“It’s really hard when you have one-offs,” Birch continued. “Two-day dockings take all your resources … and it can be hard to ramp up those resources to accommodate.”

In the past, the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau has estimated an uptick in visitor spend of roughly $175,000 in Kailua-Kona with each visit from the Pride of America, part of the Norweigan Cruise Lines fleet. That ship is capable of accommodating just under 2,200 passengers.

Ships like the Ovation, bringing in twice that many visitors, add a revenue bump but are inherently more difficult to manage.

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Maggie Brown, who owns The Body Glove, said that isn’t necessarily the case for every business. When the Ovation made port a little more than two weeks ago, logistics at her company were as simple as they get.

“They completely bought us out,” Brown said. “Everybody’s happy. Everybody gets to work. … Most of the tour activities — land, speed or air — to my knowledge pretty much sold out that day.”

Polynesian Adventure Tours, which has a large land-based tour operation, said logistics are a bit more complicated for its business model than what Brown described. But the company still welcomes the coming trend.

“We’re ready to eagerly embrace the future and do our best as an active participant in Hawaii’s visitor industry to help visitors have the finest experiences possible,” said Eric Burgoyne, vice president of sales and marketing.

“It’s still a bit early to be specific, but with respect to Hawai‘i Island, we have sizeable operating stations in both Hilo and Kona,” he continued. “In situations where one port or the other requires increased numbers of vehicles and drivers, we make arrangements to shift resources from one location to the other in order to meet the shore excursion requirements.”

One possible outcome of the trend may be job expansion within the tourism industry, depending on how long the uptick of larger cruise ships lasts and how many extra visitor dollars they pump into Hawai‘i Island’s economy.

“September and October have been great compared to the last two years,” Brown said. “They started building these mega cruise ships years ago. We’re just starting to see what’s been built. This is the wave of the future.”

While Birch indicated the presence of larger ships typically means fewer port calls, that hasn’t proven the case over the past few weeks.

The Celebrity Eclipse, a cruise ship with a capacity just shy of 3,000 passengers, made port in Kailua-Kona one day after the Ovation.

Including the Eclipse’s visit and a scheduled visit from the Pride of America Wednesday, six ships will have made port calls in Kona since the Ovation between the dates of Sept. 30 and Oct. 16.

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