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CTN Investigates: The growing trend for private islands

Royal Caribbean, private island destination
photo_camera FR, Freedom of the Seas, aerial of Coco Cay with cruise ship parked at the pier, wide shot of Perfect Day island, Up, Up and Away balloon flying above, overwater cabanas, floating bungalows, ocean horizon,

Private islands are attracting more interest, but what does the future hold for these idyllic destinations? Gary Peters investigates.

There are many ports of call that lay claim to stunning beaches, pristine waters, countless activities and sunshine.

However, over the years, certain cruise lines have sought to develop their own private enclaves, all in the name of offering unique getaways and making each and every guest feel like a VIP.

These private islands, or private slices of other destinations, could be described as their own little microcosms of what every port of call (at least the warm weather ones) aims to achieve.

Take, as the first example, Royal Caribbean. The line’s Perfect Day at CocoCay, in the Bahamas, and Labadee, in Haiti, are jam-packed with things to do, often adding to the activities found on many of the line’s ships.

Norwegian Cruise Line Great Stirrup Cay
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay

Private islands have ‘something for everyone’

“Our private destinations enable us to offer guests an extension of the Royal Caribbean holiday on land and include unique activities they may not be able to experience elsewhere,” says Royal Caribbean International director of sales Stuart Byron.

“Guests love the fact the island [Perfect Day] offers something for everyone. Thrill seekers can race down the tallest waterslide in North America or ride the tide of the Caribbean’s largest wave pool.

“Those looking to unwind can do so at the largest freshwater pool in the Caribbean, or enjoy an idyllic beach day.”

The appeal is also growing. Last year, Royal Caribbean Group president Jason Liberty highlighted that more and more passengers will call at Perfect Day in 2023.

It’s not just Royal Caribbean that can claim island success, however. There’s Holland America Line with Half Moon Cay, again in the Bahamas; Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve from MSC Cruises; Norwegian Cruise Line with Great Stirrup Cay and Harvest Caye; Paul Gauguin’s Motu Mahana, and others.

“With a private island, Holland America Line can create a destination for the wishes of our guests,” explains the line’s sales and marketing director Karen Farndell. “We run and operate the port so we control how many ships visit each day and can manage the number of guests arriving.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Line UK and Ireland senior director of sales Gary Anslow adds: “The benefits of having not one, but two private island destinations range from one-of-a-kind excursions, such as stingray tours, to exquisite dining and beverage options.

“Guests relish in the tranquillity of our private islands and the chance to escape from their day-to-day routine.”

Building a better future

Going by what Anslow and others describe, it’s not hard to see why some guests are keen to experience these destinations.

Indeed, Travel 1st’s Lee Ashton says his agency is keen to tap into the concept more in the future.

“Many private island resorts are dedicated to redefining the word privacy, giving exclusivity and that extra special magical feeling of ‘a world of your own’. On a cruise nothing says luxury more than being able to say, ‘I spent a day on a private Island’,” he tells Cruise Trade News.

However, what about the other side of the coin?

Private islands are not universally popular, with concerns raised in the past by local action groups and also the wider tourism industry regarding the environmental impact of large ships and large numbers.

Anslow tackles it head on: “Much of the concern around private islands is environmental – from overcrowding to worries about disrupting ecological areas in this secluded part of the world.

“Rest assured, at NCL we take this very seriously and do everything we can to support and authentically reflect our host communities.

“We’ve undertaken core projects and partnerships including working with the Wyland Foundation, cruising for conservation with the Guy Harvey Foundation, and coral reef restoration with the Nova Southeastern University to help establish three in-water coral nurseries around Great Stirrup Cay.”

At MSC Cruises, UK and Ireland MD Antonio Paradiso highlights a “super coral programme” that is underway on Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve to restore coral reefs in the area.

He explains: “The programme is so much more than a local initiative to protect and restore the coral reefs in the 64 square mile area around Ocean Cay – it is designed to build unique expertise in the study and practice of coral resilience, developing a model that can be successfully replicated around the world.”

In Labadee, Royal Caribbean Group built “one of the first schools in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which continues to educate over 230 local children a year”, says Byron.

MSC Cruises calling at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve. Credit: Conrad Schutt
MSC Cruises calling at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve. Credit: Conrad Schutt

‘Watch this space’

As referenced earlier, Royal Caribbean predicts that nearly 65 per cent of its passengers will call at Perfect Day at CocoCay this year.

With such numbers, it’s no surprise that interest is ramping up in developing more private island ports of call.

Clare Weeden, a lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton, says the concept is a “win-win for cruise lines”, adding: “We saw the development of cruises to nowhere during the pandemic, so private islands are possibly a gateway to fewer destinations being visited.

“It’s a tightrope for cruise lines though, as passengers always say the itineraries are important and what appeal to them when deciding on a cruise.”

Weeden continues that it is likely more private destinations will open, but “whether they will actually be islands is debatable”.

As for the cruise lines, Byron says: “We wouldn’t rule out adding more to our global offering. In fact, we’re looking to grow our current offering with the creation of our newest private island, Lelepa, in the natural gem of the South Pacific, Vanuatu.”

Paradiso suggests that expanding MSC’s portfolio of private islands is “not something that we would ever rule out”, while NCL’s Anslow explains that he “can’t reveal too much just yet”, but adds: “I’m confident that as our fleet continues to expand, we’ll continue elevating our shoreside offering.”

In short, don’t be surprised if more cruise lines decide to go private in the near future.

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