From time to time, entrepreneurs ask me about the types of goods and services they can provide to cruise visitors – either because they already have an idea or because they are searching for an idea that is economically viable.
My response is that there are myriad opportunities to be creative in starting a cruise-related business. Once owners arm themselves with the proper research, they are in a better position to provide goods, services, and cultural experiences that visitors will cherish for a lifetime. There are also instances to provide fun-filled excursions that promote the beauty of the islands and entice cruise visitors to return for additional visits, inviting family and friends to come along.
The best part is that the more cruise visitors are satisfied with their overall experience on island, the longer they will stay on land, interacting with business owners and service providers.
For those considering such a move, allow me to share some helpful demographics about our cruise visitors. The source for this information is the 2012-13 Visitor Exit Survey conducted by the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research (VIBER). Approximately 45 percent of cruise visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands are between the ages of 46 and 65, consisting largely of corporate executives and managers. The next largest groups are cruise visitors over the age of 65, consisting primarily of retirees, and cruise visitors under 19 years of age, who most likely are companions of visitors from the previous two demographics.
Collectively, these three groups represent approximately 80 percent of the 2.1 million cruise passengers who visited the territory during the 2012-13 season. Based on volume, opportunities exist for entrepreneurs to offer a diverse array of popular or niche goods and services to any of these groups. More importantly, every entrepreneur who finds a fresh and creative way to serve cruise visitors makes a value added contribution to the overall USVI tourism product.
For example, the benefit of entrepreneurs catering to cruise visitors under age 19 from a territorial perspective is twofold. First, targeting the adult companions of these travelers will increase their direct expenditures on shore activities and shopping. Secondly, young cruisers are motivated to return to the Virgin Islands as visitors when they are adults.
Another question that is asked is whether or not businesses should sell the same products or services as everyone else or introduce something new to the market. My answer is ‘yes’ to both options. There is always room for new businesses to emerge as long as they fill a void in a market. With a little market research, one can identify gaps that exist in our tourism product. According to VIBER data, approximately 65 percent of cruise passengers spend their time shopping, 29 percent take tours, 21 percent do water sports and a smaller group chooses to golf, fish, scuba dive, or engage in other activities that translate into dollars for business owners. The average cruise passenger engaging in these activities spends about $217 on shore purchases of items such as jewelry and watches, tours and transportation, entertainment and recreation, souvenirs, liquor and more. There is also the returning consumer base of crew members who add another $1.9 million or so to the economy from their shore purchases of meals and drinks, jewelry and watches, clothing, electronics and more.
It is, however, important to note the top five reasons, in order of importance, why cruise visitors come to the territory. They are: our climate and beaches, accessibility, heritage and culture, historical sites, and duty free shopping (Source: VIBER). As you can see, shopping is not at the top of the list. This means that opportunities exist on the north, south, east and west ends of our islands to promote an authentic Virgin Islands experience that showcases the beauty of our natural, cultural, and historical resources.
One of the key factors in servicing the cruise industry is to recognize that although ship arrivals are cyclical, the revenues generated from cruise visitors flow into the Virgin Islands’ coffers consistently year round. There are four major cruise lines with flagship vessels all desiring to dock in St. Thomas on the same days during the fall and winter months. Presently, however, the summer months are slower, with fewer ships docking in the harbor.
Still, one should not assume that ‘out of sight’ means ‘out of pocket’ for the territory. There are still plenty of opportunities for local businesses to profit from the spending of cruise visitors when the ships are not at port. Throughout the year, a significant percentage of cruise passengers return to the territory on extended air and land based vacations. For the 2012-13 cruise season, approximately 22 percent of the air visitors to the USVI were returning cruise passengers. To quantify this figure, air visitors are estimated to have contributed more than $921 million in total direct expenditures to the economy during the 2012-13 season (source: VIBER). In other words, as the number of cruise passengers visiting the territory increases, there is a rising tide of economic growth that becomes more sustainable for the entire territory.
As the 2013-14 season winds down, WICO is preparing to launch a successful 2014-15 cruise year. We are also envisioning ways to refresh the USVI cruise product. Our plans for new facilities and enhanced product offerings include the development of an eco-friendly state of the art berthing facility for the new generation of cruise ships. This new facility is one of the ways that WICO is striving to accommodate the demand of the cruise lines for our destination during the peak months to bring more cruise and air visitors to our ports.
As the president and CEO of WICO, I recognize that a successful cruise industry has ripple effects that set the stage for a prosperous future territorywide. I am working hard to enhance the USVI cruise tourism product using means that will translate into more revenues for existing businesses and open the doors for new businesses with diversified product offerings to thrive.
We all desire to see the territory prosper, so let’s keep this conversation going in the months to come.