(12:53 p.m. EST) -- The vision is ambitious for Falmouth, a once-bustling rum and sugar exporter on Jamaica's north coast between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios: Create a modern, two-pier cruise port with an 18th-century feel, offer a slew of shore excursions and eventually connect the port area to the historic town via more construction.
But the debut cruise calls have been consistently pushed back, including Navigator of the Seas' visit on January 7. Repeatedly, Falmouth has been deemed not ready to welcome its first visitors.
So what's going on? Cruise Critic examines the delays, explains why Jamaica and Royal Caribbean decided to develop Falmouth in the first place -- rather than overhaul Ocho Rios or Montego Bay -- and offers a snapshot of what the port will offer day-trippers.
Why Have There Been So Many Delays?
When Royal Caribbean announced on Monday that the first visit to Falmouth had again been postponed, it resulted in another six-week delay. Eleven calls were canceled. The debut visit is now set for February 17, when Voyager of the Seas will pull into port. Oasis of the Seas, which Falmouth was specifically built to accommodate, is due March 22. In a statement, the line offered some explanation. During a weekend tour of the development, the line and government decided that Falmouth wasn't quite ready "to deliver the high standards we are striving for."
A strike by pier workers on Monday and Tuesday helped make the decision easier. John Terceck, Royal Caribbean's vice president of commercial development, told the Jamaica Gleaner that the brief work action, which was over a tax-related matter, "sort of pushed us off the cliff in making the decision."
Despite the newly canceled calls, the "project is technically on schedule," Terceck told Cruise Critic. "At this point, the whole package was and is supposed to be a soft experience, a county fair-type setup with live reggae music, a Red Stripe truck, jerk chicken kiosk, etc. The buildings are up, but the retail isn't ready. The main thing is that we don't have the paving and landscaping done. And so pushing back the first visits to February gives us another six weeks to make everything look that much more finished.
"The 11 calls we canceled, those were 11 days that crews couldn't be working since you'd have to move all the equipment out of the zone when passengers arrived," he added.
These latest setbacks are the most recent in a growing list.
Oasis of the Seas was initially set to visit the port every other week when it began offering Western Caribbean cruises in spring 2010. (It debuted with an Eastern-only schedule.) But with the project far from ready, Royal Caribbean announced in June 2009 that it would swap Falmouth with Costa Maya -- and push back Oasis' first visit to December 11. Then in early 2010, the December calls were moved to March 2011, with Oasis-class sister Allure of the Seas now scheduled to visit on March 16 and Oasis' first visit set for March 22. At this point, the first Royal Caribbean ship on Falmouth's calendar became Navigator of the Seas, which was to dock on January 7, 2011, followed by Freedom of the Seas on January 12. Terceck told us about the Oasis-class delays when we spoke to him in July.
Although the line started thinking about the project in 2007, with the goal of having it ready for Oasis' May 2010 calls, there was a protracted period of preliminary wrangling -- a mix of politicking and securing finances -- before Royal got the official go-ahead to develop the port. And then the bottom dropped out of the economy. Terceck told us that ground wasn't even broken until October 2009.
Doreen Hemlock, a business reporter who visited Falmouth this October, offered Cruise Critic some additional perspective.
"The global financial crisis made it harder for debt-burdened Jamaica to get the $200-plus million it needed for the port project," she told us. "In the end, Royal Caribbean helped Jamaica get financing from the Danish government's export credit bank. A Danish company, E. Pihl & Son A.S., would build the new port. The project involved dredging some of the bay to create more than 30 acres of land for the docks, stores, restaurants and other facilities."
After the Oasis-class delays, the first ships scheduled to call in Falmouth actually became Holland America's Ryndam and P&O's Aurora, which were penciled in November and December 2011. Though the dock facilities were vessel-ready, both calls were canceled. A Holland America executive was widely quoted as saying the port simply wasn't conducive to a cruise call.
Despite the slew of postponements, Terceck told us he's confident that the latest delays will be the last.
Why Not Just Expand Jamaica's Other Ports?
At first sneeze, some might wonder why Montego Bay and Ocho Rios weren't simply expanded to accommodate the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis and Allure. Why, after all, do you need another port sandwiched between Jamaica's two big-time north coast destinations, which are separated by only some 60 miles?
Hemlock noted that the company considered expansions at both, but ran into problems. "In Ocho Rios, the stumbling block was moving the pier that handles exports of bauxite, the mineral used to make aluminum," she said. "In Montego Bay, Royal couldn't get enough private landowners with land near the port to agree to sell, so that it could assemble a big enough parcel for a new dock."
The Jamaican government also weighed in: "They recognized that on busy days, the existing north coast ports already turn away cruise ships that can't fit at the docks," noted Hemlock. "So, it suggested developing a new port that would handle both of Royal Caribbean's largest ships and help spread out growing business along the north coast."
And Falmouth wouldn't have been considered an option were it not for a new highway built for the World Cricket Cup in 2007. The north coast artery makes it faster to transport thousands of passengers to attractions in the Montego Bay and Ocho Rios areas. Montego Bay is a roughly 45-minute drive from Falmouth, with Ocho Rios about an hour away. "Before the road connected Ocho Rios to Montego Bay, nobody went to Falmouth," said Hemlock. "It was like a fly-over city in the U.S."
What Will It Look Like When It's Done?
In the 18th and early 19th century, the city was the destination.
Before the abolishment of slavery set the port into steady decline, Falmouth was awash with sugar money, and cane and rum fueled the bustling export trade. According to the Falmouth Heritage Renewal, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving historic Falmouth, the city was one of Jamaica's busiest ports, "home to masons, carpenters, tavern-keepers, mariners, planters and others. It was a wealthy town in a wealthy parish with a rich racial mix. This was the heyday of King Sugar."
Fast forward more than 150 years, a period in which the city steadily fell into disrepair. Today, the poor community is considered a National Heritage site because of its Georgian-era buildings, which date to the 1760's. "Some say it has the best intact collection of Georgian architecture in the Caribbean," added Hemlock.
Royal Caribbean is borrowing from that Georgian heritage. Said Hemlock, "Royal Caribbean worked with an Orlando design company, IDEA Inc., to reflect the character of the town in its new port area. Buildings were designed as a modern extension of the town, on the same grid in a similar Georgian architectural style. That means rectangular buildings, pointed roofs, clock towers and often verandahs on the ground level.
"The cruise line also is working with the town to support its efforts at historic preservation. For example, the company plans to sell maps that showcase specific historic sites and donate money from map sales to historic preservation. It may also sell bricks for perhaps $10 each, so visitors can place their name on the walkways of the new port area, with proceeds to help historic preservation in the town.
"If you walk around the actual town, you can see a few buildings already restored: the post office, the police station, the jail and especially the courthouse, where judges wear long-haired wigs as they do in Britain."
Of course, there's still a ways to go for both the brand-new port and the 241-year-old town. An article this week in the Jamaica Observer described the port area, which is within walking distance of the town, as a construction zone. Jes Olsen, project director with Pihl (the Dutch construction firm working on the project) is quoted as saying, "The port facilities, especially the shops, are not ready. I would say the earliest they would be ready is about mid-March, and fully operational around late April, and the terminal building, a hundred percent open at the end of June."
Shore Excursions and Attractions: What's on Tap for Cruisers?
Hemlock filled us in on what will be available where the ships dock, as well as the available tour offerings.
"Inside the new port area, there will be shops and restaurants, including one possibly with a Bob Marley theme. The first phase will feature more than 65 retail outlets, plus 25 kiosks and the artisan market. There's also a large staging area for visitors to board buses and taxis for tours. And Royal Caribbean is planning on having a trolley to take visitors into the historic town." The line is also planning to offer complimentary shuttles to Rose Hall, which features a resort, golf course and upscale duty-free shops.
As far as excursions go, it's important to note that those who visit Falmouth have access to all the popular Ocho Rios and Mo-Bay tours. East of Falmouth lie the famous Dunn's River Falls, Dolphin Cove, Mystic Mountain and various adventure tours. To the west are Rose Hall, Mountain Valley River Rafting and a selection of beach tours. And within 20 minutes of the port is the Martha Brae Slow River Rafting. There's also Appleton Estate, where passengers can learn how rum is made and sample wet sugar and different aged rums.
Just outside the port and town, one attraction that's been developed along with the port is the Good Hope Estate, located in the hills less than a half-hour from Falmouth. Chukka Caribbean Adventures, a big player in Jamaica tourism, is marketing the tours. You can visit the 18th-century Great House, where the plantation owners lived, and also take all-terrain vehicles around the roughly 2,800-acre site to see colonial buildings, an aqueduct, a waterwheel on the river and majestic views of mountains, tropical foliage and more.
In Falmouth proper, a number of tours are being offered, including a historic horse and buggy ride through the town, a heritage walking tour, a helicopter photo shoot and the "Outameni" cultural experience, a 90-minute performance that showcases 300 years of Jamaican history through song, dance and storytelling.
So What's Next?
Not surprisingly, Cruise Critic readers aren't entirely disappointed by the latest postponements. "It is good news," posted Cruisingator2 in the Royal Caribbean forum. "I would not want to be docking at a port that is not ready to handle the guests." According to Terceck, the first visitors in February will get the aforementioned county fair experience, alongside the full complement of shore tours and the shuttle to the Shoppes at Rose Hall. The place will be looking even tidier for Oasis of the Seas' inaugural visit on March 22.
We'll see how it pans out.
Are you visiting Falmouth in the next few months? We'd love to see your pictures and hear your stories.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor
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