West Africa: The Next Big Cruise Destination?

March 8, 2010
(3 p.m. EST) -- Just this January, Star Clippers altered itineraries because of the risk of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Seabourn did the same last fall, canceling a series of Indian Ocean and East Africa cruises due to piracy concerns.

So, could West Africa -- far from the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden waters on the other side of the vast continent -- become a hot new cruise destination?

Star Clippers and Seabourn are heading to the Caribbean instead -- but interest in West Africa is still up. Luxury line Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity is scheduled to visit West Africa for the first time since 2000, during a seven-segment world cruise that features a sailing from Cape Town to London in April 2011. Spokeswoman Mimi Weisband cites a need to mix things up as a reason for the line's decision, adding that many world cruise passengers return, year after year.

Princess Cruises also offers West Africa sailings and has done so for years. A 31-night West Africa Adventure cruise is currently underway, and an upcoming 107-night world cruise includes calls on Tema, Ghana; Lome, Togo; and Dakar, Senegal.

Luis De Carvalho, CEO of Consult-DC, a company that focuses on port development, says he believes a boom is possible -- partly because of the threat of piracy to the east and mainly due to increased demand for new cruise destinations -- but it will require more cooperation between cruise lines and port officials.

"Nobody takes the time to go there and try to work closely with these destinations," says de Carvalho, who spent two months in Africa in 2001 as a corporate ports coordinator for Crystal before starting Consult-DC. He is now working with the region to make its coastal destinations more appealing to cruise lines and their passengers. "Africa is learning, but it's the responsibility of the cruise industry to help them grow and to support them," he says, adding that it's often hard to fund improvement projects. "Governments don't see cruising as a big source of income, so there are no resources."

Most of the West Africa ports in question are used for cargo shipping, so piers are already in place, but de Carvalho says additional infrastructure is in the works. At this time, preliminary plans have been made to spruce up ports on six of the 10 islands that make up Cape Verde. The government recently announced a $300 million investment in its ports. Renovations at the port of Praia is already under way and, in Porto Novo, work will start this year due to finish in 2012. There is no word yet on plans for other ports.

Although we initially wondered if the addition of West Africa ports had something to do with avoiding pirates in the Gulf of Aden, there are still lines -- including Princess, which is offering several Asia and Africa sailings that will pass through the gulf this year, calling in Mumbai, Dubai and the Gulf of Oman -- that still plan to sail through the area.

De Carvalho says credit for the spike in popularity of the more exotic side of Africa is partly tied to the popularity of already-established East African ports with varied shore excursions and land programs like Cape Town and Durban in South Africa and Mombasa, Kenya. Cultural experiences and historical visits are a big part of what West Africa destinations have to offer, and the landscape lends itself to outdoor adventures like safaris and nature hikes.

Another plus: Visitors won't find too much that's reminiscent of typical mass-market cruise destinations since there are no duty-free shops and few chain restaurants.

Princess offers its passengers excursions that include scenic and historic sightseeing, museum visits and four-wheel-drive adventures. Weisband says Crystal has not yet announced its 2011 shore excursion offerings, and Cruise Critic member comcox says that her 2004 West Africa cruise on Holland America's Prinsendam offered no shore excursions for the three Gabon ports the ship visited.

Otherwise, members seem mum, except for a few brief -- and usually years-old -- mentions on threads about world cruises and exotic itineraries. "While each of the seven West Africa countries we visited had some very unique features, there were more similarities to the eye than differences," comments member wander, implying that West Africa is still a mystery to most cruisers -- even those who have previously been to the region. "However, there were some cultural differences but we only brushed the surface of these."

Would you sail to West Africa?

--by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor