Puerto Rico

(7:15 p.m. EDT) -- Cruising in the Caribbean and North American hotspots such as Alaska has never been more popular, yet there's still room for more growth. 

In a destination-focused panel at Seatrade Cruise Global, destination representatives and cruise line executives discussed the popularity of Caribbean and North American destinations, as well as barriers to growth. Cruise lines deployed 33 percent of their ships to the Caribbean in 2016 -- and capacity is increasing by 5 percent for 2017, said Michele Paige, President of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

Here's a look at some of the hopes and issues noted by the speakers.

Boosting Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico seems like a natural place to base more Caribbean sailings. Yet only 7.2 percent of Puerto Rico's GNP comes from tourism, said Jose R. Izquierdo II, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

"It's an opportunity for growth," he said. "We know if Puerto Rico is succeeding as a destination, the rest of the region will thrive as well."

Norwegian Cruise Lines is doubling its number of embarkations in Puerto Rico in 2018, from eight to 16, said Camille Olivere, Senior Vice President of Sales, Norwegian Cruise Lines.

MSC is eyeing Puerto Rico as the line continues to bring more ships over to North America, said Roberto Fusaro, President of MSC Cruises USA. "We're expanding and looking for new homeports so we're looking more closely at Puerto Rico, too," he said.

Escaping Alaska Crowds

Alaska is popular with cruisers and cruise lines in 2017, but that means lots of ships arriving together in the region's key ports. So how do you beat the crowds in Alaska, if you're a luxury cruise line?

If you're Silversea Cruises, you schedule your departure on a Thursday instead of the more popular dates. "We try to be in port with as few ships as possible," said Mark Conroy, Managing Director of Silversea. Giving luxury cruise passengers "personal space," instead of being in port with thousands of other cruise ships, is the key to keeping them happy, he said.

Seabourn -- which returns to Alaska in 2017 for the first time in years -- spends a day in Misty Fjords, far away from the Ketchikan crowds, said Charlie Ball, executive vice president of deployment for the Holland America Group. They bring in local operators to work with the ship at the site, as opposed to docking in Ketchikan. "We do it much differently than the big ships can," he said. "Our guests really appreciate that solitude."

Maybe what Alaska needs is a private island, joked Claudius Docekal, Vice President of deployment for Crystal Cruises. "We'd like to spread around a little bit more and go to the smaller ports," he said, noting that the number of ports falls behind that of other destinations like the Caribbean.

Fall foliage in New England

New England Aims For Younger Passengers, Longer Season

Ports in New England and Canada are trying to make the region more attractive to younger cruisers by promoting active shore excursions, as well as extending the sailing season from fall leaf peeping into summer fun.

Right now, the average age of a passenger on a cruise in the area is in the low 70s, said Amy Powers, Director of CruiseMaine USA. Yet the area has many active options available, such as kayaking and hiking. Her organization, which promotes cruise travel in the area, would also like to attract more overnight stays.

Panelists agreed that Canada and New England are gorgeous areas to spend the summer, but the decision to put a ship there is a difficult one. Norwegian Gem has added several June itineraries and they are selling well, said Olivere. "We're optimistic," she said. "There are some challenges with the fact that people have this perception that they are sleepy towns with nothing to do. I love the idea of attracting Millennials because there are so many wonderful things you can do."

Docekal of Crystal agreed, although he said he wouldn't go as far as to call it the next Alaska. Passengers still need to figure out that there are more than "brown leaves," he said.

Ball noted that fall leaf-peeping cruises are very popular with Holland America Line. The challenge with expanding into the summer is that the destinations are small towns and don't have the buses or infrastructure to handle large ships. If passengers run into transportation issues, it colors the cruise -- and not in a good way.

"We want that experience to be on someone's Christmas card," he said.

--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor