To Carnival Cruise Line, one thing remained important above all else when rerouting, rebooking and rescheduling cruises affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria: "Everybody remained safe," said Terry Thornton, senior vice president of port operations and guest care.
We're onboard Carnival Splendor in the Eastern Caribbean, and caught up with Carnival execs and staff members to discuss the line's return to the region.
Are ships -- like Carnival Splendor -- sailing at capacity?
Our six-night Carnival Splendor cruise, which departed October 8 from Fort Lauderdale, is sailing with 3,367 passengers -- reflecting about 98 percent occupancy, according to the ship's hotel director Alina Cheffneux.
Were any changes made to this itinerary?
Just one: Grand Turk, a Carnival-developed port in the Turks & Caicos, is typically on Splendor's itineraries but was replaced on this cruise with a day at sea. Other regularly scheduled calls for the sailing include Nassau, Bahamas; Half Moon Cay, a private island in the Bahamas operated by Carnival's sister brand, Holland America; and Amber Cove, the cruise line's port in the Dominican Republic.
Were shore excursions affected as a result?
"No shore excursions were canceled as a consequence of the hurricanes," said Cheffneux. "We bump up the entertainment on that extra day at sea with additional activities, particularly in the morning -- events like balloon drops to make up for the fact that it became a day at sea."
How are the ports looking so far?
Nassau and Half Moon Cay showed no ill effects from the recent hurricanes. Gavin Burgess, fleet manager for Carnival shore excursions, is promising that Amber Cove -- despite bad hits in other parts of the Dominican Republic and flooding on Hispaniola's north coast -- is also ready for cruisers to arrive.
How is the recovery looking for Caribbean ports called on by Carnival?
"From Carnival's viewpoint, destinations have come back sooner for the cruise sector than for land tourism," said Thornton. Since cruise-based tourism does not rely on resort restoration, it can rebound more immediately and actually kickstart tourism activity at a destination. Beaches and shore excursions are the most important ingredients for visiting cruise ships, Thornton said. "[The cruise ship industry] is sort of a catalyst. Residents start to see activity and income. It boosts spirits."
Are any Carnival cruise ports still closed?
Three major Carnival Caribbean destinations still remain closed: St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Turk. Grand Turk is scheduled to reopen by November 1, whereas some are estimating six months to a year for St. Maarten and St. Thomas, says Burgess. The blow delivered to homeport San Juan in Puerto Rico has been most crippling, said Thornton. Although some cruise lines are returning, Carnival is opting to wait. "People there aren't in the right mindset yet," said Burgess.
Where are ships on Caribbean itineraries sailing instead?
Some cruises are replacing scheduled days at St. Maarten, San Juan, St. Thomas, and Tortola with ports such as Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. "There's not enough ports for every cruise," said Burgess. "Places like Aruba love [the boost]."
How is Carnival handling re-bookings for cruises affected by the hurricanes?
Irma and Maria shifted Carnival itineraries, modified the duration of some cruises, and ultimately canceled other departures; a month later, Hurricane Nate affected cruises to Cozumel. Passengers whose cruises were shortened or canceled because of any of the hurricanes received cruise credit for future bookings. "We realize vacation is a precious thing, but we did the best as could be expected," said Thornton. "We are seeing good activity for [canceled cruise] re-bookings."
Have the hurricanes affected new cruise bookings for Carnival?
"In terms of new bookings, it's not really been impacted," Thornton said. "In most of our destination ports, everything has been normalized."
Is the uncertainty in the Caribbean region leading to a reduction in cruise fares?
Contrary to what some might expect, Carnival did not drop any fares in the wake of the storms, because the line encourages and typically experiences early bookings on most of its cruises. "We want to be respectful of early bookers," Thornton said. "It wouldn't be fair to them to drop prices after they paid full fare for theirs."
--By Chelle Koster Walton, Cruise Critic contributor