The Trend towards Cruises and Car Travel

travel trends in a downward economy embraces cars and cruises

While being away from my favorite island in North Florida on my favorite island in the Caribbean I observe the contrasts as a result of economic hardship. While travel experts and insiders claim the changes as trends, I am more inclined to call it economic limitation travel.

Yesterday I witnessed something peculiar in the grocery store where I have been shopping for years when living down in St.Maarten. There were some 70-100 people loitering around the store with no real purpose it seemed. Until the store’s inhouse baker came down an aisle pushing a trolley with fresh bread. The place instantly turned into a feeding frenzy of pushing and shoving people, much like seagulls fighting over a bread crumb. It took me completely by surprise until my brother explained that this had become a normal scene in recent months. Bread has become a main staple of cheap nutrition, next to rice and chicken.

I arrived on the island on Saturday when the Heineken Regatta, a worldfamous sailing event was in full swing and didn’t really notice signs of decline. With the event out of the way I can see the signs of economic decline clearly, especially on the local level. Tourism is down and with that a good 80% of the total economy on the Caribbean Islands is being threatened.¬† Yet St.Maarten is holding out much better than most of its neighbors because of the daily arrival of cruise ships.

As is normal in economic downturns travelers are going away on weekends and sticking close to home and taking a greater interest in the smaller destinations. If not embarking on an inexpensive cruise, people go by car to places like Fort Myers, Fla. and Charleston, S.C. Both cities experienced double digit growth in January 2009 over January 2008, based on American Express Travel bookings.
Cities such as Tucson, Ariz., Palm Springs, Calif. and Portland, Ore. are also becoming popular destinations, with Travelocity data showing increases of 12 percent, 13 percent and 38 percent over last year.

Is it marketing? Is it affordability? Is it attraction? Well, I think it’s first and foremost families going back to the basics in my opinion. So rather than take a two-week vacation to Europe with a Euro still at $1.27 to the US dollar, they may go to a national park or a smaller, less expensive beach destination with lots of discounted offerings…..if marketed correctly and in a highly flexible manner. An ad in Travel and Leisure is not going to do the trick as the magazine comes out monthly and the need to act on the spur of the moment can only be served by the Internet. The statistics offered to picture the last 2 months comes from internet operators.
Take someone in Atlanta who wants to get away for the weekend, but rather than flying to the Caribbean  may decide to take a trip to Amelia Island instead because the deal at the Ritz or the Plantation he/she just saw on he internet is out of this world and so they decide to combine history with beach activities and nightlife entertainment at an affordable price.
Package deals that spell out up front what the total calculated cost will be, sell better in a recession.

Amusement Parks and Attractions have always known this. In a recent article in USA Today David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said to be cautiously optimistic about the summer season for the 400 theme parks in the U.S. He said even when gas was $4 a gallon in 2008, people continued to visit theme parks—they simply selected parks closer to home and offer specials with promotions and discounts to encourage families to visit at a specific time.  He also expects the deals may be easier to find this year, especially when it comes to packages that include accommodations.

At Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., visitors can save $400 off the price of a seven-night stay between February and the end of June. The deal‚Äîbeing touted as “buy four nights, get three free”‚Äîcan be booked through the end of March.

Girlfriend getaways are still¬†very popular, according to Stephanie Oswald, host of “All-Girl Getaways” on the Fine Living Network. Yet women are being more cost-conscious, such as traveling in the middle of the week, meeting at the airport and renting one car together, or renting a vacation home and going to a day spa instead of going to a destination spa.

April Merenda, president and co-founder of Gutsy Women Travel, said her business is up 25 percent over last year, yet she notices that¬† “some are affected by the economy and are looking for deals, but they are not sitting at home.”

Home port cruising is making a big comeback, confirms Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. Key West may be the best example here. The cruises were popular after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Then people got tired of the same itineraries and started to venture to more exotic regions,” she said. “Now with the economy, people are more interested in being able to drive to the port.”

Maybe an indication that a cruise port in Fernandina Beach could be a welcome economic -read employment- attraction, that should be seriously considered, even though it will significantly change the fabric of the northern part of the island. In my 25 years years in the Caribbean I have witnessed the pros and cons of being a cruise home port very intensely in St.Thomas and St.Maarten and St.Croix without a port, and my opinion is that having one makes it ultimately much easier to survive economic downturns.

Cruises continue to offer amazing deals to fill their ships, some as low as $25 per person a day. (Ships make much of their money through gambling and alcohol and economies of scale) which makes it substantially easier to be flexible. In good economic times there are on average 2 guests to 1 cruise crew member. There is a lot of room to negotiate expenses down by changing these ratios to for example 4 guests to 1 crew member. Also areas such as food can be scaled down quite a lot before cruise guests start feeling like floating on a cattle boat.

My advice (for whatever it’s worth) : Look seriously into the option Fernandina Beach, it may be your long term economic prosperity anchor and personally I think a cruise ship port would be much more attractive than paper mills and smoke stacks on the downtown waterfront. The current economy is going to be an opportunity for positive change, you may want to look into it with an open mind.

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