Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Fall/Winter 2008 issue.

It’s been two years since Puerto Vallarta’s Maritime Terminal underwent a gargantuan expansion, increasing its capacity to receive three full-size cruise ships simultaneously, along with a variety of smaller vessels. Proximity to our main artery, Fco. Medina Ascencio, results in an impressive and hard-to-miss visual feast, particularly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, days in which double and triple cruise arrivals are increasingly more common. And cruise ship passengers are major contributors to Puerto Vallarta’s tourism-based economy, with restaurants, shops and activity providers reaping the benefits of this boom for decades.

However, Puerto Vallarta has been but a stop on the itinerary of cruise ships traveling along Mexico’s Pacific Riviera. A different scenario would ensue if Puerto Vallarta’s Maritime Terminal became a homeport — a terminal where cruise passengers could initiate their journey, rather than just visit for a day. What factors would have to be considered for Mexico to join countries such as Panama and Brasil, which have benefited from their own homeports? And more importantly, what economic impact would a homeport have on Puerto Vallarta’s economic development?

First Steps: Supply and Demand

For cruise ship companies, the consideration of any particular port as a homeport has everything to do with positioning. Such was the case with Royal Caribbean, the world’s second largest cruise operator after Carnival, which in 2007 agreed to move away from the Caribbean homeport concept and make Panama’s port of Colon the starting point for some cruises. This helped boost its presence in the region and allowed Latin-American and European passengers to avoid the stringent US visa requirements necessary for cruises departing from Los Angeles or Miami.

For a cruise ship company to recuperate their investment in a venture of this nature, they must establish a schedule of ongoing departures for at least one year. Puerto Vallarta sees most of its cruise activity on Wednesdays and Thursdays, generated by ships departing from Los Angeles the previous weekend. So, homeport cruises would have to depart from Puerto Vallarta on other days of the week to avoid conflicts with already established departure and arrival schedules.

When you consider that in 2007 Puerto Vallarta received about 514,000 passengers on 240 arrivals, each spending an average of $63.50 USD and generating over $30 million USD a year in revenue — not to mention docking charges applied to the ships — the increase in revenue that would result from just a single cruise ship home ported in Puerto Vallarta operating once a week is nothing to dismiss. “Even as little as five homeport departures a year would make the venture feasible,” says Ivan Uriza Luviano, marketing manager at Administración Portuaria Ingegral (API), the agency that oversees operations at our Maritime Terminal. Uriza, who has been working on a feasibility study recently requested by Mexico’s congress, has also been in close contact with several cruise ship companies who see Puerto Vallarta as an important strategic point, despite its relative proximity to Los Angeles, a well-established homeport.

Build It and They’ll Come

The challenge of disembarking three cruise ships docking simultaneously in Puerto Vallarta on a given day and directing passengers securely and efficiently to the numerous options available onshore is met without a hitch at our recently renovated terminal. On the other hand, loading a ship with fuel and provisions for thousands of passengers and crew — not to mention their luggage — is a different beast altogether.

API anticipated this when they assembled their master plan for the terminal a few years ago. Although it hasn’t been done, the construction of a terminal building is contemplated to handle both the needs of passengers disembarking just for the day and those boarding a homeport cruise. In the interim, relying on a large-scale tent, a solution successfully implemented in the port of Los Angeles, would not be out of the question.

In terms of manpower, API would rely on a third-party company specialized in this type of operation. There are at least two such companies in Acapulco, where Princess has experimented with limited passenger boarding and Pullmantur, a Spain-based cruise ship company, is expected to reposition one of its vessels to begin a series of affordable cruises along Mexico’s Pacific Riviera directed to the Mexican market. Ultimately, such a company would boost our economy by generating a considerable amount of long-term employment for Vallartenses.

Other Local Industries Benefit

While cruise ship passengers that disembark in Puerto Vallarta do so only for a few hours, passengers departing from Puerto Vallarta paint a different picture. Cruise ship passenger trends indicate that passengers arrive at their departure city up to two days in advance, leaving up to two days later. This opens an extraordinary window of opportunity for many of Puerto Vallarta’s primary industries.

Cruise ship companies usually package their trips, partnering with local hotels that offer accommodations during the nights preceding and following a cruise, an obvious incentive to our hotel industry, given the number of hotel rooms available in Banderas Bay. On the other hand, a repeat passenger or crewmember might choose to invest in his own home in Puerto Vallarta, thus benefiting our booming real estate industry. And while local restaurants and shops already benefit from cruise ship passengers, the benefit would increase from the sheer number of visitors eagerly exploring our city as they await their departure. Last but not least, cruise ships such as those embarking or disembarking in Alaska, frequently feature onshore overnight excursions as an option for passengers wishing to have “the best of both worlds” as they discover a new destination, thus creating increased opportunity for local activity providers.

And for the Rest of Us

Statistics indicate that repeat cruise ship travelers book a cruise every three years or so. This, however, does not mean that they do not return to the destinations included in such cruises. Whereas, during the cruise they may focus on enjoying the pleasures and luxuries onboard, they may be intrigued enough by individual destinations to return and spend more time exploring them.

In the case of Puerto Vallarta, cruise ship passengers that disembark just for the day have a limited, and generally tightly scheduled, exposure to our city’s charm. This would not be the case for homeport tourists, who’d freely roam through our city just as the rest of our visitors do. The benefits for Puerto Vallarta are indisputable, but not without a caveat: It is still up to each and every Vallartense to provide our visitors the friendliest, best possible experience so they can, in turn, become our own ambassadors around the world — or better yet, return to Puerto Vallarta soon. And it is up to each of the aforementioned industries to think globally, partner together and support API in the Puerto Vallarta homeport initiative when the time comes to make it a reality.