The Dominican Republic is replete with natural beauty and island culture. But passengers disembarking from Carnival’s ships at the cruise line’s massive Amber Cove complex on the nation’s northern coast can ride zip lines, shop for locally grown coffee in a replica Victorian village, or chill out in a thatched-roof hut on the water—without leaving the fenced-in property. Rather than exploring the country, Pierre Maloka, a software engineer from Weehawken, N.J., whose voyage on the Queen Mary 2 last November included a stop there, spent the day by Amber Cove’s pool, entertained by a merengue band and Dominican dancers. Explains Maloka: “You’re lying in the sun, getting drinks and food. What’s not to like?”
Amber Cove, which opened in October, is the latest of several private ports being built in the Caribbean by cruise operators. The lines like the facilities, because they can market them as exclusive destinations and keep much of the revenue from souvenirs, piña coladas, and paddle board rentals. Carnival expects more than 350,000 guests to disembark this year at Amber Cove, one of its six similar facilities in the Caribbean. Guests can still leave the compounds, either on prearranged excursions—many sold by Carnival—or in taxis that wait just beyond the gates.
Geneva-based MSC Cruises is building what it says will be the largest cruise-line-run island, the $200 million Ocean Cay in the Bahamas, slated to open in December 2017. The company is replanting 80 species of local trees, building a 2,000-seat amphitheater for outdoor shows, and constructing a wedding pavilion. MSC is also creating a land-based version of the exclusive “Yacht Club” section of its ships that will include butlers and a private beach. “We’re taking this to another level,” says spokesman Luca Biondolillo.
Cruise lines have invested in private ports of call since Norwegian Cruise Line purchased Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas in 1977. NCL plans to open its latest, the “eco-friendly” Harvest Caye in Belize, in November as part of $400 million in upgrades to ships and shore facilities.
The walled-off ports aren’t always a respite from the real world. In January, Royal Caribbean Cruises suspended a stop of its Freedom of the Seas in Labadee, its private port in Haiti, after locals protesting the presidential election surrounded the ship in small boats. And not every cruiser welcomes the trend. “I felt cooped up in a very contrived and carefully constructed piece of land,” says Abigail Jones, a blogger who visited Amber Cove last year. “I felt as though I wasn’t in the Dominican Republic, because everything was completely Americanized.”
Carnival is facing opposition from some residents of the Bahamas over its plan to build a private stop that could supplant tourist traffic from nearby Freeport. While Carnival and other lines say they hire locals and buy regional goods, the company-run facilities can steal business from nearby merchants and restaurateurs, says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a geography professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who studies the industry. “The cruise lines have been very good at capturing that revenue for themselves, and less goes to the local economy,” he says.
But unlike stepping off the boat into a port filled with cargo ships, beggars, or developing world challenges, the facilities deliver what many customers expect on island vacations. “They want the Caribbean as they imagine it to be,” says Giora Israel, Carnival’s senior vice president for global port and destination development. “They want to send a selfie on a snowy day so everyone envies them.”
The bottom line: MSC Cruises is developing a $200 million private island in the Caribbean, part of an industry push to provide the perfect vacation.