Story and photos by Gemma Handy
The only thing as upbeat as the steelpan music was the mood when the first cruise ship to visit the country since the onset of the Covid pandemic docked in St John’s yesterday.
Tourism and health officials turned out for a special ceremony held on the pier at Heritage Quay to welcome in the luxurious ‘Star Breeze’ and her hundreds of fully vaccinated passengers.
The vessel was greeted with a water cannon salute usually reserved for ships visiting for the first time, in tribute to her status as a harbinger of cruise tourism’s long-awaited revival.
The nation’s iconic Hell’s Gate Steel Orchestra played a medley of high-energy hits – from Bob Marley to Burning Flames and Boasta – as the beaming passengers waved from the upper decks. As they began to alight, singer Annia Matthews sang the national anthem and later performed a cultural presentation.
The cruise industry adds millions to local coffers each year in taxes and expenditure by those who disembark. But globally the sector became a poster child for the pandemic when countries across the world closed their borders last year in a bid to contain the coronavirus.
Privately, some local traders expressed disappointment that – after an absence of cruise passengers and their wallets for 16 months – the Star Breeze’s well-heeled patrons were not free to browse the city’s shops as before.
Instead, they were greeted by guides waiting to escort them on pre-organised tours of the island.
But the dignitaries who addressed yesterday morning’s ceremony all spoke of a need for caution, with officials keenly aware of the virus’ sharp resurgence in some neighbouring nations.
Tourism Authority CEO Colin James told Observer that reopening the sector slowly allowed the government to put its safety protocols to the test.
Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze is carrying less than 300 passengers and crew for the two-day trip to Antigua, which will also see a stop in Falmouth Harbour today.
“I know the tour operators and all the other businesses have long awaited this day and although we are starting small, it’s a forerunner of things to come,” James said.
Subsequent ships’ calls are expected to see passengers offered guided shopping tours around St John’s.
“Safety is paramount for both us and the cruise lines so it will happen gradually that we will see passengers moving through Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay and patronising the shops. It’s a gradual start but it is a start and we are encouraged,” James added.
Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez said yesterday was “an exciting day”, highly anticipated by the many residents “who depend on this industry for their livelihoods”.
“As the tourism industry begins its rebound, this visit will provide a much needed boost for Antigua’s growing cruise ship sector which was poised for exponential growth just prior to the pandemic,” he told the ceremony.
“The cruise industry continues to make a significant contribution to the world economy. In 2019 it welcomed almost 30 billion passengers, creating jobs for 1.8 million people around the world and adding $154 billion to the global economy,” Minister Fernandez explained.
“We can clearly see the value of this industry and as a destination we remain committed to investing in our cruise tourism development.”
The cruise port’s general manager Dona Regis-Prosper said the US cruise line’s arrival was “a vote of confidence in Antigua”.
“The pandemic has taught us many lessons,” she added, “but the one that resonates most with me is that the road to recovery is not a sprint; it is a marathon and we continue to keep our eyes on the finish line.”