Recessionary world economies, stock market slides and the disappearing of personal wealth hasn’t put a dent in Caribbean charter yacht vacations. In fact, according to Dick Schoonover, who manages the clearinghouse, CharterPort BVI, in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, last season exemplified how bad weather in North America and Europe can really turn the tide for chartering in the Caribbean.
“For example, says Schoonover, “January isn’t normally our busiest month, advance-bookings wise, but people clearly wanted a break from the cold and ice. This filled in a lot of gaps in the charter calendars, and made what would have been merely an ‘okay’ year into a good year.”
Looking ahead to 2011-2012, Erik Ackerson, executive director of the St. Thomas-based Virgin Islands Charteryacht League (VICL) forecasts a good season, if early booking are any indication. “About 70 percent of our fleet was booked for the Christmas and New Year holidays as of August,” Ackerson says.
Sarah Sebastian, manager of the Antigua Yacht Charter Show and a broker for Nicholson Yachts in Antigua, agrees with this positive prediction. “We’re seeing more advanced bookings. While you’d expect this for the Christmas holidays, we’re even seeing bookings for next summer come in.”
One of the challenges for the year ahead is the availability and affordability of airlift to the Caribbean, says Steve McCrea, president of Ed Hamilton & Company, a charter yacht brokerage based in Wiscasset, ME, which specializes in Caribbean charters. “American Airlines has stopped direct flights to San Juan from New York and Boston and the cost of fuel is higher making fares higher. This may cause some to, for example, drive to Disney World instead or take a domestic vacation destination and fly on one of the low cost carriers.”
“Still,” says Ann McHorney, charter specialist for St. Maarten-based Select Yachts, “what makes the Caribbean interesting is that it is more affordable than many other locations.”
What are charter clients chartering?
“It’s all about catamarans,” says Ed Hamilton’s McCrea. “They are comfortable, especially for those who are new to sailing, have four equal staterooms which is a big seller if there’s four couples chartering, and enough space aboard to enjoy social time with friends.”
“Monohulls,” says Nicholson’s Sebastian, “haven’t lost their popularity in spite of the increased interest in catamarans.”
High fuel prices are prompting many would-be guests to choose sail, says Select Yacht’s McHorney. “The big higher end cats here in the Caribbean have done quite well with some very distinguished clients who may have normally chartered a motor yacht.”
Yet, fuel costs are not shutting down motor yacht operations, says the VICL’s Ackerson. “We’re seeing more megayachts in the 120ft range signing up to be members and base here all year round.”
The U.S. and British Virgin Islands are still the largest charter market in the Caribbean, with St. Maarten second.
“The St. Maarten airport is now the number two airport in the Caribbean after San Juan with loads of international flights,” says Select Yacht’s McHorney. “The new government seems to be very cooperative and pro-charter.”
Nicholson’s Sebastian adds, “Antigua and the Grenadines are always popular.”
Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUP) and especially inflatable SUPs are the hot new water toy, says the VICL’s Ackerson. “The inflatable boards fold up into the size of a backpack and the paddles also fold up making for convenient stowing.”
“As for amenities,” says CharterPort’s Schooner, “I think the growth in spa-related services from shore-based operations has spun off the same to the menu on offer from the charter fleet, though it’s still a shore-based offering. Â For example: ‘Hey, we’re anchoring in Dead Man’s Bay tomorrow. Do you want me to make a massage reservation for you at the spa?’ This sort of thing.”
When it comes to cuisine, says Select Yacht’s McHorney, healthy and gourmet rule.
The VICL’s Ackerson adds, “Charter guests are eating leaner and looking for local delicacies. That said; there are requests now for diets that people didn’t much know about twenty or thirty years ago like gluten-free.”
Going ‘green’ is another trend charter yachts are adopting.
Ed Hamilton’s McCrea says, “Each yacht pushes their agenda for being green. However, one common way I see is doing away with plastic water bottles.”
“We’re trying to push for boats to take bottled water off their preference sheets and push water from their highly sophisticated filtration systems instead,” says the VICL’s Ackerson. “Some boats are even going farther and creating special flavored or infused waters.”
As for trends in the way brokers operate, the paper brochure has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur.
“Many of the new brokers never had experience with hard copy brochures or had to keep a large library of brochures on hand,” says CharterPort’s Schoonover. “One firm even has an iPhone app!”
Yet, while technology seems to be the wave of the future with more marketing via Internet and social media, plastic hasn’t yet turned into the preferred form of payment for a charter yacht vacation.
“As universal and ubiquitous as charge cards are,” says CharterPort’s Schoonover, “they still are not close to being universally accepted by charter yachts. The fear of ‘charge-backs’ remains.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.