When it comes to shore excursions, passengers are a picky bunch.
Consider this example: On a particularly disappointing shore excursion that I took in France, the guide aboard our bus barely uttered a word. In fact, she spent most of the trip silently reading a book.
Later that day aboard ship, I recounted the tale of the taciturn tour guide to a passenger I had just met. This passenger also had a taken a bus tour to the town.
“You’re lucky,” said the passenger. “The guide on our bus never shut up. She just yakked and yakked. It was so annoying.”
“Really? What bus were you on?” I asked.
“Bus No. 5,” she said.”And you?”
This is why cruise lines have a tough time planning excursions all passengers will enjoy. “It’s an age-old problem,” said Mimi Weisband of Crystal Cruises.”You never can please everyone.”
In fact, many travel agents say shore excursions constitute the bulk of passenger complaints.
Passengers’ main pet peeves about shore excursions are trips that are too long for a sight that doesn’t meet expectations or a destination that isn’t particularly noteworthy, said Anne Campbell, editor of AOL’s Cruise Critic, who added that she still can’t believe she “wasted seven hours on a trip to San Jose (Costa Rica) where all I saw was a church and a market.”
Disappointment with excursions can be especially rife in the Caribbean. “Because of competition and discounting, cruise lines are having to look for every source of profit center they can find, so they push these shore excursions,” said Kay Showker, a travel writer whose guidebooks on Caribbean ports are a staple for those wanting to explore on their own.
First-time cruisers especially may feel pressure to take excursions offered by the line, and tours promoted with “limited space” create an illusion that passengers will miss out if they don’t sign up early. Timid passengers even may worry they’ll miss the boat, literally, if they tour independently of a ship’s organized excursion.
There basically are two kinds of passengers, Showker said: “Those who won’t take a tour if you gave it to them for free, and those who are too terrified to go past the gate without one.”
This is borne out by statistics from the world’s biggest cruise line. According to Matthew Sams, Carnival Cruise Line’s director of port operations, between 40 percent and 60 percent of their passengers take ships’ excursions.
As for the importance of excursion sales to a cruise line, Sams said: “We have to keep up; if we don’t provide what passengers want, they’ll go someplace else where they can find it.”
Many cruise lines say those all-encompassing port-city tours are the most popular, because many passengers just want to see highlights of places they have never been. However, Showker said these tours also tend to be the most disappointing to passengers because more time is usually spent on the bus than at the sights. Many travel agents admit they steer clients away from such tours.
So how do cruise lines satisfy different tastes and interests in a given destination? They pay attention to passenger feedback.
“People are a good barometer of what the product is,” Sams said. “We try to keep our ear to the ground, spot trends, listen to guest demands. Our guests aren’t shy, and, if they’ve taken an excursion independently that we don’t provide, they are likely to report back saying ‘Gee, we did this, too bad you don’t offer it.”’ As a result of such feedback, Carnival introduced a submarine tour on St. Thomas and Barbados, for example.
Most lines once typically bought off-the-shelf tours from local operators “who’d send five buses and off they’d go,” said Showker. Recently, however, changes are afoot. In their efforts to cater to everyone’s interests, cruise lines are accommodating younger passengers who want more activity, and excursions are getting more diverse.
Passengers who are “tired of seeing the same old thing now are looking for something different,” said Carnival’s Sams. “People are more demanding, and that has spurred us to be more creative and offer more.”
Case in point: In 1994, Carnival offered 135 excursions; today there are more than 460.
The biggest trend is toward physically active and adventure-type tours with more demand for hands-on experiences and getting back to nature.
“We’ve seen an incredible rise in walking tours,” Sams said. “Instead of being in a bus and watching the mountains, passengers can walk, hike or bike the mountains.”
Along similar lines, Holland America has announced a series of South American “explorer” cruises which, in 1998, will offer things such as hiking with naturalists in the Chilean lakes region and a flightseeing excursion over Antarctica.
Almost all lines offer an excursion to the popular Sting Ray City in Grand Cayman. This offshore sandbar, discovered by island fisherman, attracts swarms of Atlantic Southern stingrays that are hand-fed by passengers who wade in the water, squealing with delight.
Among the key reasons attributed to the demand for more adventurous tours is the repeat cruiser. “The first-timer does an island or highlight tour that encapsulates a place; but if they’re back for a second time, they’re more daring,” said Sams.
As a result, in 1996 Carnival introduced kayaking in St. Thomas, hiking in Dominica’s Morne Trols Pitons National Park and a climb through a tropical rainforest on Guadeloupe. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s passengers can mountain bike on Curacao and explore Aruba in a Jeep caravan.
Another reason for the rapid expansion of offerings is the size of new ships.
Big ships mean “the range of passengers gets wider and also port infrastructures grow,” said Bruce Krumrine, director of land programs for Princess Cruises, which offers more than 1,000 excursions fleetwide. Passengers can do things such as whale-watch in Bar Harbor, Maine, and cliff walk in Newport, Rhode Island.
If you’re more comfortable taking a ship’s excursions than going it on your own, writer Showker offers this suggestion for reducing your chances of disappointment: To avoid the “every-island-looks-alike” syndrome, try something different in each port. “Sightsee in one, try a new sport in another, even try an ecotour in a third.”
And remember: If you’re disappointed in any excursion, let the cruise line know. Your input may help the cruisers who come after you.