Puerto Rico/DR ferry cruises into 3rd year with big plans
America Cruise Ferries is entering its third year of operations as the only maritime connection between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with major plans, including the possibility of upgrading the vessel it uses for the thrice-weekly trips, a high-ranking company executive told this media outlet.
Néstor González, president of Marine Express, which runs the service on behalf of ACF, said 2013 has been a positive year in terms of passenger and cargo traffic, with about 105,000 passengers, 15,000 cars and 17,000 containers transported on the route.
In 2014, the company has to comply with a mandatory inspection of the ship, during which it must put the Caribbean Fantasy ship in a dry dock facility for maintenance. The process will likely take place in March, when the vessel will be taken either to Curacao or the Bahamas for preventive check-ups, he said.
“This means the ferry will probably be out of service for about 30 days, but we plan for that because we close off the dates the ship will be out,” González said. “We’re still determining whether we’ll be making a major investment in this ship or if we will instead obtain a more modern vessel.”
That decision should happen in the next two years, but if ACF opts to keep the ship currently used for the route, then it will likely invest heavily in a complete remodel of the Caribbean Fantasy’s interiors, including adding more cabins and other amenities, he said.
“That could be happening during the second half of 2014 or early 2015,” he said, noting that certain areas of the ship have already been spruced up and Wi-Fi and DirecTV service have been installed thorughout.
America Cruise Ferries expects to wrap up this year with a 15 percent increase in passenger traffic, despite plans to anchor the ship for a month.
“That estimate is conservative and considers that plan, because it always affects the flow of business. People tend to hold off on traveling on the ferry again until they feel the service is back to normal. Still, we expect that growth to happen,” he said.
America Cruise Ferries is a certified travel agent that works directly with hotels in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to offer full packages to tourists that include ferry transportation, stays in all-inclusive hotels, and ground transfers. That line of business has also fueled the ferry’s popularity, he said
“This summer, we moved between 40,000 and 45,000 passengers and a high percentage of that were people who bought hotel packages,” said González, noting that the Caribbean Fantasy will continue to offer two trips from San Juan’s Muelle Panamericano and one out of Mayagüez to Santo Domingo’s Don Diego terminal.
“The majority of the people who take the ferry do so out of San Juan and are split between 60 percent American citizens and 40 percent Dominican nationals,” he said. “With the packages we offer, we’re catering to that higher-profile traveler that is considering the ferry as an option.”
Connections to other islands on hold
Last year, ACF announced plans to expand its ferry service to St. Maarten, Guadalupe and Martinica starting this year, but has since put the strategy on hold, González confirmed.
“We’re holding off on that because it’s a very expensive operation and we’ve opted to establish a strong foundation first before we decide to head into the Eastern Caribbean,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have a date for that, although we have been analyzing the option of offering weekend trips to those islands, but I don’t see it happening in the short-term.”
The proposed expansion would have created 100 new jobs, company officials said in February 2012 upon discussing the stalled strategy.
The ferry operator had also set its sights on Cuba, asking the Obama administration to allow service to the island nation from Miami and Puerto Rico. However, approval to connect the U.S. to Cuba via a maritime route has not come down since the application was filed in 2011, as this media outlet reported.
“We haven’t gotten the approval. Only airlines have received it, but no maritime passenger companies have been granted it. Other international companies are also trying, but haven’t been successful either,” González said.