Instead, the line is opening a private island: Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, a former sand extraction site in the Bahamas that’s gotten a radical makeover and will be a stop on most of MSC’s Caribbean excursions come November.
Take Royal Caribbean, which just spent $250 million relaunching Perfect Day at CocoCay (capacity: 9,000), also in the Bahamas. The 125-acre island features its own water park, a freshwater pool, and even a helium balloon—an ideal spot for some Insta-ready snaps of tropical paradise.
Elsewhere in the Bahamas, on the island where Tom Hanks first romanced a mermaid in Splash, Disney Cruise Lines now operates the 1,000-acre Castaway Cay; its recent addition, the 175-foot-long ghost ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is artfully anchored just offshore. Meanwhile, nearby Half Moon Cay belongs to cruise line Holland America, and it sets up guests with stingray-feeding sessions and glass-bottomed boat tours in its 700-acre lagoon.
Costa Cruises opted for the Dominican Republic as a location for its resort-like Catalina Island, while Tahiti-based Paul Gauguin Cruises operates Motu Mahana in French Polynesia, where guests are offered the chance to tour a local vanilla plantation in between sessions lounging on the pristine white beaches. Even Carnival Cruises, which has long resisted the lure and focused instead on its shipboard itineraries, is widely rumored to be planning its own private island, a project one observer calls “the worst-kept secret in the industry.
Despite the ever-growing presence of private islands on sailings worldwide, cruise operators first stumbled on the value of this asset almost by accident—four decades ago. Cruising as we understand it truly began in earnest in the early 1970s, says maritime historian and cruise industry author Allan Jordan, via pioneers like Norwegian Caribbean Lines (now Norwegian Cruise Lines).
In that early ocean-going era, that line ran seven-day cruises from South Florida that bounced around the nearby islands; one pitstop was an onshore beach party when ships moored off Grand Cayman. Jordan says that customers consistently rated this unlikely excursion as their favorite on the voyage—which sparked an idea in NCL co-founder Knut Kloster.
He approached the Bahamian government for the right to buy a portion of what is now Great Stirrup Cay, and operate it as a standalone destination on short jaunts from Miami.
“When passengers got there, it was basically a Robinson Crusoe adventure,” Jordan says. “There was no dock, and because the Sunward didn’t carry tenders, they had to take passengers ashore in the lifeboats.
And people loved it.” (He also says that one enterprising local snapped up a pair of old World War II landing craft, painted them, and offered rides to and from the ship to offset the lack of a dock.
) After 10 years of success like this, Norwegian bought the entire island in 1986 and spent several years on major construction there—which included adding a dock. Since then, the company has regularly invested in on-site amenities to enhance the experience for guests, including adding a Mandara spa, private lagoon, and more restaurants by the end of next year.
Firms can levy surcharges and fees for the activities on these islands, whether through enhanced dining or equipment rental; many offer Las Vegas-style VIP cabanas on the beaches that come with Sin City-style pricing, too. Even better, depositing guests in a company-owned plot ensures that monies spent by passengers are funneled right back to the company rather than out into the local economy.
That’s not solely the case, of course. Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown notes that private islands are also an appealing chance to offer a brand extension on land, where an operator can ensure continued quality control around the experience.
“People go on vacation today and they’re stressed, time-crunched, and want to spend time with their family without waiting in line, so this a nice bubble to be in for a day—if only a day,” she says, laughing. “Cruise lines have become very savvy designing an experience their passengers will like, and so they really mirror what’s going on on the ship.
After an extensive renovation the company estimates at about $200 million, the custom-designed hideaway will feature eight distinctly themed beaches, from a family-focused stretch of sand to one earmarked for the crew, as well as ample water sports like kayaking and scuba. It will also emphasize conservation: Ocean Cay is surrounded by 64 square miles of protected waters, so MSC has earmarked funds for a coral nursery to boost the health of the existing reef.
It will also act as a chance to educate guests on marine endangerment. “This island was exploited as an industrial site in the past,” says MSC president Gianni Onorato.
“That’s not what we’re doing: We want our customers to think about how to protect the oceans, and be a part of it.”
As cruise lines continue to upgrade existing ships and launch new ones, investing in upgrades to an existing island is a way to inject every itinerary with a shot of newness across the fleet. Ocean Cay, just 60 miles from Miami, is a stopover for both east- and west-bound ships going to the Caribbean.
Consider, too, MSC’s forerunner near Abu Dhabi. The logistics of Gulf cruises are challenging, with some lengthy stretches that aren’t as developed, so Sir Bani Yas provides an enjoyable destination on a part of the coast where there is little else to appeal to most travelers.
Perhaps the biggest draw, though, lies in the two simple words: private island. “They provide a sense of exclusivity to everyone,” says Beth Butzlaff, who focuses on cruises at luxury travel firm Virtuoso.