A new age for cruise ports

Cruise ship terminals, like airports and train stations, have traditionally been places people only visit when they have to.

In the case of cruise terminals, they have typically been in industrial port areas where there is nothing attractive to do nearby, or perhaps they occupy prime waterfront space, but as nondescript boxes. Many of the terminals, especially ones in seasonal cruise destinations, are underutilized or shut down for periods of time.

But that is changing.

Cruise lines, and the cities that want to lure ships to their piers, have taken a different approach in recent years, making terminals more useful to their communities, architecturally attractive and, of course, environmentally forward.

The Miami-based firm Bermello Ajamil & Partners has been designing cruise terminals around the world for more than three decades.

CEO Luis Ajamil recalls that “early on, somebody would put up a tent and that was a terminal, or you converted a warehouse and that was a terminal. It’s only in recent times people are investing the money to do these landmark-type buildings. There has certainly been an evolution.”

However, he said, the change has not been linear. Over the years, cruise lines and destinations have gone back and forth between wanting the terminal to be “great” or “nonexistent.”

“The reality is, if money controls, you’re going to go to function,” he said, adding that decisions are also “brand-driven and personality-driven.”

Ajamil pointed to two projects illustrating the different approaches that the same company took in the span of a decade.

When Bermello Ajamil designed the Port Everglades terminal for Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas, which debuted in 2009 as the world’s largest cruise ship, “the metric that was measured was, how quickly can we get a person onto the ship? That’s where the 15 minutes from curbside to onboard came from.”

Ajamil said the focus was entirely on “the interiors and getting the flow-through, and we were able to achieve that. But if you look at the outside, it’s a warehouse; it’s a square block building.”

Fast-forward to 2018 when Royal Caribbean opened the glass-walled, light-filled modern “Crown of Miami” Terminal A in PortMiami and the directive “from the top,” Ajamil said, was to “make it into an iconic building.”

“That decision was meant to plant the flag at the Port of Miami for Royal Caribbean. And then Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) came along and said, ‘Well, they did it, I’ve got to do it better.’”

Bermello Ajamil also designed NCL’s “Pearl of Miami” Terminal B, which recently opened with LEED Gold certification for its energy optimization, water usage, air quality and utilization of local materials and resources. NCL and Miami-Dade County will make the terminal shore power-ready by 2023.

Ajamil said both terminals are iconic and “made to wow people” and together represent close to $400 million in investment.

A change in thinking at the cruise lines is the mindset that a cruise line’s branding and personality starts at the terminal and extends onto the ship.

Still, at the end of the day, the imperative is getting people onboard ships as quickly as possible.

“So you have to balance how much you invest to wow people for 15 or 20 minutes,” Ajamil said, adding that the terminals are handling ships of 5,000 to 6,000 people at once, the equivalent to an airport boarding 30 airplanes at the same time.

But unlike airports, after those people board, terminals often remain empty for long periods of time, a fact that impacts investment.

“It’s one thing to build something in Miami where you know a terminal will move 1.5 million to 2 million passengers [per year] through that one facility. But if you put that same terminal in another port, it might only handle 200,000 passengers a year because of seasonality,” Ajamil said. “That, at the end, drives the investment decision, too.”

As a result, more cruise terminals are being built as part of mixed-use projects and with more utility to their communities, something Ajamil said he has long advocated and is more common in Europe and the Far East than in the U.S.

The port Bermello Ajamil designed for Seattle’s cruise terminal at Pier 66, which has restaurants, a museum and a conference center, is an example of one that functions well. The conference center spills over into the terminal when there are no ships in port, Ajamil said, and the scale and space of the terminal is a “fantastic” fit for evening events and banquets.

Such concepts don’t work everywhere, he said, such as at PortMiami, which is on an island in the harbor, or at terminals in industrial ports.

“In ports that are interested in bringing cruising back toward the urban core, that should be done,” he said. “For example, a major hotel has ballrooms for meetings and so forth. Well, if you attach a hotel to a cruise terminal, if you design it correctly, the waiting halls can also be the ballroom for the hotel. It’s an incredible financial incentive to be able to integrate the two.”

Destination infrastructure

Josh Carroll, vice president of destination development for Royal Caribbean Group, said that the company has evolved its terminal-building philosophy versus the past, when he said the focus was almost solely on port infrastructure.

“We now call it destination infrastructure, because it needs to extend far beyond just where the ship comes in,” he said.

That includes ensuring there are quality off-ship experiences, enough ground transportation, adequate onshore restroom facilities and that growth is commensurate with capacity. To do that, Royal works very closely with local governments and communities.

“The key element to our strategy at Royal is that we want local businesses and entrepreneurs to prosper as much as possible on these opportunities,” he said.

Carroll cited Royal’s port project in Sitka, Alaska, mostly owned by Halibut Point Marine Services, a Sitka family business, with Royal as a minority owner. The pier was expanded with recycled materials from an old bridge, Carroll said, and a shore excursion company was created in conjunction with a local Native Alaskan corporation.

“It’s a great example of weaving in that environmental story and the local collaboration and partnership with the community to really have the growth happen on their terms,” Carroll said.

Cruise lines also realize that keeping things “local” benefits the destination and gives authenticity that guests are looking for.