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Jamaica's Role in the Development of the Multi-Billion Dollar Cruise Line Tourism Industry (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

Jamaica Attractions; Jamaican People; Jamaican Culture; Jamaican History

Monday, January 20, marked the inaugural call of the cruise ship, Marella Discovery II, to the historic town of Port Royal.
The Marella Discovery II Cruise Ship Docked in Port royal

"America cannot be long blind to the wonderful advantages offered by this beautiful spot as a winter resort."

So wrote the much-travelled author, Ella Wheeler Wilcox in the early 1900s. Today, tourism has become a mainstay of Jamaica's economy – about 30% before the Covid-19 pandemic. During Ms. Wilcox's time, travelers to Jamaica came aboard United Fruit Company steamers and also on the Hamburg-American Line West Indian cruises. A round trip from New York cost US$75 and took five to six days.The concept of passenger ships goes back to 1818 when the Black Ball Line became the first shipping company to offer a scheduled passenger service from the United States to England. In previous centuries, travel on the high seas had been dedicated to exploration. With the settlement of colonies came the need for communication, so ships began to deliver mail.

During the first half of the 19th century, migration to America by ship was technically the beginning of passenger lines. However, the conditions under which these people sailed bear little resemblance to those offered by the multimillion-dollar luxury vessels today. Poor immigrants, many of whom would die during the crossing as a result of harsh conditions in steerage where they were corralled in a cargo-hold-like space. In contrast, life above deck saw first-class passengers sipping cocktails, dancing to the music of grand pianos, and availing themselves of delicious treats in private dining rooms.

The Advent of Steam Technology and More

Early 1900s: The United Fruit Company's steamer, 'Admiral Dewey', was one of a large fleet engaged in the passenger and fruit carrying trade between Jamaica and Boston and Philadelphia. In the background is the Hotel Titchfield in Port Antonio, Portland.
Portland Ship

The introduction of steamships in the 1830s significantly reduced the time of the journey made by millions of immigrants to America's shores. It also provided greater safety. In the Caribbean, steam vessels meant quicker access to the therapeutic benefits of places like Jamaica. It was the cool, healing air of Jamaica's hills that was marketed, not the sea, sand and sun which is so greatly emphasized today.

In the early-mid 1900s there were many available tours, most of which today would fall into the categories of heritage and eco-tourism. Visitors ­who often brought their automobiles with them on ships ­went to Milk River, took trips to Victoria and Jubilee markets, and explored the Cane River Gorge (on the way to Morant Bay), Rock Fort, Roaring River, Cane River Falls, Blue Hole and the Martha Brae. Sightseeing tours included the Institute of Jamaica, Spanish Town, Port Royal, Newcastle, King's House, Hope Botanical Gardens, Castleton Gardens, Cinchona and Fern Gully.

Visitors travelled by car, hackney carriage, electric tram car ­which ran through Kingston every 24 minutes from 5 a.m.-11 p.m.; and for extended tours to places such as St. Ann, Montego Bay and Mandeville, by railway ­ which offered one to four-day trips around the island.

The Superliner

A superliner is an ocean liner of over 10,000 gross tons. The term was coined in the late 19th century, when ocean liners were rapidly increasing in size and speed. Superliners were the primary means of intercontinental travel in the first half of the twentieth century, as passengers favoured large, fast ships.
The RMS Queen Mary, the Only Superliner in Service

Germany led the market in the development of these giant floating hotels which offered comfortable accommodations and entertaining activities to mask the fact that passengers were at sea. The Mauritania and The Lusitania, both owned by the English Cunard Line, started the tradition of dressing for dinner heralding the emergence of a new idea: the romance of the voyage.

However, speed is still what superliners were best known for. American financier J. P. Morgan decided to change all of that as his White Star Line introduced the most luxurious passenger ships ever seen: The Olympic (complete with tennis court and swimming pool) and the infamous Titanic. These ships were larger, more stable liners but the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912 devastated the White Star Line and for a time, cruising in general.

Rough Seas for Cruising

SS Vandyck was a 1911 steam ocean liner operated by Lamport and Holt Line and used on its service between New York and the River Plate. The German cruiser Karlsruhe sank her in 1914. ... The first was an 1867 steamship that Lamport and Holt bought and renamed Vandyck in 1873.
Passenger Ship in World War I

As the advent of World War I neared, ships started to offer ventilation, running water and toilets to their steerage passengers but conditions in that class of voyage remained harsh. People washed their plates in the same basins used for bathing and the effects of seasickness wreaked general havoc on all struggling to survive below deck. Laws, however, were eventually passed to quell the tide of overcrowding, lack of provision of appropriate amounts of food and the sexual abuse of female passengers (Garin, 2005, p. 15).

During the war, many older liners were used to transport troops. The war itself put an end to the lucrative immigrant trade and with the establishment of an immigrant-hostile administration in Washington post-World War I, came the advent of a new type of passenger -­ tourist, third class. It was this type of person to whom Miss Wilcox may have been appealing in her statement below: "humble people with small bank accounts but high social aspirations ­such as academics, business people.

As Garin states in his book that details the development of the cruise line industry, Devils on the Deep Blue Sea (2005), "unless you were in first class, the only reason to board an ocean liner was to get from one place to another" (p. 16). Interestingly, however, the American Congress which had dampened the industry with new immigration laws, just as quickly offered it a boon with the passage of prohibition laws. The concept of the 'booze cruise' was born. Jamaican rum, Scotch whiskey, all flowed freely, attracting more and more 'thirsty' passengers throughout the 1920s (Garin, p. 18).

The decades between 1920- 1940 were actually considered to be the most glamorous for transatlantic passenger ships. The rich and famous were captured enjoying luxurious settings and soon American tourists interested in visiting Europe replaced immigrant passengers.

Advertisements promoted the fashion of ocean travel, featuring elegant food and on-board activities. Where the 'Grand Tour' became the mainstay of the cruising business during the spring and summer months, trips to the Caribbean became integral to survival during the winter. Now, the leisure-time trinity of sea, sand and sun replaced therapeutic reasons for travel to the region. This occurred despite the fact that the ships were not meant for tropical conditions. They had limited deck space, dark paint that attracted the sun, recreational facilities buried deep in the ship to prevent interruption from harsh North Atlantic winds and no air conditioning (Garin, pp. 18-19).

This situation lasted through the Great Depression until World War II, when the era of passenger shipping was once again halted. Cruise liners again became troop carriers and all transatlantic cruising ceased until after the war. European lines then reaped the benefits of transporting refugees to America and Canada, and business travelers and tourists to Europe.

Yet the war did more than put a temporary hold on cruise shipping, its main raison d'etre ­ the transport of people from one place to another ­was overtaken by a war-induced development: the jet age. Passenger lines were fast becoming a relic of a bygone age (Garin, p. 19). Many passenger ships were sold and lines went bankrupt from the lack of business.

When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened the America on the last day of August in 1939, the 723-foot vessel was the largest, fastest and most luxurious American-built passenger liner afloat. But Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the following day augured a change of course. The Navy appropriated the vessel, renamed it the West Point, and used it as a troop carrier until the end of World War II.
Eleanor Roosevelt breaking a bottle of champagne while inaugurating the S.S. America at Newport News in Virginia on August 31, 1939. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images


‘Not the cruise I signed up for’: 30-fold increase in Covid cases upends industry (

Jamaica Gleaner : Pieces of the Past: Out Of Many Cultures:: Somewhere beyond the sea ( Dr. Rebecca Tortello, Contributor. Special Thanks to William Tatham for his assistance in writing this piece.

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