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July 21, 2004 -- While you can cruise to all manner of exotic locales these days, from Korcula to Ko Kood (in Croatia and Vietnam, if you were wondering), the good ole true blue Caribbean is still the number one cruise destination. With year-around sun and balmy temps, all those great beaches, low low rates, and more US departure ports than ever, it's no surprise that Caribbean itineraries account for nearly half of all cruises taken, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade organization. That's about twice as much business as Europe and the Mediterranean get, the next most popular cruising regions.

To keep pace with the growing size and number of ships being launched these days, many islands are expanding their piers, terminals, shopping outlets and attractions. Philipsburg, Sint Maarten and Cozumel, Mexico, for example, have undergone major expansion projects in the past few years and can now accommodate even more ships and passengers. If you were in Cozumel just five years ago, you'd hardly recognize the place today. Even the beloved Carlos'N Charlie's bar was transformed, moving from its charmingly gritty hole-in-wall location into a new sanitized Houlihans-like space down the street.

The days of deserted beaches and locals selling conch shells under the shade of a coconut tree are long gone, at least if you're traveling to the Caribbean via a mega ship. While smaller ships carrying a few hundred passengers or less can cozy up to quieter islands like Virgin Gorda and Les Saintes, the megas have fewer choices due to their size. Islands that have docking facilities and tourist infrastructures to handle the 10,000+ passengers pouring off as many as six to 10 ships in a single day include Cozumel, Jamaica and Grand Cayman on western Caribbean routes, and St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten on eastern legs, with Key West and the Bahamas often filling in as a fourth call on either run. All of these ports are built up and buzzing, at least several days a week when the most cruise ships are in town.

To cater to the booming business, Jamaica is planning to expand its two main ports starting later this year, first focusing on Montego Bay, then Ocho Rios, increasing the size and number of piers, and expanding the terminals and shopping outlets. Long-term projects include developing Lucea, near Negril, as well as Port Antonio and Kingston, which receive occasional calls by small-ship lines and European lines.

In Barbados, another popular cruise call, not only is a landscaped park under construction along the industrial-looking shoreline between the Bridgetown port entrance and the city center, expansion plans include building a new pier to accommodate the world's largest cruise vessels, namely the new 2,620-passenger QM2 and Royal Caribbean's future 3,600-passenger Ultra-Voyager ships. The project is expected to take about two years.

Even ports that were sleepy outposts just a few years back have been gearing up to play a bigger role with mega ship itineraries.

Among the most recent development projects include the new multi-million-dollar pier and Welcome Center in St. George's, Grenada, which were officially handed over to the Grenada Ports Authority on March 5 of this year. The island harbors gorgeous beaches, tropical jungles and some interesting colonial history too.

Carnival Corp. (the parent company of cruise lines including Carnival, Princess, Holland America and Cunard) is pursuing a deal with the government of Belize to build a pier for mega ships, hopefully within the next five years. Currently large ships anchor quite a ways off shore and passengers must take 30-minute tender rides to town, where passengers join up with snorkeling, diving and jungle trekking tours.

Carnival is also developing Grand Turk, a largely barren island in the Turks and Caicos chain some 600 miles southeast of Florida. Carnival Corp. recently announced plans to invest $35 million to build a two-berth cruise pier, plus create shopping outlets and a sightseeing infrastructure.

Other emerging areas for the Carnival family include Limon, Costa Rica, and Progresso and Veracruz, along the Gulf of Mexico. The company is still working on plans to build the Port of Cancun at Xcaret and use it as a homeport, and also to develop a private island in the Bahamas, as many other lines already have.

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