I'm in Tonga this week launching a cruise visitor survey. It's turning out to be a very refreshing experience.
Unlike the boom cruise destinations in the South Pacific of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji, Tonga only receives around 16 cruise vessels each year. Its distance from Australia (in particular, and less so New Zealand) means that it's out of reach of the short (less than 10 day) cruises that are becoming so popular in those countries.
Consequently cruise passengers are valued here, and appreciated more than they are in many of the busier destinations. To maximise the experience of visitors, the key stakeholders in Tonga have set up a Cruise Committee to coordinate music and dancing to welcome the visitors, tours, transport and shopping experiences. Educating local people on how to deal with visitors is also part of the scheme.
The arrival of the Sea Princess yesterday, carrying almost 2,000 passengers, was the first test of this new strategy. My part of the proceedings was to organise a team of eight interviewers at the wharf to find out how Tonga had fared.
It seems like all the hard work paid off. The survey showed that almost one third of all visitors would like to return to Tonga for a land-based holiday. Cruise passengers returning for a longer holiday is a great marketing spin-off from cruising. And expenditure was mainly on local handicrafts and tours, so the local economy stands to benefit with few leakages.
Cruise itineraries tend to be characterised by visits to destinations that are (on the face of it) quite similar, in particular Pacific and Caribbean cruises. So standing out by going that extra mile for visitors is important. The destinations that the cruise passengers remember when they get home will be the ones most likely to benefit from future visits, and also referrals to friends and relatives.