Several criteria can be used to characterize cruise ports and the role they play in their regional markets, with some of them focusing on the tourism element associated with the port:
- Market region. Cruise ports are part of a region with a specific appeal and commonly the destination (itinerary). The region relates to specific demand patterns (e.g. level, growth, seasonality). The Caribbean and the Mediterranean are basic cruise regions but can be subdivided into subregions usually covered by standard 7 days itineraries (e.g. Eastern Caribbean or Eastern Mediterranean).
- Ownership and operations (governance). The stakes involved in the ownership and operation of the cruise terminal. Some cruise ports are privately owned, while others are publicly owned, mostly through port authorities. Cruise terminals can also be concessionned.
- Cruise terminal. The type of facility available to accommodate cruise ships. This ranges from dedicated terminals built solely to service cruise ships to simple tendering where passengers embark and disembark using tender boats. Tendering is used when there are no facilities available to dock cruise ships, when a cruise ship is too large to use existing facilities or when a pier is not available.
- Size. A fundamental attribute since it indicates the level of activity and the importance of a cruise port in the cruise industry. The number of major size cruise ports with annual traffic of more than 1 million visits (number of de-embarkations) is limited. Size is linked with the number of cruise ship calls, the facilities required to accommodate them, and the impacts of cruises on the local economy. Nassau in the Bahamas is the world’s most-visited cruise port while Barcelona, Spain, and Civitavecchia (near Rome) are the most visited in Europe.
- Seasonality. An important differentiating factor as many cruise ports are only active during a specific period of the year while others are perennial cruise ports. A high seasonality implies that all the cruise visits take place within a few months. For instance, Alaskan, Baltic, and Norwegian cruise ports are only visited from May to September.
- Function in the itinerary. Implies if a cruise port is a homeport (turn) port or a call port. A homeport is where a cruise itinerary begins (and ends) and where passengers can embark on a cruise ship for the first time. A call port is where passengers can temporarily disembark for a shore excursion or any other touristic activity. A homeport requires much more supporting infrastructure and services than a call port. For instance, an important airport is fundamental (usually within 45 minutes of the port), as well as an extensive accommodation structure (hotels, restaurants, malls, convention centers, parking areas). Also, cruise ships need to be supplied with food, fuel, and stores, an activity that usually only takes place at a turn port. However, fueling is more flexible, and cruise lines will elect for refueling where that can get lower prices and convenience.
- Accessibility. Relates to how the customer base of a turn port is reached. Air hub ports are linked with major international airport facilities offering connections to a wide array of markets. For instance, Miami / Fort Lauderdale is connected to a large number of North and Latin American airports, while it is easy to reach Rome or Barcelona from many European cities. Alternatively, there is drive/train to cruise ports accessible within a 2 to 4 hours drive. Ports like Southampton, Galveston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Genoa, and Marseille are notable drive/train to ports.
- Attractiveness. Since cruises are touristic operations, the attractiveness of a destination plays an important role. A marquee port is a “must-see” venue that plays a key role in attracting customers for a cruise. The venue is often the main reason the cruise will be selected. A “discovery port” is a location that is less renowned but offers amenities that will be of appeal to cruisers.
- Local and regional integration. There are three manners in which a cruise port has a level of integration of its locality and region. For a destination cruise port, the cruise port area is the sole destination. In the case of cities such as Venice and Barcelona, the cultural amenities been offered are world-class to the point that tourists will have little incentive to see anything else in the vicinity. Alternatively, in some cases, there may be safety and security issues outside the port area, which can be common in developing countries. A gateway cruise port acts as a technical stop since it offers no significant cultural or physical amenities but grants access to a major touristic destination. For instance, the port of Civitavecchia is the gateway to Rome, one of the most visited cities in the world. A balanced cruise port represents an array of cruise ports where the port can be a destination, but excursions are also available. The balance between the gateway and destination functions varies according to what each port and its region has to offer.