Diamonds, Gemstones And Trinkets. My Ultimate Guide To Duty Free – Tax Free Shopping in the Caribbean.
Although I think it is a pity that so many people travelling to the Caribbean are more obsessed with the duty and tax free shopping available there rather than the history and heritage, especially cruise passengers, I have developed top tips for shopping in the Caribbean should that be your interest and passion!
In a previous article (“Cruising the Caribbean. The Battle of Cheap Diamonds, Gems & Watches Versus History and Heritage“), I spoke about how it was a little depressing to me that there is such an obsession with duty free and tax free shopping – rather than understanding the history and exploring the heritage of the islands. While I wish that cruise passengers would be less interested in shopping for diamonds, gem stones and colour changing clothes, the reality is that they are. And so to meet that passion, here are my tips for getting the most out of shopping while you are in the Caribbean!
Prices for many luxury goods like diamonds, gem stones, watches and jewellery are low in the Caribbean due to the duty free and no sales tax policies in place in the region. Cruise Line Shopping Advisors claim you should get between 15% and 70% savings in the Caribbean versus USA prices. The low prices has meant that chains like “Diamonds International” and “Effy Jewelers” have sprung up and opened up on many of the islands. The huge amount of cruise passengers passing through seeking to buy duty and tax free goods, also means the volumes sold are high. High volume has meant that prices have been further driven down, as these chains are able to either negotiate better deals from suppliers, or cut out traditional wholesales and buy direct from producers and suppliers. They now can buy direct even from suppliers like De Beers, who control the sale of diamonds globally. Only a few retail companies can buy diamonds direct from De Beers. Companies like Graaf London, Tiffany and Diamond International.
Most stores that are endorsed by the cruise line you are traveling on will deliver purchases directly to the ship, so you do not need to carry them about while touring. If you buy alcohol though, the cruise line usually hold it until the end of the cruise. This is to ensure you keep buying drinks from their on-board bars.
My Tips For Travellers Guide To Duty Free – Tax Free Shopping in the Caribbean.
Select Your Route To Suit Your Shopping Passions.
If you want to do a lot of shopping, then chose a route that includes more Northern Caribbean islands, and those that are very regular scheduled stops for lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean. These tend to have high volumes of cruise passengers and usually will have shopping chains and malls specifically catering for them. Another tip is also to look at where branches of chain stores like Diamonds International and Tanzinite International have outlets. If they are where you are cruising or travelling to, then there is likely to be a big duty and tax free shopping mall and area in that port.
Overall, there is a disappointingly limited amount of handmade crafts across the islands. There are a lot of predictable T-shirt, mugs and other corny tourist curios. They are usually the same, with just a different island names on them.
There are 3 main types of islands in the Caribbean when it comes to shopping:
Large dedicated cruise passenger mall ports: There are a number of major shopping islands with dedicated malls and store areas focused on the cruise industry. These usually have all the main chain stores. These include ports like St. Thomas, St. Maarten and St. Kitts. So often islands with a “Saint” in their name!
Shopping more focused around more traditional town based shopping. These include Barbados, Antigua and St. Lucia. These are more developed islands with a large, established land based tourism business and an industry base that existed beyond sugar and fruit. While there is often a small mall with the usual chain stores, they tend to have a more developed town centre with broader shopping options.
Traditional and independent shopping to serve needs of locals primarily. Islands like Dominica and Grenada have little shopping focused on the cruise line business. These islands are more Eco based and seem more concerned with their traditional industries like fishing and agriculture. They have simple and independent owned shopping areas, usually in historical and traditional buildings, without malls built around the port. As a result there are, for example, good local craft shopping stalls in the area around the port in Dominica.
Know You Really Want It, Before You Go.
Do not get caught up in holiday fever, and be led astray by the clever sales patter and techniques that have been well tested, fine tuned, honed and practised on thousands of cruisers and visitors before you. Before setting off to the Caribbean, make sure you have decided if you really need and want that new diamond, gem stone jewels and watches. Also know how much you want to, and can afford, to spend. Far too many people come back with expensive baubles – and bills – that they did not really want.
Know Your Prices. A Bargain Is Only A Bargain If It Is One.
If you plan to buy jewellery, watches and other luxury items in the Caribbean, make sure you know what price you would pay local to you for the items – including if buying via online stores which are often inexpensive already.
One popular trick is to quote savings off the Manufacturer Recommended Retail Price. This is not the price you will actually be paying at home in most cases. You need to make sure that watch you buy is not actually cheaper, or the same price, to buy at home. If in doubt, consider checking prices online while you are in port before laying out hundreds, or thousands, of dollars.
Use the Shopping Advisors On-board to get the Incentives, Coupons, Collectibles.
If you are going to buy, then use the system. Stores are desperate to get you into their store, as they know that once they get you there they have the tools, techniques and tricks to get you to spend. So they use shopping advisors and promoters that work with cruise lines and passengers to get their name, location and incentives into your hands before you get to port. The advisors job is to make sure you head to these store, and not get diverted. Typical incentives will include gifts with purchase, free gifts for just calling into the store and money off coupons. The advisors will know the latest promotions in port, and direct you to them. Remember though that they are being incentivised to get you there, so they have an agenda.
Examples of the sort of shopping incentives offered to passengers on a Caribbean cruise are the following. These are based on a Cunard Queen Mary 2 cruise I was on in the region at the time of writing this article. These are very typical of those offered on most cruises in the region:
- Collect 7 charms for a bracelet in 4 ports. You start your collection by getting the first one in a seminar about diamonds and gemstones on-board (to ensure you get the sales pitch). Then a further one in each of the 4 ports, plus 2 extra for visiting the various branches of Diamonds International in St.Maarten.
- Free tanzanite earring studs for attending the on-board seminar that you collect in the Tanzinite International Store in St.Thomas.
- Free different colour half carat gemstone pendant in each Effy Jewelery store visited. With the matching earrings for just $10.
- Free color changing tote bag when buy 2 or more t-shirts at Del Sol.
- Free Bamboo Lei for calling into the Cariloha store, and free pair of bamboo soft socks when you buy a 3 pack.
If you do not have an advisor on-board, then you will find the free tourist maps given out in port will have the incentives and promotions in there.
Shop in the Chain Stores – As You Can Exchange In The Next Port If You Change Your Mind.
Although I do find it disappointing that chains of stores now populate the ports, there are some advantages of buying from one of the chains. One of the key ones is that the cruise line will usually offer a guarantee of authenticity for the merchandise bought there, and the other being that the chains allow returns of items bought in one port to a branch in another port. So if therer is any issue with the item purchased, you do have some flexibility and assurance. Without this chain store infrastructure it would be very difficult, and costly, to deal with faulty items or issues after you leave a port many hundred miles behind.
Check Your Home Duty Free Allowances.
While shopping in the Caribbean is free of tax and duty, your home country is probably not. Most countries have duty free allowances for the amount of cigarettes, alcohol and other goods that you can bring back from holiday. After that limit you will have to pay taxes and duty. Check you know what your allowances are, for those duty free and tax free items may end up costing you dearly when you pass through customs on your return home.
Support Local Stores and Markets.
If you only go on cruise line tours and shop in chain stores while in port, the risk is that the local population and economy does not benefit as much as you would expect from the visit of these massive ships. You will notice that most of the ports and countries are visibly poor. The buildings and infrastructure is not well maintained and clearly people are not affluent, despite the vast quantity of cruise ship trade. In some places, tourism is pretty much the only revenue now that the sugar industry has collapsed in the region. Yet a lot of the stores serving the cruise industry is owned and run by international companies with foreign shareholders. So try and ensure you visit local crafts markets, and local owned shops, to get some of your money into the pockets of local business and people too.
Time Your Shopping.
If want custom items made then you should go first thing in the morning, especially as in many ports there can be many ships. Many of the chains will make up items, and they need time to make them and for you to check they are what you really wanted.
However, overall my main advice is to go out and explore the islands and do tours and then do some shopping at the end of the day before getting back on-board. As most of these malls are right at the port then you can ensure you make it back in time. You really should be seeing the islands and all they have to offer first. Shopping can be done another time!
Do you have any other tips for shopping in the Caribbean?