By David Jessop
Even at the best of times, the cruise lines are controversial Caribbean partners, sharply dividing opinion between happy travellers, citizens, hoteliers, environmentalists, academics, and governments.
Now, having been absent from the region since early March when the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first ‘no sail’ order, many questions surround how and when they should return.
The Caribbean clearly wants to welcome cruise passengers back, but it has yet to be seen whether this will be on a common regionally agreed basis.
So far there has been little sign that the Caribbean has realised that the absence of sailings offers what is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset in a more equitable way the relationship and to capitalise on its e role as a prime cruise destination.
Although CARICOM heads agreed on May 5 to a joined-up approach to reopening, since then the signs are that this is unsustainable. The decisions taken by Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Lucia last month to announce unilaterally opening dates and health protocols for tourism suggests that the cruise companies will continue to be able to divide and rule and retain the uniquely beneficial tax and regulatory spaces they occupy.
As this column has pointed out before, there is a need for a cruise industry that is genuinely Caribbean focused and developmental rather than existing solely to benefit the owners of the big cruise companies. To achieve this, the cruise lines need to become wholeheartedly engaged partners.
Caribbean tourism is structured in such a way that hotels and other local tourism partners bear the brunt of the tax burden on tourism, contributing heavily to destination improvement initiatives and local social causes, helping to market their destinations, and helping to enhance and protect the environment.
While the cruise lines have been a good corporate partner in times of crisis, they too should be doing more to protect and enhance the environment, help develop the tourism product, support local businesses, and help grow the Caribbean’s post-COVID-19 tax base.
Not only is there a strong case for significant adjustments to the low head taxes the cruise lines presently pay to the government, but there is a need for a public debate on other concerns, for example relating to reef damage, ‘over-tourism’, and the limited accountability offshore registered vessels have in the exclusive economic zones in which they sail.
More positively there ought to be a much greater regional focus on initiatives that might add tangible value such as the incentivising homeporting hubs in the region.
It is an idea that Barbados has been developing in recent years and now hopes to take much further. During the pandemic it has been offering safe haven to the many idle cruise ships now moored in its waters, going out of its way to demonstrate that it is a ‘trustworthy partner’ by continuing to honour pre-existing provisioning and other obligations while helping facilitate humanitarian support and arrangements for the repatriation of large numbers of stranded crew.
What the island’s minister of tourism, Kerrie Symmonds has suggested is that its approach could offer significant commercial opportunity and employment benefits and the possibility of a southern Caribbean cruise alliance involving summer cruise itineraries on ships homeporting in and sailing out of Barbados.
The indications are that the cruise lines hope to restart sailings to the Caribbean and other destinations early next year.
To offset passenger concerns they have announced new onboard health protocols. These variously involve appointing an on-board senior crew member specifically responsible for public health, enhanced sanitation, health screening for passengers and crewmembers, distancing procedures for embarkation and disembarkation, medical-grade air filters, removal of or staffing self-service buffets, and in some cases carrying diagnostic testing kits and even providing quarantine facilities in their medical centres.
Others, however, have adopted a wait and see attitude and will review how best to adapt when the nature of government health requirements, passenger sentiment, bottom-line impact, and port of call health procedures become clearer, along with knowing how long present restrictions will last.
Some Caribbean health professionals, however, doubt that such measures will be enough when some vessels now carry up to six thousand passengers plus crew. Their fear is that just one asymptomatic passenger among the large numbers disembarking for very short periods as the Caribbean could reintroduce the COVID-19 virus in countries within the region and carry it on to subsequent ports of call.
They point to the case of the Seychelles where public health concerns have led its government to announce that despite gradually opening the archipelago to arrivals by air from certain countries, it is banning all cruise ship calls until the start of 2022 out of concern about compromising Port Victoria, the country’s principle trade and tourism gateway.
That, however, is unlikely to be the Caribbean way because of the urgent need to restore government revenues and competing positions on the timing of resuscitating tourism in order to drive national economic growth.
Before the pandemic, the Caribbean accounted for more than 35 percent of all cruise vacations globally with more ships sailing in or through Caribbean waters than in any other part of the world. There is no reason to doubt that revitalised, post-COVID-19 cruising will fully return to the region in 2022, albeit in an adapted form.
As the region begins to recover from the effects of the virus this should be the time when governments look to the future, jointly explore how the cruise lines can be encouraged to put much more back, and play a genuinely sustainable developmental role in return for the value they derive from the Caribbean and their use of the region’s exclusive economic maritime zone.