The Difficult Job of Getting Screwed by Cruise Ship Firms

It seems like a gift for a poor country: an endless convoy of American cruise ships that drop thousands of relatively wealthy tourists off for sojourns on Caribbean islands. Le Monde Diplomatique‘s Bruno Marques and Romain Cruse show the grim reality on the ground in Dominica.

Ninety percent of the money spent on a cruise stays with the Miami-based cruise ship company. Of the little that is left on the island, 80 percent goes to a single Dominican company owned by a rather boorish white man. Of the little that is left after he takes his cut, most goes to a collection of prosperous expatriates from the US and France. What is left after that mostly goes to the island’s tiny light-skinned bourgeoisie.

What is left? A few poorly paid jobs for local hustlers, and no net revenue for the government. And complaints that these crumbs are ‘cannibalizing’ the cruise ship companies’ profits.

A couple of good whacks behind the skull with the butu puts an end to the last, vain resistance. The gommier boat rocks under the weight of the beast as it is painfully heaved aboard: a 110-pound yellowfin tuna. Expressions relax as the fish is finally covered with dried banana leaves. The two fishermen look up from their work and wipe their faces: Ten miles in front of them the rugged face of the Caribbean island of Dominica rises from the sea. A dozen volcanoes stab the clouds, a thousand meters high; steep-sloped hills, dense with greenery, plummet into an intensely blue sea.

The capital, Roseau, is a tiny colonial town. Parallel streets edged with old single-story stone houses suddenly give way to small huts with tin roofs. Shiny black-skinned children wearing school uniforms and ties run up the street; adults go to work wearing puffed shirts and pleated trousers, the women in suit skirts: the photogenic poverty of the Anglophone Antilles.

Knots of tourists stroll about in the streets that adjoin the pier where the cruise ships dock. White skin, big hat, swimming shorts, flip flops. Smell of sunscreen. Black zoom-lensed camera hung around the neck, little compact camera braceleted around the wrist. Men display chests sunburned crimson. Mature women float inside t-shirts declaring “No Problem!” with the name of the cruise ship’s last stop. In contrast to the stone houses downtown, the ship moored at the dock can rise as high as 15 stories. A downtown Miami glass skyscraper laid down on a barge, and docked along the main avenue of the capital of the poorest country in the Lesser Antilles.

Cruise ship tourism gets its start in Dominica in the mid-1980s. Those who want no further contact with the Western slavers are ‘pacificied’ by the police forces of the newly independent country. A few leaders are killed or imprisoned. No more throwing rocks at our white visitors. By 1991, cruise tourists in Dominica already outnumber the inhabitants [some 70,000 today]. In 1996, there are three times as many visitors as locals. The year 2010 is the peak: more than half a million tourists. But at the end of the same year, one big company cancels some of its cruises to Dominica. For the first time in years the dock at Roseau remain deserted during the low season. In a single year, visits decrease by 35 percent, which is described locally as a catastrophe.

There are two real buildings in Roseau. The first is gray and severe. It visibly dates to the 1970s and has an unfortunate resemblance to Soviet architecture. It is the headquarters of the government, probably built during the 1978 transition to independence. An open double staircase rises from the lobby to the small offices that house various ministries. Two per floor.

Facing it across the street, an air conditioned building, yellow, clad in glass. Two elevators go up to the floors which hold the national bureau for statistics, the Eastern Caribbean bank, and the executive branch of the Tourism Ministry: The Discover Dominica Authority (DDA). The office of the director of the DDA, Colin Piper, is decorated with gilded plaques from cruise ship companies, praising the quality of service. A scattering of plastic employee-of-the-month trophies and a little collection of Dominica tourism pamphlets in French and English. All behind glass. Colin Piper is a young, energetic man in his 30s, with a light complexion. He wears a shirt, a tie, and a badge. He did his studies in the United States.

“This was Nature Island before [the introduction of large-scale cruise ship tourism],” he says. Since the 1980s, many tourists of a completely different type have in fact visited Dominica. It is a popular destination for aficionados of green tourism and diving. It is the most mountainous and ecologically well preserved island in the region. It boasts innumerable rivers, hot springs lost in the jungle, a boiling lake in the heart of a volcanic crater, and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. Unlike cruise ship visitors, the travel tourists spend several days on the island. They stay in local hotels, eat in small restaurants, and spend much more money. On average, according to the DDA director, a cruise tourist spends around 35 Euros per day, while a travel tourist spends more than 100 Euros. Cruise ship tourism brings in revenues of 12 million Euros a year, while travel tourism brings in seven times that.

Piper says: “When we started large-scale cruise tourism, certain people complained very loudly.” That is because, in spite of what Piper believes, these two forms of tourism are not really compatible. Far from it. Ken Hill runs a small travel agency that specializes in small trips to the interior of the island. His company caters to both cruise ship tourists and travel tourists. Black, in his 50s, wearing a plain polo shirt with the logo of his agency, jeans, and a pair of hiking shoes, Hill says that cruise ship tourism has become necessary, but “travel tourists hate seeing hundreds of visitors being unloaded from the cruise ships at the sites they are visiting.”

Travel tourists walk around in small groups, packs on their backs, at a leisurely pace, visiting places on the island reputed for their calm and their beautiful vegetation. Cruise ship tourists by contrast descend by the thousands from their ships, move around in noisy crowds, and only have a few hours to hurry around visiting the most famous sites before the anchors are lifted at 4 pm. For them, the parking lot at Trafalgar Falls or the Emerald Pool are transformed into artisanal markets, filled with made-in-china products, contrived ‘folkloric’ bands, gaudy shirts and straw islander hats: Doudouisme [French literary movement exoticizing the Caribbean] will live forever here.

Travel tourists are not the only ones to complain about the cruise tourists. Some years ago, the government installed signs at the entrances to villages proclaiming that “tourism is everybody’s business.” Today the only remnants of these signs are the metallic stumps. Television ads still try to instill the message, interspersed among local programs in which British-accented personalities endlessly debate the best ways to welcome cruise tourists to the island, so that their numbers will ever continue growing.

Downtown, a man on the verge of exploding insults a taxi driver who is trying to attract some tourists. “Crap! You say it’s everybody’s business but there aren’t even buses to bring us to work.” “Go away all of you,” yells another man, eyes bulging.

For a certain part of the population, tourism is a clear irritant: the main avenue of the capital is closed to traffic so that cruise tourists can stroll around between cyber cafes and duty free shops; traffic and deliveries are impossible, and bus drivers prefer to try their luck picking up tourists in place of their designated routes carrying locals between villages and the capital. For these locals, tourists are rude, and they never see any of the profits from this supposedly lucrative sector. The result, according to Yvonne Armour, president of the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association, is that when they return to their ships, the tourists complain about the antisocial behavior of the local population.

At the port, we run into a former star of the local calypso scene, a tall and lanky black man, approaching his 70s. To get by nowadays, he has joined a congregation of freelance taxi drivers who try to promote day trips to the cruise ship tourists, trips that are off the prepaid circuits sold in bulk by local agencies. “Cruise ship tourism has become a drug for us,” he says.

These self-employed drivers and guides have become the bete noire of the government, the local tourism agencies and the American cruise ship companies in recent years. “They are cannibalizing the market,” Piper says. Daniel Nunez, who heads a small tourism agency specializing in trips, agrees. The recent fall in visits to the island by liners is related to harassment by freelance taxi drivers, among other things, he says.

According to tourism minister Ian Douglas, the recent decline in interest by cruise companies was caused in part by freelance drivers taking too much business away from established local agencies. Cruise companies collect between 25 and 35 percent commissions on trips that are offered on land. If independents take more than about 40 percent of the visitors away from paying agencies, the cruise companies will generally start pulling out of the market to look for better profits on other islands. Thus it is the government’s role to prevent this from happening. Rules on independent taxi licensing have become increasingly restrictive. Beginning in 2013, the government went as far as to impose “premium access passes”: on days when a cruise ship docks, only agencies are allowed to buy tickets to the principal tourist sites before 1 pm. Meanwhile, independent taxis are banned from the docks while cruise ships are debarking.

Only agency vehicles are allowed to park next to the ship, and their agents are the only ones permitted to offer their services to those indecisive tourists who were not already persuaded to buy a packaged excursion while they were still on the ship. On the other side of steel fences guarded by club-wielding policemen, the independents must wait their turn. “We only pick up the little fish that escape from the big net,” the calypso singer complains bitterly.

The profits from a cruise ship visit, in Dominica as elsewhere, go to the cruise ship company, local tourism agencies, freelance taxi drivers, and local merchants. The cruise ship business is an oligopoly dominated by three major American companies, which together control 80 percent of the Caribbean market: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line. These companies make their profits from the cabins they rent on the ship, sales of alcohol and entertainment on board (casino, cinema, parties, etc), and the commissions collected from excursions arranged by local agencies. These firms are the real engines of cruise tourism, and the main beneficiaries.

A trip to Dominica alone bring in about $5 million dollars. A typical cruise has six stops of the same kind in one week. The other big beneficiaries of this business are local tourism agencies. At the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association’s annual Seatrade conference in Miami, the cruise companies work out the details in person every year.

The classic arrangement in the Caribbean is that one local agency has a near-monopoly, while smaller competitors fight over the crumbs. On Dominica, this agency is Whitchurch Limited. According to the Discover Dominica Authority, Whitchurch controls about 80 percent of the excursions market on the island. The travel agency is only one of the company’s many businesses: import-export, financial services, wholesale and retail (food, construction materials…) In its cruise ship excursions business, the firm makes [annual]profits of about $5.6 million.

When we requested letters of introduction from the tourism ministry and the DDA to allow us to interview heads of tourism agencies, we received fourteen envelopes; only one was missing, the one that would enable us to interview Gerry Aird, the head of Whitchurch LTD ! After strenuous efforts, we eventually obtained a letter “strongly encouraging [Aird] to meet with us under the auspices of a DDA and Ministry of Tourism study.” Informed of the visit by his secretary, a smallish white man hurries toward us, visibly very irritated.

He entirely resembles a Beke white settler from the neighboring island of Martinique; the same complexion, those age-spots that we call fleurs de cimetiere. Pale eyes, a white mane of hair falling down the side of his head, he wears a red tie with yellow flowers. The recommendation on DDA letterhead trembles between his fine fingers: “Why didn’t they tell me? We are in continuous contact! I don’t have time! I won’t have time tomorrow! And no, not at the end of the week. We are very busy. Go back and tell them not to bother me!”

Unlike Whitchurch, the Dominica government makes little profit from cruise tourism. Of course there are taxes: port taxes, taxes on profits for local companies, the Value Added Tax. But the balance of power is not at all in favor of the government. Carnival Cruises alone has an annual turnover of more than $13 billion, while the entire GNP of Dominica barely exceeds $400 million. Result: the government collects little, a total of $2.9 million in 2011. In return, the government must build and maintain port infrastructure to welcome and maintain these giants of the sea. Infrastructure like this is very expensive, and puts the country in debt.

The government must also pay the salaries of the numerous bureaucrats who keep the business functioning smoothly, and try to stay ahead of the unending new demands so that the cruise companies will keep coming back next year: increase security at the sites, build and maintain good roads to the port, solve the problem of the junkies and the cripples in rags who beg on the streets, install more garbage cans, clean things up. The latest studies now find that the tourists find the island too noisy…

Everything in the country’s annual spending report suggests that the state makes little or no money from the trade. It is the rare island that risks a showdown with cruise companies by raising taxes. In such a case, all the cruise company has to do is resort to the competition of neighboring islands. There are thus sparse benefits for local populations, beyond the few jobs graciously ‘offered.’ “We think that tourism overall generates about 3,000 jobs,” says Colin Piper. “But we do not have any studies on the matter.”

This generous estimate aggregates travel tourism, and includes the hundreds of vendors who barely get by with the sporadic sale of made-in-china ‘Dominican handicrafts.’ It also includes the many tourist agency guides and drivers, who are called in occasionally at the last minute to earn around $30 for a day’s work. All that is left to hope for are a few tips, and the cost of living is rising rapidly in Dominica. The jobs that the sector does generate are low-skilled; better positions managing duty free shops and tourist bars tend to be dominated by French and Americans. Other than these foreigners, only the light-skinned local bourgeoisie tend to have the capital to invest in tourism related businesses.

An article published in the Chronicle on Feb. 8 2013 decrying the recent decline in visits did not even see fit to mention the industry’s negligible benefit to the island. The tourism ministry and the DDA only talk about “allowing cruise operators to make more money in Dominica.” And for that, Dominicans are again asked for more and more efforts: “from the cleanliness of our streets to the warmth of the local population, we must try our best.” Cruise tourism on Dominica, as in the rest of the Caribbean, recalls the title of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

And still, disappointed, the cruise companies are pulling back from the island, hoping to find juicer profits somewhere else.

Bruno Marques and Romain Cruse Translated from French by International Boulevard