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Caribbean cruises leave wave of bitter merchants

Associated Press Modified: October 10, 2012 at 7:46 am •  Published: October 10, 2012
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But each passenger to Labadee pays a $10 tax to the Haitian government, producing more than $6 million a year for the impoverished nation.

In the Bahamas, Disney Cruise Line ships stop at the company's own private island, dubbed Castaway Cay, where locals work as massage therapists, bartenders and drivers and supplies are brought in by the ships.

John Issa, former head of Jamaica's hotel association, said the cruise lines enjoy an unfair advantage over land-based businesses because regional governments fear the ships may pull out for a competing destination, while "once you put down a hotel, you are captive."

In one famous case, Carnival Cruise Lines withdrew from Grenada in 1999 amid a dispute over a $1.50-a-head tax to pay for a new landfill.

"The governments are terrified of making more demands," Bulmer-Thomas said.

The cruise industry says the ships steadily bring in huge amounts of tourists who otherwise might never come at all, so any money they do spend is a gain.

While locals want more interaction with moneyed tourists, the visitors often have little interest in exploring the sometimes gritty reality of life in a Caribbean port.

"Folks on a Royal Caribbean cruise are not looking for culture or history for the most part. They want to shop. Go to the beach. And drink. Not necessarily in that order," said Heidi Barry Rodriguez, a librarian from Cary, North Carolina, who recently cruised on a vessel to Falmouth and didn't meet a single passenger who explored the town.

On a recent morning at Falmouth's port, tourists disembarked from Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, a 5,400-passenger liner with a 3D movie theater, ice rink, casino and multiple restaurants and bars. Most passengers were escorted onto buses destined for package tours in Jamaican resort meccas about an hour's drive away.

One dejected vendor selling hair-braiding services shut her eyes and raised her hands skyward, praying aloud that she could make a little money.

But even passengers who skipped the packaged excursions mostly shopped at stores on the fenced-in pier or strolled along the town's waterfront trying to avoid locals hawking cha-cha rattles and tropical clothing.

"We don't discourage guests from going into the town of Falmouth, but many of our guests choose a Royal Caribbean excursion to see some of the country's beaches and famous attractions," said H.J. Harrison Liu, brand communications manager with Royal Caribbean.

Falmouth Mayor Garth Wilkinson said his town "is just not seeing the benefit to the cruise ship port."

According to William Tatham, vice president of Jamaica's port authority, that's because the city is still adapting to its new role as a resort town. He noted that nearly all businesses in the town are aimed at locals, such as hardware suppliers, meat markets and general stores.

"The problem in Falmouth is that the residents are not tourist savvy," Tatham said during a phone interview.

Paul Davy, a father of two who sells wooden statues of roosters, fish and other creatures outside the port, says locals are growing angry at the lack of opportunity.

"The pot is starting to boil and, trust me, it will boil over if things don't change around here," said Davy, who helped build the pier as a construction worker but turned to crafts vending a year and a half ago. "Why can't we, the people who actually live here, make a living off the cruise ships, too?"

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Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.