The message from the cruise ship industry could not be louder or clearer: harass our passengers and we will leave. That is the take-away from the news that Royal Caribbean and sister cruise line Celebrity Cruises are pulling some of their cruise ships from the port of Falmouth in Jamaica. A port, by the way, in which they have invested heavily.
Apparently, the cruise ship operators have cited security concerns as the reason for pulling-out of Falmouth. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, the mayor of Falmouth expressed three reasons for the decision: (1) “visitor harassment,” (2) the “conduct of tour bus operators,” and (3) “craft vendors leaving much to be desired.”
If those reasons sound familiar, it is because we have heard them before, right here in our 108-square-mile bit of paradise called Antigua. In fact, not too long ago, in 2015, there was an unprecedented town hall meeting to discuss these very issues.
At that time, we wrote, “… we express the hope that all tourism stakeholders, from Ministry of Tourism officials to taxi drivers and craft and T-shirt vendors who depend solely on the industry for their livelihood, stood up and took notice of the complaints from cruise visitors that came to light during a historic town hall meeting this week.
“Even more so, we hope that they realised the importance of the meeting that brought the hierarchy of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association to our shores to discuss the state of that sector. And that realisation, we hope, would have propelled them into action to be present at the first such meeting to be held here.”
The fallout from that meeting was a laundry list of promises and demands. In the wake of the complaints, then President of the St John’s Taxi Association Evanson Ellis called on the relevant authorities to put steps in place to improve the working conditions for taxi operators at Heritage Quay.
Ellis said complaints of visitors being hassled by taxi drivers is nothing new, but the problem was not created by the membership of the association. His reasoning? “It is not an easy thing for us to fight in the quay, we need the support for the corporation. We have our members that try to go by the rules, some are a little bit unruly but what they are saying is that the outside man is rubbing shoulders with them,” Ellis said.
Back then, we were told that the taxi association and membership met with the St John’s Development Corporation to discuss the possible solutions to the problem. What ever happened? According to those that we contacted, not much. Things are pretty much the same and the fight for the precious few dollars from the cruise ship passengers is as aggressive as it ever was.
As we reflect, it is interesting to hear the description a visit to Antigua from a cruise ship passenger back then. He wrote, “I wanted to have a nice walk downtown and the taxi drivers crowded (around me) and tried to persuade me into going onto their tours. A couple of them followed and would not leave us be. I had to go through the crowd of drivers to get into the town so it’s unavoidable.” The complainant highlighted that “This was the only port that was difficult.” It would not surprise us if we heard that another cruise ship passenger wrote a near identical complaint recently.
At the time, the Director of Port Operations for Carnival Cruise Lines, Leon Sutcliffe, said the feedback from guests was not encouraging. He was supported by the then President of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), Michelle Paige, who told tourism workers that all reports indicate that Antigua needs to do a better job.
Tourism is the lifeblood of our country. If we do not do a better job at making people feel welcome then we are slitting our wrists. When a cruise ship pulls out of a port citing security concerns, the perceptions become greater than the reality. No one thinks of aggressive t-shirt vendors and tour operators, their minds wander into more serious crimes and once that perception takes root, it is very difficult to change.
With no economic alternatives in sight, everyone is a stakeholder in tourism. We all need to put out the welcome mat and be on our best behavior in order to make our visitors feel safe and secure while enticing them to spend a few dollars in paradise.
Beyond that, we need to rid ourselves of the rudeness and aggressiveness that is constantly on display. It should be obvious that aggression will not win the day. Who wants to go on a tour with a rude taxi/tour operator? Who wants to spend their hard-earned dollar to buy souvenirs from a pushy vendor? The answer is: No one!
Sure, the authorities can do more to assist the situation but the bulk of the solution rests in each of us and how we relate to visitors. We can start by being polite.