As Dominica waits for cruise ships to begin sailing again, now is the time to renegotiate better terms with cruise lines

With the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extending its 'no sail' order against the cruise industry to 30 September, dozens of vessels that normally sail the Caribbean remain idle.

The CDC said cruise ship passengers and crew shared spaces that were more crowded than most urban settings and "even when only essential crew are on board, ongoing spread of COVID-19 still occurs".

"If unrestricted cruise ship passenger operations were permitted to resume, passengers and crew on board would be at increased risk of COVID-19 infection and those that work or travel on cruise ships would place substantial unnecessary risk on health care workers, port personnel and federal partners . . . and the communities they return to," it said.

The prohibition on sailing, which could be extended beyond 30 September if the CDC is not satisfied that it was safe to sail again, has left a mega-sized hole in the cruise lines' budgets.

"It's been truly challenging," Marie McKenzie, vice president of global ports and Caribbean government relations at Carnival Corporation, said during a recent webinar featuring cruise executives and hosted by the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO). "We have taken a pretty significant hit. We're earning absolutely no revenue at this time." Rick Sasso, the chairman of MSC Cruises' North American operations, described the situation as "financial Armageddon" but said he was confident of calmer waters ahead.

"We've had three to four months of no income, no revenue streams. Fortunately we've also had decades of incredible growth. Yes, this is a profound interruption of that success. But we will come out of it. We won't start cruising until we know it's healthy. But we will find a way to get back to the profitable years," said Sasso, who, along with Russell Benford, the vice president ‎for government relations in the Americas at Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd, joined McKenzie on the panel.

This extended pause has many questioning whether the cruise lines should return to Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean. At the very least, some contend, regional leaders, include Dominica's Roosevelt Skerrit, should use this period to negotiate a new deal with the cruise companies that are more favourable to the destinations.

"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 use of the region's exclusive economic maritime zone," wrote David Jessop, the former managing director and now consultant at the Caribbean Council, a London, UK-based trade and investment consultancy.

Cruise tourism generated nearly US$3.4 billion in direct expenditures among 36 destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean, according the most recent survey conducted in 2018 by US-based Business Research and Economic Advisors on behalf of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, a non-profit organisation composed of 21 cruise lines operating nearly 200 vessels in Floridian, Caribbean and Latin American waters. The contribution to the Caribbean is in the region of US$2 billion. There was no information on direct contribution to Dominica.

However, the massive gulf in contributions between cruise and stayover tourism is evident in the 2019 figures released by the CTO. According to the regional tourism development agency, there were nearly as many cruise visits to the Caribbean last year (a record 30.2 million) as there were stayover visitors (31.5 million). Yet, cruise visitors accounted for just 8.1 per cent of visitor spending - US$3.3 billion – while overnight tourists brought US$37.3 billion.

Environmentalist and long-standing cruise critic Athie Martin said after decades of hosting cruisers and little returns, change "driven by substantial principles and logic of sustainability" was needed.

"What is the carrying capacity of these small islands to provide a quality experience for millions of visitors in the midst of thousands of residents? Traffic, crowds, lines, intimate contact, rapid transactions with people who have no names and barely have faces underscore the fast pace of the one-day visit in an island barely structured to meet the basic life needs of the few who live there," Martin told The Sun.

"Is this the experience that we wish to share? Is this even our experience?

Roads and bridges built to handle safely, much fewer vehicles like buses hurrying to make that second trip. Tiny shops and stores where people still say hello and like to chat as part of the island experience but have to put all this aside and be as brisk and curt as the shopkeepers in any metropolitan city. We used to brand ourselves as nice and friendly but the speed of cruise visits seems not to allow time to be nice."

Martin argued that the form of cruising that forces Dominica and other countries in the region to operate well beyond their physical, social and financial capacities "definitely causes damage and eventual deterioration" to these countries. However, he said instead of ending cruising altogether, governments should design integrated approaches that encourage the vessels to spend a lot more time here "so that the visitors really get a sense and taste of an island and in addition, have the opportunity to spend more and maybe even discover new partners, business and otherwise".