When cruise ships unexpectedly come calling
Is the Caribbean prepared for a cruise ship environmental disaster?
In the last six weeks, two cruise ships from the same company, Costa Cruises, have experienced very serious incidents which could have resulted in potentially disastrous damage to the marine environment in tourism-sensitive areas of the world. Both ships drifted helplessly, without power or steering capability, the Costa Concordia capsizing on rocks near the Italian tourist island of Giglio and the Costa Allegra coming within 20 miles of the pristine Alphonse group of coral atolls in the Seychelles.
In the Caribbean - which is THE most tourism dependent region in the world – Costa Cruises has ships calling in ports in Jamaica, the Turks & Caicos islands, St. Maarten, the Bahamas, Antigua, the British Virgin Islands, Belize, and the Cayman Islands. Costa is part of Carnival Group, and their ships, including Princess, P&O, Holland America, Cunard, Seabourne, and Aida cruise lines, call at almost every major island in the region. The group’s financial resources dwarf the GDP of most Caribbean economies. In total, over 60 percent of the world cruise ship fleet is in the Caribbean in the winter high season – bigger and bigger ships today, which apparently have less than adequate emergency back-up systems to allow safe operation of the vessel in the event of a major fire or severe grounding or collision.
The Italian Coast Guard employed multiple vessels and helicopters in rescue attempts at the scene of the Costa Concordia, and a large French fishing vessel first took the Costa Allegra under tow. A Dutch salvage company was soon alongside, pumping out the Costa Concordia’s fuel tanks to reduce the pollution potential, although the ship apparently may still break up on the rocks and scatter all kinds of debris. What resources exist in most Caribbean islands to limit the effect of a similar or greater cruise ship disaster?
Off the Italian coast, the ship hits rocks, while in the Seychelles and in the Caribbean, the resulting damage would likely be caused to reefs. The damage to Caribbean reefs and the marine environment - simply from cruise ship anchors and disposal of garbage overboard - has been well documented in the past. However, a serious grounding or collision could result in a devastating long-term environmental disaster. Most cruise ships move to other regions of the world at the end of the winter season, and detailed Caribbean island cruise itineraries can be readily changed. Therefore, in the event of a disaster, it is a single or small group of island governments which will bear the full impact.
How much assistance and cooperation have Caribbean governments received from cruise lines to finance and resource effective disaster planning to mitigate these risks? In recent years, the spend on island per cruise ship passenger appears to have declined significantly, while Caribbean government port taxes have not even kept up with inflation in the region. Today’s cruise ship business model is a highly aggressive one, in terms of both its competitive position with Caribbean hotels in the high season, and its resultant negative impact on inward investment for new resorts. Is it not time that the fiscal contribution of cruise lines to the Caribbean more fairly reflected their impact on the local environment and, ultimately, their potential for environmental disaster in the region?