Fears of abduction, muggings and unfamiliar surroundings are keeping larger numbers of tourists confined to the ever larger cruise ships that bring them to the Caribbean waters for its marine life, sun and blue skies.
Added to those discouraging factors are perceptions that onshore law enforcement is lax and emergency medical treatment non-existent.
Even as governments and tourism promoters hotly contest those verdicts when delivered in the media or on tourism Web sites, operators of cruise liners are seeing new opportunities in offering well-heeled customers self-contained floating cities.
“People seem to be content to have capsule experiences of the areas they visit and then go back to their secure surroundings on board those giant ships,” said one tour operator. “The effect on local economies is potentially disastrous.”
One impact of the changing perceptions has been the emergence of local security companies that offer protection wholesale to traveling groups or to individuals, but their growth is minuscule and it’s too early to tell if the required confidence will return to encourage holidaymakers to spend more time — and money — onshore.
Security on board cruisers has also been tightened with closed-circuit cameras, metal detectors and X-ray machines, more security staff on guard — and privately run resorts that eliminate the need for passengers to venture out into native environments.
In most cases passengers are warned they will do so at their own risk, and many don’t, industry sources said.
Cruise operators like the Miami-based Royal Caribbean, which operates about 20 ships, also run private resorts that serve as stops on some Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries. The resorts feature private beaches and entertainment areas, leaving few incentives for passengers to venture out to explore the local atmosphere.
Sir Ronald Sanders, a businessman, former British representative in Antigua and Barbuda, and frequent blogger, cited the imminent arrival of two new Finnish-made giant cruise liners that would go into service in the region by December this year.
He said the giant ships will pose a challenge to the Caribbean’s tourism-dependent economies not only because they are too big to enter many ports or sail in their vicinity but also because they are self-contained.
“These ships are destinations in themselves; they have more entertainment amenities including theaters, shopping, restaurants, bars, health spas, swimming pools, sports facilities than many Caribbean towns,” Sanders wrote on caribbeannetnews.com.
“They are also a safe and secure environment. In this sense, the ships themselves are direct competition for the Caribbean destinations at which they will call,” he said.
“Why then should passengers come off these ships to visit Caribbean islands?” he asked.
Many Caribbean ports will not see the two giant ships, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, he said, adding, “They simply will not have the port facilities to accommodate them.”
Oasis of the Seas is due to call at St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), St. Maarten and the Bahamas on its Eastern Caribbean cruise, and at Haiti and Jamaica on its Western Caribbean cruise up to April 2010.
But the cruise liners, with up to 6,000 passengers and 2,160 crew members, will skip many other Caribbean ports that depend on tourism earnings, he pointed out.
Barbados and Eastern Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts-Nevis, Dominica, Grenada and St. Lucia, will have to calculate whether to equip their ports to attract the two giant ships, Sanders said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office in a study noted the sensitivity of security in the Caribbean for U.S. interests.
As the United States’ “third border,” the GAO said, the United States is particularly interested in ensuring that the ports in the Caribbean — through which goods bound for U.S. ports and cruise ships carrying its citizens must travel — are secure.
Industry sources said that a balance now needs to be found between ensuring safe cruises for security-conscious travelers and promoting sustainable international tourism that does not neglect the Caribbean’s need to continue earning cash from the visitors.