“What a sight for my eyes… cruise passengers back in Bim!”
This exclamation by a worker at the Bridgetown Port overheard yesterday as the Celebrity Millennium docked here at its first port of call, perhaps best sums up what may have been on the minds of the scores of officials and industry players gathered to welcome 500 COVID- vaccinated passengers.
In other circles, it was described as historic, since it’s the first liner in the Western hemisphere to sail in 15 months. No doubt it offers a glimmer of hope for a battered industry, anxious to rebound from the COVID pandemic.
Tourism Minister Senator Lisa Cummins in her remarks emphasised: “We have to prepare to welcome visitors again, not just for our institutions, not just for the Bridgetown Port, but for the many people whose livelihoods have depended on our ability to do that.”
We couldn’t agree more but aver that it cannot be business as usual for the mega cruise ships that have amassed millions in profits from our sunkissed destinations in the region. Now more than ever must we seize the opportunity to chart a new course for the cruise sector that will deliver greater benefits for workers, a better experience for visitors and higher value for Destination Barbados.
Just before the coronavirus upended tourism and travel last year, Barbados was riding high on a new record for cruise passenger arrivals in 2019.
According to the Barbados Port Inc, cruise passenger arrivals totalled 853,200 from 422 cruise ship calls from January to December 2019, the highest to date. This was a three per cent increase in cruise passenger arrivals at the Port of Bridgetown over 2018.
Barbados’ previous cruise high was 827,486 visitors registered in 2017, when the island benefitted significantly from the redeployment of ships from other destinations ravaged by hurricanes that year. In 2018, some 826,267 cruise passenger arrivals were registered from 437 vessel calls.
Big numbers indeed, but the benefits have not been great enough and the trickle-down effect has been even smaller.
The concerns that the mass influx of tourists has yielded minimal benefits to key interests – taxi operators, craft producers, vendors and the like – while causing great environmental harm to our coral reefs and waters have not been lost on most.
At the moment, establishing safety protocols for cruises to resume safely seems to be the primary objective and rightfully so. But for cruise travel to resume more responsibly, tourism-dependent destinations and operators need to develop a symbiotic relationship where both mutually benefit.
Already, we have heard some disappointment from small shop owners and taxi operators as business resumes.
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Blue Economy Kirk Humphrey has assured that these players and other small business interests will not be left behind.
“I will not be able to sleep with myself if we are unable to build out some of the inefficiencies, inequalities and inequities that plague tourism. Ordinary people were not the traditional benefactors and now they must be the beneficiaries as they go forward,” Humphrey declared in an interview with Barbados TODAY.
We hope this desire translates into action. Any new partnership should result in cruise operators making a bigger contribution to the destinations – and not just in taxes.
On the table should be guaranteed quotas for employment. There is also need for developing stronger linkages with other players, manufacturers and farmers.
It would also be a big plus if the cruise lines spend more days in port so that visitors get a richer experience of our island. More than the opportunity to spend more, we need to do more to convert these hours-long tourists into long-stay visitors.
We share the Minister of Tourism’s joy and delight over the sight of mega cruise ships on our horizon. But we also take note of her passionately expressed concern to strike a meaningful blow against the inequity and inequality that are too often the wake of these floating hotels’ passage. We look forward to her solutions.