Travesty of the Seas

    A dozen large ships rest in Fort Lauderdale’s port on a busy Sunday, with shuttle buses taking crew members to the airport and shopping malls as tens of thousands of Americans board cruise ships bound for the Caribbean. Combined with Miami’s lengthy row of terminals an hour to the south, and Orlando’s Port Canaveral to the north, southern Florida plays host to about fourteen million cruise ship passengers each year.
    This is where I began my journey on ships. Looking back, the full weight of bringing thousands of American tourists on one-week vacations to the Caribbean, a site of mass-murder and slavery under the guise of European exploration, went slightly over my head. I was a recent music-conservatory graduate and felt some pressure to use my new degree in a professional setting. I was less concerned with the history of the places I was visiting, because everyone else just went to the beach.
   I joined the Oasis of the Seas in late February 2014. At the time, it shared the distinction of being the world’s largest cruise ship with the Allure of the Seas (now there are four of these behemoths, with a fifth ship on its way)On a busy week, each ship carries over 6,300 passengers and 2,200 crew members. Oasis would sail to the eastern Caribbean itinerary (the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten) on Saturday and Allure would sail to the western Caribbean itinerary (Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico) on Sunday. The next week, they would switch itineraries. The two ships were so wide that these were the only ports they could fit in, and most had to be rebuilt or expanded by dredging to accommodate their sheer mass.
  Take Jamaica, for instance. In a 2011 article titled “The Trouble with Falmouth,” Cruise Critic details financial problems plaguing the construction of Jamaica’s newest port. In an effort to bring their largest ships to Jamaica, Royal Caribbean helped the Jamaican government obtain $200 million in financing from Denmark to build a dock in Falmouth. The town of Falmouth sits squarely between the  ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, a distance of fifty miles, but obstacles at each of these ports prevented the dredging and expansion required for the Oasis-class ships. In designing Falmouth’s cruise terminal, Royal Caribbean worked with Orlando-based IDEA Inc. to reflect the Georgian-era buildings in town, in a way that can only be compared to a theme park. In these buildings you’ll find the following: Margaritaville, a Dairy Queen, the Appleton Estate Rum Factory, House of Diamonds, a Shade Shack, and an outdoor food stall selling beef patties to crew members.

Nassau’s Atlantis mega-resort as seen from the cruise terminal.
Celebrity Reflection leaving Miami.

    The reality of the Falmouth situation is that it’s a mess. A gated entry with heavy security separates the port from the town, and passengers complain bitterly about the experience of Falmouth itself: dozens of locals line the streets aggressively selling cheap trinkets and offering weed or hard drugs. During their vacation to Jamaica, many passengers (and crew members) don’t make it past the Margaritaville pool.
    House of Diamonds hosts the only wifi close to the ship, and so its air-conditioned second floor is filled with crew members and passengers trying to connect their phones to its slow service. Often you’ll see a line of crew members squatting against a wall outside, calling home or checking their bank balances.

Artist’s depiction of Falmouth’s  cruise terminal.

   In the Bahamas, Nassau faces similar issues. The fleets of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines are registered there, and it sees two and a half million cruise passengers each year. Nassau’s cruise terminal holds up to five ships at a time, and was dredged to support even the largest Oasis-class vessels; most days there are at least a few ships in Nassau’s cruise port. But despite being one of the most-visited ports in the world by cruise traffic, Nassau’s reputation as a center of crime has created an atmosphere of animosity with tourists. Many cruise guests, especially repeat travelers, choose to stay onboard the ship in Nassau, and the local economy has suffered.
    Royal Caribbean recently issued a letter to guests, warning them not to bring valuables ashore; meanwhile, the Bahamian government claims crime has been dropping and that Royal Caribbean’s warnings are unfounded. The Bahamian Minister of Tourism was able to convince Royal Caribbean to rescind the letters, but the general feeling among most tourists is that the cities of the Bahamas - Nassau and Freeport - are dangerous and crime-ridden. Many tourists in Nassau will head straight for the private resorts like Atlantis or Blue Lagoon Island, rather than interact with locals or experience the culture of Nassau’s fish fry.

Private Property

    Within the necklace of islands in the Bahamas lies an outcrop known as Coco Cay. Its north side is a destitute slab of rock plunging into the ocean, split down the middle to form a channel into a sheltered inlet. A half-dozen decrepit Tender boats spend hours ferrying tourists from cruise ships to this inlet.
    The Cay’s east and south sides form a long stretch of pristine beach, utterly obliterated by thousands of beach chairs, umbrellas, paper plates, hammocks, and water slides. Jet skis and parasailing boats create an inescapable frequency of noise. Look east and you’ll see similar islands, their coasts dotted with identical vacationers from the other cruise lines (MSC, Norwegian, Disney, Carnival, Holland America, and Princess also lease islands from the Bahamian government). On the narrow western expanse of the Cay, far from the overcrowded beaches and obscenely inauthentic Caribbean shopping experience, lies the remains of a small British fort from the eighteenth century. It is ignored by the vast majority of passengers, who head straight for the beaches close to the island’s entrance.
    As cruise passengers grow increasingly wary of criminal activity in the larger island-city ports, the cruise lines are responding by buying leases on sections of land, or entire islands like Coco Cay. Royal Caribbean plans to pump two hundred million dollars into Coco Cay in the coming years, adding more amenities and constructing a pier to allow its largest ships to dock there. The private destinations of Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s resort in Haiti) and Amber Cove (Carnival’s resort in the Dominican Republic) are fenced off from their respective communities; only workers can enter. The cruise lines prefer this because they don’t have to pay exorbitant docking fees or subject their passengers to any potential criminal activity, and the passengers prefer this because it’s merely an extension of the ship’s activities - the historical context can be ignored in favor of relaxation. Labadee was named after the French plantation baron Marquis de La’Badie, but there is no evidence of this surrounding the barbecues, zip-lines, and beach chairs.

The pier at Amber Cove, Carnival’s private resort in the Dominican Republic.

Black Beard’s “grave” on Coco Cay.

The semi-abandoned tourist town of Costa Maya includes a fake Mayan pyramid.

    Still, these private locales are not without incidents of their own. In 2016, boats of Haitians created a blockade which prevented Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas from docking at Labadee. One protestor held a sign that said USA AWAY. After a few hours of negotiations between the Haitian Coast Guard and the protestors, the 3,600-passenger vessel turned around and left. Two days later, the 3,300-passenger Navigator of the Seas cancelled its call at Labadee as well. The cruise lines bring a lot of money to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but it mostly goes to the governments and not to the people. Strict contracts prevent the majority of local people from selling goods to tourists.
    As these incidents continue, it’s important to note the growing trend in substituting fake ports-of-call for real ones. When St. Maarten receives up to twenty-five thousand cruise ship passengers in a single day, its local economy is strengthened. Diverting these passengers to a private island creates a circular economy for the cruise lines, with minimal risk of incidents. It also damages the fragile ecosystem of commerce these small islands