Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tough Times for Debarking Cruise Passengers

Passengers waiting to board a cruiseship in Hilo
When a mass-market cruise ship disgorges its passengers in a port city the effect can be like that of a piano landing on top of a marshmallow. Said marshmallow might still be edible, but it will also be considerably flattened, much of its original character gone.

How the port areas handle the sudden influx of thousands of visitors (and sometimes tens of thousands, when several ships arrive on the same day) has been shifting recently. In some areas, governmental officials have been trying to make a killing off the influx of business; in others attempts are being made to protect the quality of life of the locals. And then, of course, there are the port areas that are, in actuality, just a non-floating extension of the cruise line.

Whatever the situation, these shifts have been detrimental to the cruising experience. Let's take a closer look at them.

Bermuda to Tourists: Don't Hop on the Bus, Gus!

In what must be a first, the government of Bermuda has decided to openly discriminate against tourists when it comes to public transportation. The island's Royal Gazette is reporting that buses that stop at the ports will be given a limit of how many passengers they can carry, a limit that will be  less than the number of actual seats on the bus. So when the buses arrive at the dockyards, drivers will no longer fill up the buses with all who are waiting.  This new regulation has been imposed because locals have complained that the buses between the dockyards and the city of Hamilton are so jammed with cruisers that drivers haven't been stopping for locals along the route. 

Surely there must have been a better solution. Bermuda derives considerable income from cruise passengers--tourism is the number one industry here, after all. Its surprising the government isn't trying to solve the problem by adding more buses on port days (and they know when those will be a year or so in advance). Yes, governmental budgets have been cut in Bermuda as they have elsewhere in the world. But additional income could likely be "found" with an uptick in fees to the cruiselines. With the number of ships that arrive in Bermuda yearly, its hard to imagine that a tax increase of this sort would raise cruise rates more than a dollar or two per passenger.

For now, tourists are going to have to get to the bus queue as quickly as possible to snag a seat (or head to the pricier high speed ferry). It will be interesting to see how the new measures play out.

Taxi-Free in Victoria

In Canada, tourists are stuck between two warring sides and not going anywhere fast. The city government of Victoria has tried to impose a yearly $200 fee per taxi per season for those that pick up cruise passengers. (The fee buys a special decal allowing the drivers into the port area). In retaliation, the city's drivers have, for the past two weeks, boycotted the port area, stranding dozens of cruise passengers.

Once again it seems odd that the government should intervene and try to control just who is using a mode of public transportation. I'm on the taxi drivers' side on this one. Apparently neither side is budging, so plan your transportation carefully if you're taking a cruise that docks in Victoria (and many do, especially during the Alaskan cruising season).

Don't Forget Phuket

And on April 6, for the second time in the last year, local taxi drivers in Phuket, angered by the fact that so many cruises use chartered buses rather than their services, blockaded the port. Cruise passengers were stuck on the ship until it departed later that afternoon.

In this case, however, it looks like a resolution has been arrived at. The taxi and tuk tuk drivers will be granted 50-50 access to the port and informed, in advance, when groups will be going out mostly by chartered mini-bus, so that they don't waste their day waiting around for non-existent fares.

Private Islands, "Historic" Ports

The ports mentioned above are all classic cruise ports. Increasingly passengers heading to the Caribbean and Mayan Riviera are finding that they're being let off in Neverlands of the cruiselines' creation.  Less than eager to share profits with local entrepreneurs and unable to physically dock many of the behemoth new liners in the traditional ports, the cruiselines have created their own little port stops--Historic Falmouth in Jamaica, Labadee in Haiti, Costa Maya in Mexico (to name but a few). Utterly artificial, teeming with passengers, and outrageously pricey they simply rejigger the life onboard the ship rather than giving passengers a real taste of the area they'd come to see. And the prices! I had the misfortune to spend a day inside the barbed wire fences of Labadee, where a really lame go-cart ride cost $30 and a zipline that was over in less than a minute even more.

So that's the recent news from cruise stops. A bit disheartening, eh (with the exception of Phuket, of course)? Handling large crowds is never an easy matter, of course. But its one of the reasons that I, personally, tend to choose land-based vacations rather than cruises.

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