Cruise industry eyes Cuba

Cruise industry eyes Cuba

The Obama administration’s plans to normalize relations with Cuba and the introduction of legislation to relax travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba have launched a tourism frenzy — and the cruise industry is first in line. Dr. Jorge Angulo, a Cuban marine scientist, told the New York Times that he is as excited as many of his countrymen, but is worried about the environmental impact of American tourism on his country’s reefs, mangroves, national parks and organic farms. Fear that American developers will ruin Cuba’s coastlines is enhanced by the overt eagerness of the cruise industry.

Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines (the third largest cruise company in the world) said in an interview, “Cuba and the cruise industry are just a match made in heaven, waiting to happen.” He already has itineraries locked away in his drawer. He said “My unfulfilled dream is to be on the bridge of one of my ships coming into Havana harbor.” Norwegian Cruise Lines is not the only company publicly announcing its interest in extending cruises to include Cuba. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation, told investors, “There’s a lot of pent-up demand to visit Cuba. It would allow us some very fuel-efficient itineraries. Also, it would provide new itineraries for those who love to go to the Caribbean.”

Because of the shallow draft of the Havana port, Donald said there needs to be investment and infrastructure over time, including the creation of a larger port. Carnival received permission on Tuesday from U.S. officials to sail to Cuba, which it hopes to include in itineraries by 2016. If the behavior of the cruise industry in other Caribbean destinations is any indication, Cuba won’t benefit from the additional tourism.

For example, Carnival Corp is currently building an $85 million port in the Dominican Republic. The development of Amber Cove is for Carnival’s fathom cruise line. According to Tara Russell, CEO of fathom, “This is not a cruise … It’s a social impact travel experience that happens at sea on a small repurposed ship.” The first ship in the fathom fleet is the Adonia (formerly of P&O Cruises) which received an A for sewage treatment, but an F for air pollution reduction from the 2014 Friends of the Earth Cruise Ship Report Card. Tara Russell wants the passengers to “see themselves as a giver of themselves on the trip.” However, this type of travel is often just about making travelers feel good about themselves “if a few hours a day of volunteering for three days is all it took to alleviate poverty, it would have been done by now.” Carnival has shown its dedication to the alleviation of poverty by terminating its own crew member retirement benefits and underpaying them.P&O (owned by Carnival) pays its workers $1.25 an hour and withholds tips unless they hit certain performance targets. The Trade Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber said, “It’s high time the disgraceful practice of allowing the shipping industry to pay poverty wages to workers who don’t live in the U.K. was stopped. Exploitative rates of pay for those working on British ships have no place in modern society.”

In addition, Carnival’s main competitor, Royal Caribbean, came under attack when it made the controversial decision to continue service to Haiti days after an earthquake devastated the island in 2010. President and CEO of Royal Caribbean, Adam Goldstein, admitted in an interview that his choice to keep business going was a “pretty easy decision […] a no-brainer.” Jim Walker, maritime lawyer, expressed his disgust at the motivations of Royal Caribbean in an open letter to the corporation, “Is it appropriate to sail into the idyllic port of Labadee, Haiti on a pleasure cruise when the dead remain unburied and the impoverished country writhes in chaos?” Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic is similar to the port built by cruise lines in Haiti. Labadee“was specifically designed and built to provide guests with a variety of opportunities to have fun in the sun.” Labadee is self sufficient: its food comes from the cruise ships and the “straw market” is staffed with people chosen from the cruise line. This eliminates contact with local Haitians and ensures that the money goes to back to Royal Caribbean rather than the local economy. Five major cruise operators in the Caribbean own six private islands are owned by 5 major cruise operators in the Caribbean (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Holland America, Disney, and Princess). These private destinations are only accessible to passengers and employees (often fenced or cordoned off) and cut out local ports of call. Cruise lines control the beach experience and reap the profits of selling drinks, souvenirs, boat rides, rental equipment for snorkeling and other paraphernalia.

Currently 3,500 miles of Cuban coastline remain undeveloped, and 25 percent of its marine waters are protected (far greater than the global average of 1 percent). Cubans assert that lifting the embargo and allowing American tourism will not affect their commitment to the environment. “We are not afraid of you coming to Cuba”, said José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, chief of mission for the Cuban Interests Section in D.C. “The conservation of the environment is in our Constitution.” Dan Whittle, lawyer and senior director of the Cuba program at the Environmental Defense Fund, told reporters that Cuba is aware of “the perils of unchecked economic growth, and some officials consider countries like China, which sacrificed environmental concerns in favor of development, examples of what to avoid.”

At Capitol Hill Oceans Week in Washington, D.C., in June, panelists used the example of the Florida Keys’ deteriorating coral reefs as a cautionary tale for what could happen to Cuba. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked the mayor of Monroe County, Forida, while on a climate tour, “How’s the snorkeling and scuba diving off the Keys?” She replied “It’s wonderful [if] you were here 10 years ago.” In Cuba, it’s not “wonderful [if] you were there ten years ago — it’s the way it’s supposed to be”. The possibility of cruising in Cuba paints an unsettling picture for the possible environmental future for the island. But Senator Whitehouse told reporters that Cuba will take caution before embracing the inundation of American tourists. “I don’t think they’re so lustful of development that they will just roll over and completely prostitute themselves to whomever comes by with a checkbook.”

Image Credit: Travel Aficionado, Flickr, Creative Commons 

Caroline Schwaner is Friends of the Earth’s oceans and vessels intern through the Duke University Stanback internship program.

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