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Mutual Respect Takes Work


© St. Petersburg Times

The two officials could not have been more articulate in their comments, which made it all the more interesting that they were espousing opposite views.

People of the Caribbean islands "will be polite to you (tourists) to a point," said Anguilla's J. Alan Gumbs, "because you are bringing dollars, but they may resent you because you are tearing up their way of life."

Counterpoint from the Bahamas' Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace: Because tourism is "60 percent of our gross national product," the government "decided we would be running tourism like a company -- to make it easier to create, sell and deliver satisfying vacations."

Part of the philosophical difference has to do with practical realities: Anguilla is a speck of land east of the Virgin Islands -- more than 1,200 miles from Miami. As Gumbs, chairman of the Anguilla Board of Tourism put it, "You don't get to Anguilla with just one stop from anywhere."

But the 700 islands of the Bahamas are barely a half-hour's flight from Florida's East Coast -- and the islands are the No. 1 port of call for the booming cruise-ship business.

According to Vanderpool-Wallace, the Harvard-educated director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, the national population is about 300,000 and the islands get about 3.2-million tourists a year, about evenly split between cruise passengers and overnight visitors.

Anguilla has a population "just shy of 10,000," said Gumbs, with about 35,000 overnight visitors annually, about 70,000 people making day trips from nearby St. Martin to sun on Anguilla's beaches, and 3,000 to 4,000 cruise passengers.

The two officials, and Celebrity Cruises president Richard Sasso, were on a panel discussing the impact of tourism with more than 40 travel editors and writers, members of the Society of American Travel Writers who had convened for an annual meeting, held aboard the cruise ship Ecstasy.

Sasso, who is also chairman of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, a trade organization of cruise-line and island-nation officials, said a 1995 report put the economic impact of cruising on the Caribbean and Bahamas at $2-billion annually.

Vanderpool-Wallace offered another eye-opening estimate: A 1996 study showed that just 5 percent of guests in Bahamian hotels said they had returned after a cruise-ship visit. But these 5 percent -- perhaps 80,000 people -- spent about as much money as the 1.6-million cruise passengers.

The explanation is that the cruise visitors are daytrippers, often hitting just the duty-free shops in Nassau's Bay Street or hustling off to one of the big casinos on nearby Paradise Island. The hotel and resort guests do those things and spend several days on the islands gambling, eating, playing golf, deep-sea fishing and, of course, paying for the hotel rooms.

Consequently, Vanderpool-Wallace said, "Our postion regarding the cruise business has turned 180 percent," ending the longtime argument from hoteliers that the day-visit cruise ships were siphoning off customers. Boosted by the creation just a couple of years ago of the 1,417-room Atlantis, Paradise Island megaresort, onshore tourism is surging.

To keep it that way, the Bahamas is "the only nation on Earth that has a tourism education course in grades 1-12," Vanderpool-Wallace said. The courses, as well as efforts to educate the adult population about the value of tourism, are aimed at creating a steady stream of employees interested in working in tourism.

In most places, Vanderpool-Wallace said, "Tourism is the last work choice for people -- if you can't find a job anywhere else, you wind up in tourism. But to let that happen to your national industry, you'd have to be nuts."

Instead, "We are looking for rocket scientists . . . to help preserve the local culture." Preserving that culture while promoting mass tourism "takes a lot of brainpower," Vanderpool-Wallace said.

That potential impact on irreplaceable resources and culture is precisely why Anguilla is so leery of tourism, Gumbs noted -- and why this year it banned cruise ships carrying more than 200 passengers.

"We have to look at the ecological considerations," Gumbs said. "If you were to dump 2,500 people (the passenger capacity of several ships) on a beach in Anguilla, you'd have some basic concerns, including, where would they go to the bathroom?"

However, the limit of 200-passenger ships yields "numbers we can assimilate." What's more, Gumbs said, "People traveling on these boats tend to want to come back to stay in a hotel. These are very well-educated, polite tourists."

Gumbs, whose family goes back at least six generations on Anguilla, formerly practiced law in New Jersey. Now he and his wife, Lisa, operate a hotel and restaurant on Anguilla. He told the editors he doesn't have to look far to see the dangers of tourism overdevelopment.

On nearby St. Martin/St. Maarten, which has both French- and Dutch-controlled sectors, "over-development led to illegal immigration" by people seeking work in tourism. Those workers "lived in shanty towns, and now there are traffic jams and air pollution -- all the things people used to come there to avoid.

"The most peaceful little island that had everything now has significant problems."

Vanderpool-Wallace also noted the concern of giving too much to promote tourism.

"Visitors' satisfaction comes third: Unless the people who live and work in the Bahamas (tourism) industry are satisfied, you get insurrection."

Noted Sasso, the cruise executive, "No tourism is very bad. (But) we need to be sure that our passengers treat the destinations well, that they consider them as future vacation spots."

As for which islands the cruise ships call on, Sasso said it's combination of "marquee value (to potential passengers), enjoyment for the passengers who land there, and cost of reaching the port."

If post-trip surveys "show passengers do or don't like a place, we change itineraries. It isn't just a matter of economics: We have ways to extract money from our passengers, and one more or one fewer stop in a seven-day trip is going to be mean the same amount of income to us."

But just as "all cruise ships are different -- different sizes, costs, passenger types," said Sasso, "so are destinations different: Some have more cultural attributes, some have more natural attributes -- and many destinations around the world don't require cruise ships . . . But cruise ships do need the Caribbean, and the Caribbean does need cruise ships."

Originally published May 18, 1997

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