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Caribbean Ports May Tell Cruise Ships to Float on By

As passenger numbers swell, Mexico and other nations seek per-person taxes to aid local economies. The industry vows to fight.

September 05, 2004|Mark Stevenson | Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY — A revolt is growing in the Caribbean over increasingly massive cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers who swamp beach towns, buy a soda and a few trinkets, and reembark a few hours later.

Mexico's government is considering charging the country's first per-passenger cruise tax, while beach towns that no longer want to serve as a mere backdrop for the $15-billion cruise industry are beginning to say no to the big ships.

Belize recently became one of the first nations to try to limit the number of cruise ship passengers, capping them at 8,000 per day after the tiny Caribbean nation was invaded by about 13,000 people simultaneously -- equivalent to a 5% increase in the country's population.

The movement has support from groups ranging from local hotel owners to environmentalists who say the ships leave few benefits. Discontent has been fed in part by the explosive growth in the number of cruise passengers, whose numbers tripled in Mexico in the last decade.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 12, 2004 Bulldog Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Cruise ship photo -- A caption with an A2 photo in the Sept. 5 Preview edition said that two cruise ship were anchored next to a resort hotel in Majahual, Mexico. In fact, the cruise ships were anchored next to a commercial corridor where passengers may eat, swim and buy souvenirs in Majahual. As passenger numbers swell, Mexico and other Caribbean nations are considering per-person taxes to aid local economies. The industry vows to fight such efforts.

Mexico's Tourism Secretariat submitted a proposal July 28 to charge between $5 and $10 for each of the more than 5 million cruise passengers who visit Mexico annually.

Other new tax proposals appear to be making headway in the rest of the Caribbean, home to almost half of the world's cruise voyages.

The Mexican tax proposal represents a victory for Playa del Carmen, a Caribbean beach town that last year became one of the first ports in the region to reject a cruise ship dock unless the industry paid a fee for local development.

"There have been shows of support from other towns, and this position is becoming generalized throughout the Caribbean," said Playa del Carmen spokesman Angel Torres.

During a comment period on Mexico's new cruise policy in 2003, a tax to benefit local economies was one of the key demands of Caribbean beach towns.

Playa del Carmen's mayor wanted to impose a head tax of $30 for each passenger who used the proposed dock to come ashore at the nearby resort of Xcaret.

Industry leader Carnival Cruise Lines, a partner in the Xcaret dock project, brushed off the town's demands. "It was a ridiculous amount of money," said Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher, who argues the companies already pay a significant amount in local service charges.

However, in Mexico, port fees go to private harbor management firms -- not local communities. And the stores that line docks are often owned or leased by the cruise companies.

The industry appears ready to fight any increase. It pressed Belize for a five-year moratorium on a proposed $2 increase in its $5 passenger tax. Belize had planned to use the money to protect its coral reefs and jungles.

The Xcaret dock project was finally put on hold, in hopes of better times. But opposition hasn't waned.

The industry barely managed to beat back a 2003 proposal in the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization to charge a uniform $20 cruise passenger tax to fund marketing for the region. That would be in addition to the $3.50 to $5 local levies currently charged by many Caribbean island nations.

Karen Ford Warner, deputy secretary-general of Caribbean tourism group, said she believed negotiators would soon reach a compromise with the cruise lines, under which the companies would give the region cash, training, or promises to hire locally and buy local products.

"I think there is a strong feeling that the cruise lines have to make a greater contribution," Ford Warner said.

But the Mexican Ship Pilots' Union says cruise lines and the government have conspired to begin eliminating one of the few locally hired positions, in which pilots guide ships into dock. The government says local pilots are no longer needed at the Pacific ports of Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco and Zihuatanejo.

When taxes are proposed at one port, cruise operators talk about switching to another where costs are lower, something that may have played a part in Mexico's decision to charge less than Caribbean tourism's proposed $20 levy.

Environmentalists have long been opposed to the giant cruise vessels, saying they dump oil and refuse at sea and run roughshod over coral reefs.

In Belize, hundreds of passengers land on tiny coral-strewn islets off the coast, and residents say it's almost impossible to police crowds.

But some of the opposition to cruise ships also involves snobbery. The Caribbean is a longtime luxury destination and some residents want to keep it that way. They don't want the working-class tourists who often take cruise vacations for as little as $500 per week.

Some use the dismissive term "cruceritos" -- little cruisers -- to describe less affluent clientele.

"They don't have the same purchasing power," said Torres. "Many come over in third- or fourth-class, so far below decks they never see the sun."

Ana Patricia Morales of the Quintana Roo Hotel Assn. says there are valid reasons for locals to dislike cruises.

"A hotel makes a commitment to a community," she said. "It buys supplies there and hires people there. A cruise ship doesn't do any of those things."

Carnival's Gallagher counters that his industry shouldn't be forced to subsidize local hotels. "I don't think taxing one industry is how you make another one competitive," he said.

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