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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cruise Ships Are Bad

The interesting thing about our most recent trip to Bonaire is that it was the first time that Todd and I had visited the island while there were cruise ships in port. Bonaire has been welcoming cruise ships to the island since 2006, but only November through May. I'm not sure if the cruise ships set the times they will come, or if that is up to Bonaire.

There were 3 days during our stay where cruise ships were in port, two each on Wednesday and Friday and one on Thursday. I had been dreading it, but as it turned out, our vacation was not really affected, except on Friday when we were shopping for jewelry in town and found the area to be very crowded. However, cruise ships were a huge point of discussion with many people on our trip.

Cruise ships bring between 1500 and 3000 people to Bonaire on each ship. This amount of people results in congestion in downtown Kralendijk, and annoyances to those who live on the island. Those of us who come to Bonaire for a quiet vacation "away from it all," suddenly find that "it all" has arrived right in the center of town for the day! In all, cruise ships are a deterrent to those who want to book land-based vacations on the island. The reason why our vacation was not affected was because we were underwater and because I planned to avoid town the days cruise ships were in port, but given the choice, I would avoid booking another Bonaire vacation on a week when there are cruise ships coming.

A cruise ship tourist is a totally different type of tourist from the ones that usually come to Bonaire. Bonaire is known as "diver's paradise" for a reason - divers - and hard-core ones, visit the island. Most cruise ship passengers do not fit into this category, and are looking for a place similar to Cozumel - bars, big resorts, beaches. There are few beaches in Bonaire, no big resorts, and a minimum of bars. This is a sleepy little island, and I don't know how it is appealing to passengers. Of course, we heard many folks say that the cruise ship passengers don't usually even get off the ship, and that is possible. One person on a discussion forum suggested, "Send the ships to Aruba instead and tell people it's Bonaire, they won't notice the difference!" and this is sadly probably true.

There are cruise ship folks who come to Bonaire, and get off the ship, and then go diving or snorkeling. My issue with this? Bonaire is a Marine Park. These "single day" folks pay a reduced marine park fee, and often are not aware of their impact on the corals and fish in Bonaire. They don't dive often (maybe a day or two of diving per year, tops?), and it shows. Their bouyancy control is not what it should be, and they damage the reef. When they're done, they pile back onto their ship and leave. This is a tough pill for many people in Bonaire to take, and I think it was my biggest gripe with the cruise ships.

Even the ships themselves have an impact on diving. We were diving at Windsock at 8am on Wednesday morning, just when the cruise ships for that day were docking. The sound of the cruise ship engines underwater was deafening. I would love to see a study about what impact the sound of ship engines have on the life on the reef. As a diver, I found it highly irritating, and I was still quite a ways from port. Imagine what it would have sounded like if I was diving at a site further north - Yellow Submarine, perhaps.

Cruise ships in general tend to be bad for the world's oceans. Ballast water can spread non-native species around the world. Cruise ships use an awful lot of fuel, although I was unable to get a clear answer from my online searches about how much it really is. If someone wants to investigate further, please do. Fuel isn't the only thing though, and I was able to find some clearer stats on the Carbon Footprint of cruise ships.  There is also an interesting list of cruise ship citations and fines for environmental violations. Most of these were in Alaska and Hawaii, because I think Caribbean ports tend to turn more of a blind eye to what is going on. Some reports show cruise ships outright dumping trash into the ocean. Ick. In fact, the Freewinds was recently banned from Bonaire due to the fact that it was dumping waste water.  Norwegian cruise line was fined for dumping oily waste water and sometimes raw sewage into the waters of Miami for many years.

An interesting thing that has happened in Bonaire recently has been that the cruise ships are sitting in port all day, and the supply ships are unable to come in and dock in order to get their supplies off the ship. In fact, on the Friday of our visit, a supply ship came to Bonaire, and headed towards port. As it approached, it suddenly turned around and left. Two cruise ships were in port and I'm assuming that's what the deal was. As a result of this, restaurants are running out of food and supplies aren't making it into supermarkets. This seemed to be the single biggest complaint of those that we spoke to on the island. Personally, I think this argument will backfire because what will end up happening is that the cruise lines will offer to subsidize a separate cruise ship pier, which will mean that cruise ships will be coming in indefinitely.  Certainly someone benefits, but who is it?  A recent report stated:
In 2003 the Port of Portland, Maine, is faced with spending U.S.$1.2 million in waterfront improvements, most of which is necessary because of wear and tear from cruise ships.  This expense compares to U.S.$295,000 income in 2002 from cruise ship docking fees.
So, ok, cruise ships are bad. Certainly there are people benefiting from this, right? Increased revenue for people who own shops or restaurants? Something?

No, not really. Cruises include food, so it's rare to see passengers out and about eating in restaurants. Indeed, when we were downtown while the ships were in port, the restaurants were no more crowded than usual. The cruise folks will do a minor amount of shopping, but only near the pier. When we asked the jewelry store clerk if she was seeing an increase of sales due to cruise ships, she said no. These cruises are 10 and 12 days long and visit far more glamorous ports for buying jewelry. At best, maybe the cruise ship folks are picking up a couple of T-shirts. Bonaire recently moved the KFC from the town pier area and replaced it with a t-shirt shop. The KFC is far from the cruise ships now (but still awesome!). Any business owner that we spoke to - restaurant owners, store owners, dive shop operators - all said that the cruise ships are not bringing in enough revenue to make any sort of serious impact to their bottom lines, and some even said the cruise ships are hurting them.  

Basically, when you book a shore excursion through a cruise line, there is a markup on it.  The cruise ship collects often as much as double the amount that the tour or excursion actually costs.  So, that $50 that you spent to go snorkel on Klein Bonaire?  The tour operator only got $25.  But, you're expecting an experience worth $50, aren't you?

So, what am I saying here? Am I saying that no one should take cruises? No, of course not. I have taken cruises in the past and love them. They are a very affordable way to travel. I also happen to know that I do a lot of things that increase my own carbon footprint - just taking planes to Bonaire does terrible things to the environment. I think my main point is that you should always realize that what you do has consequences for a lot of folks. Stepping off a cruise ship on a quiet Caribbean island to look around and then get back on may have left an impact on that quiet Caribbean island that you totally don't understand. Cruise lines don't have to go to Bonaire. They can stick to places like Cozumel, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, etc - places that are more suited to the ships and frankly have already been destroyed by cruise ships.

Do I want to see cruise ships out of Bonaire? I don't think it's horrible to have them, no. I think strict enforcement of environmental laws need to be made. Cruise ships should not be doing anything that would endanger the reef. If they do, they should be severely fined or banned from the island. The money taken from cruise ships should be used for infrastructure.

What kind of infrastructure? Well, Bonaire really needs a better way to treat waste. This is not just a cruise ship issue, as the resorts are guilty also. Waste treatment in Bonaire is done thusly:

Method 1: Septic tanks are drilled, and then pumped and taken via truck to a dump site in the center of the island (presumably near Harbour Village, as I have smelled it before). This is what the cruise ships do. Freewinds was banned for sending too much waste to the dump site, more than it should have (basically using Bonaire as a place to dump shit and then leaving).

Method 2: The septic tanks of some resorts have four chambers. Waste water is moved from chamber to chamber, and the more solid stuff stays in the first chamber, then the second, so by the time it gets to the fourth chamber, the water is toxic, but doesn't contain as much stuff, and is mostly clear. Then, it is pumped out onto the reef. Yep, I said it's pumped out on to the reef. Since it is pumped in front of the resort, the waste sits on the reef and creates algae. A better solution would be to run the fluid to the other side of the island, where currents would disperse the waste rather than having it sitting on the reef, but that takes money. The estimate is that 50,000 gallons of waste water goes onto the reef each day.

Basically, what I'm saying is that if the money that somebody must be getting from the cruise ships coming in would go towards creating a solution to the waste problem that obviously exists in Bonaire, then I would not have an issue with it. As it is, though, I think someones pockets are getting lined, and the people of Bonaire (and the visitors who love it) are getting the shaft. And the reefs? Well, they are always suffering.

A side note:  It was told to us that our liveaboard dive boat, the Turks and Caicos Aggressor II, used 500 gallons of fuel the week that we were on board.  This equals 25 gallons per passenger, or 19 gallons per person including the crew.  Personally, I didn't find this excessive, but it might be when you consider the fuel used to get those passengers to Turks and Caicos in the first place.

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