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Caribbean cruises leave wave of bitter merchants

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FALMOUTH, Jamaica (AP) — Tourists emerge by the hundreds from a towering, 16-deck megaship docked at the Caribbean's newest cruise port. They squint in the glare of the Jamaican sun, peer curiously at a gaggle of locals beyond a wrought-iron fence and then roar out of town on a procession of air-conditioned tour buses.

Few stop to buy T-shirts, wooden figurines or beach towels from the dozens of merchants lining the road outside the fence, or visit the colonial-era buildings that dot the town. Not many even venture beyond the terminal's gates, unless it's in one of the buses that whisk them past increasingly disgruntled vendors and taxi drivers.

That's not the way townspeople in the old Jamaican sugar port of Falmouth were told it would be.

Jamaica's port authority and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. pitched the $220 million port as a place where passengers would dive into the historic city for "a wraparound experience not unlike Colonial Williamsburg, but one that is infused with the signature warmth of the Jamaican people." Locals were told the tourists might spend more than $100 each.

But since the industry's biggest ships started arriving early last year that warmth and those dollars have kept at a distance.

"We were promised that we'd be able to show people our Jamaican heritage, sell our crafts. But most of the tourists stay far away from the local people," said Asburga Harwood, an independent tour guide and community historian. "We're on the losing end."

Trade groups say the flourishing cruise ship industry injects about $2 billion a year into the economies of the Caribbean, the world's No. 1 cruise destination. But critics complain it produces relatively little local revenue because so many passengers dine, shop and purchase heavily marked-up shore excursions on the boats or splurge at international chain shops on the piers.

The World Bank said in a 2011 report on Jamaica that as much as 80 percent of tourism earnings do not stay in the Caribbean region, one of the highest "leakage" rates in the world.

"In all-inclusive Caribbean hotels it is common for only 20 percent of revenue to be returned to the local economy. In the case of cruise ships it will be much less, probably no more than 5 percent," said Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a professor emeritus at London University who is an expert on Caribbean and Latin America economies.

A new report commissioned by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association trade group says passengers spent $1.48 billion during port calls during the 2011-12 season at 21 regional destinations, including a few Central and South American nations with ports on the Caribbean.

But $583 million of that money went for watches and jewelry bought in cruise destinations where international chains like Colombian Emeralds and Diamonds International dominate pier shopping. An additional $270 million went to shore excursions, which are typically sold by the cruise lines. Just $87 million went to local crafts and souvenirs, according to the report.

The criticism isn't confined to Jamaica. Some Caribbean ports are even designed to prevent interaction with the surrounding communities.

In Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, tourists step off Royal Caribbean ships to visit the fenced-in beach attraction Labadee on the country's north coast. The visitors are prohibited from leaving the cruise line's property, which features white-sand beaches and one of the longest zip lines in the world.

"They should allow tourists to venture to the city. This would help the local economy," said Jean Cherenfant, mayor of nearby Cap-Haitien. "The majority of the people (in Cap-Haitien) don't feel the presence of Royal Caribbean and the tourists."

But each passenger to Labadee pays a $10 tax to the Haitian government, producing more than $6 million a year for the impoverished nation.

In the Bahamas, Disney Cruise Line ships stop at the company's own private island, dubbed Castaway Cay, where locals work as massage therapists, bartenders and drivers and supplies are brought in by the ships.

John Issa, former head of Jamaica's hotel association, said the cruise lines enjoy an unfair advantage over land-based businesses because regional governments fear the ships may pull out for a competing destination, while "once you put down a hotel, you are captive."

In one famous case, Carnival Cruise Lines withdrew from Grenada in 1999 amid a dispute over a $1.50-a-head tax to pay for a new landfill.

"The governments are terrified of making more demands," Bulmer-Thomas said.

The cruise industry says the ships steadily bring in huge amounts of tourists who otherwise might never come at all, so any money they do spend is a gain.

While locals want more interaction with moneyed tourists, the visitors often have little interest in exploring the sometimes gritty reality of life in a Caribbean port.

"Folks on a Royal Caribbean cruise are not looking for culture or history for the most part. They want to shop. Go to the beach. And drink. Not necessarily in that order," said Heidi Barry Rodriguez, a librarian from Cary, North Carolina, who recently cruised on a vessel to Falmouth and didn't meet a single passenger who explored the town.

On a recent morning at Falmouth's port, tourists disembarked from Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, a 5,400-passenger liner with a 3D movie theater, ice rink, casino and multiple restaurants and bars. Most passengers were escorted onto buses destined for package tours in Jamaican resort meccas about an hour's drive away.

One dejected vendor selling hair-braiding services shut her eyes and raised her hands skyward, praying aloud that she could make a little money.

But even passengers who skipped the packaged excursions mostly shopped at stores on the fenced-in pier or strolled along the town's waterfront trying to avoid locals hawking cha-cha rattles and tropical clothing.

"We don't discourage guests from going into the town of Falmouth, but many of our guests choose a Royal Caribbean excursion to see some of the country's beaches and famous attractions," said H.J. Harrison Liu, brand communications manager with Royal Caribbean.

Falmouth Mayor Garth Wilkinson said his town "is just not seeing the benefit to the cruise ship port."

According to William Tatham, vice president of Jamaica's port authority, that's because the city is still adapting to its new role as a resort town. He noted that nearly all businesses in the town are aimed at locals, such as hardware suppliers, meat markets and general stores.

"The problem in Falmouth is that the residents are not tourist savvy," Tatham said during a phone interview.

Paul Davy, a father of two who sells wooden statues of roosters, fish and other creatures outside the port, says locals are growing angry at the lack of opportunity.

"The pot is starting to boil and, trust me, it will boil over if things don't change around here," said Davy, who helped build the pier as a construction worker but turned to crafts vending a year and a half ago. "Why can't we, the people who actually live here, make a living off the cruise ships, too?"

By David McFadden, Associated Press

Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.

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I'm not quite sure what to make of this article........ I am saddened by the stereotype that all cruise passengers want to do is shop...... My husband and I go mainly to learn about the islands - the history, peoples, customs. We do shop, but we always try to include local crafts or products specifically made on that island. Having said that - I will not go to Jamaica again, and if I did, it would be strictly with an excursion or to an all-inclusive, because of the aggressiveness of the vendors, and even the expectation of a "tip" by a policeman who pointed the direction back to our ship (which we could see in the background!) I think the bigger issue is the way the island governments distribute (or not) the port taxes and revenues from excursions, etc. to the people......

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A lot of the problem in Falmouth is many of the stores in the port are not run by Falmouth locals, they are run by people from other parts of Jamaica. When the locals agreed to the port they thought they would benefit, that doesn't seem to be the case.

We have been to Falmouth twice. There isn't a whole lot there and most of the ships shore excursions run to Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. Outside of the cruise terminal is a shady area and not many passengers go past the gates unless they are on a ships tour or they are heading to the beach on their own.

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When we were at Falmouth last year aboard Allure of the Seas we decided to just walk around some; they have self-guided walking tour pamphlets available right at the port. While we we’re walking around, an elderly local woman asked if we were looking for someplace. When we told her we were just wandering she advised us that wasn’t a very good idea...

That being said, we’ve never really had any problems in any of the many ports we’ve visited.

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I have spoken with many people who have a preconceived notion that Jamaica is full of drug dealers, soldiers with assault weapons, and pushy vendors. I have heard about passengers staying aboard the ship rather than to venture out. I think there are a good percentage of passengers who, unlike those of us who know better, go to the port talks and follow the cruise ship port guide like the Bible. They shop where the ship sends them because it's easier. Little do they know that you need to be a bit adventuresome to really experience a place, and the best excursions are the ones you create for yourself, maybe a little off the beaten path.

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Jan, I totally agree with you about creating your own excursions and not taking what the ship says as 100% gospel. Lots of times the ship talk pushes and promotes the shops that the ship gets a kick-back from.

But, I also don't like the pushy vendor who thinks "rich cruiser". I like to look at things; not necessarily buy them. However, I might buy something if you allow me to look at it and not chase me around trying to force me to look at something, etc., etc.

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