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Why Go Ashore When the Ship’s So Nice?

August 11, 1995

Laverne Palmer’s cruise ship has docked in Nassau, but instead of hitting the beaches, she has decided to stay on the boat and watch a video _ of a Bahamian beach.

``Why should I get off the boat?″ asks Ms. Palmer, a 43-year-old cook from Georgia. ``This ship is great. It’s got everything I could possibly ask for.″

Vacationers like Ms. Palmer are increasingly common, as cruise lines go to greater lengths to keep passengers on board in port. Even as bigger, more lavish cruise ships travel the Caribbean, some of the poorest nations in the West are losing out.

The Bahamas and the Caribbean islands could once count on cruise ships to unload crowds of free-spending tourists. Now, the average Caribbean cruise passenger spends less than five hours on any island _ and contributes only $73 per visit to the local economy, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, which represents 24 nations. That’s less than 10 percent of tourist spending in the region, although cruise passengers constitute a third to half of Caribbean visitors.

``It’s almost embarrassing how little we’re getting,″ says James Hepple, a deputy director general of tourism for the Bahamas. ``We’re providing the beautiful setting. But it’s the ships that are keeping the money.″

For years, the cruise industry promoted itself as a pleasant way to travel to attractive destinations _ part airline, part Love Boat.

Now, more cruise lines aim to make the boat the main selling point. Cruise ships get bigger each year, many carrying more than 2,000 passengers. Next year, Carnival Cruise Lines plans to add two more ships, including the Carnival Destiny, which at 100,000 tons will be the largest cruise ship in the world, with even more slot machines, shows and other facilities that keep people on board than ships now afloat have.

``As far as we’re concerned, you’re not coming to us to see the Bahamas or the Caribbean anymore,″ says a spokesman for Carnival, a unit of Carnival Corp. ``You’re coming to experience the ship itself as a floating resort.″ The Caribbean destinations, he adds, ``are just the green stamp we throw in.″

On a port call by Carnival’s Fantasy ship in Nassau, dozens of passengers wander around the boat, passing up opportunities to snorkle in the crystal-clear waters or to shop in Nassau.

``I don’t need to sightsee; I’m on vacation,″ says Roy Odekerken, a 28-year-old insurance agent from the Netherlands who is lying by the pool on the top deck. He lowers his sunglasses and peers over the side of the boat. ``It’s too hot anyway,″ he says.

Two decks below, Rick and Laura Nielsen are in the dining room, having hamburgers for lunch. They had planned to try Caribbean food, but balked after hearing a rumor that a passenger on the last boat got food poisoning at a local restaurant. The couple said they tried walking through downtown Nassau for an hour, but saw too many panhandlers and dirty streets. ``We’re from Iowa,″ says Mr. Nielsen. ``The Bahamas are too wild for us. It’s like New York.″

Other passengers, of course, spend more time visiting Caribbean islands. And cruise-industry trade groups point out that some will come back and stay longer. ``We’re showing (the islands) to people who’ve never seen them before,″ says Michele Paige, executive director of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

But even when passengers do go ashore, the cruise lines often get a percentage of their spending. In Nassau, many shopkeepers and tour operators say most cruise lines have convinced them to pay referral fees. In exchange for recommending these shops to passengers, cruise lines pocket as much as half of the shops’ sales to cruise passengers. At the Jewellry Box, a large retailer in Nassau, co-owner Mike Wilkenson says he pays more than $100,000 a year in such fees to one cruise line alone. ``It’s awful,″ he says. ``But if you don’t pay it, the cruise line will recommend someone else.″

Even big hotels say they pay cruise lines to steer people to their nightly shows. At the new Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, general manager Rich Cortese says that cruise companies refer passengers to the hotel’s nightly shows, but get as much as 45 percent of passenger-related proceeds. He calls the ships ``greedy″ but a ``necessary evil.″

Cruise lines say such arrangements are a longstanding and legitimate form of income. ``You don’t think a hotel concierge isn’t getting paid to recommend a certain restaurant?″ asks Roderick McLeod, executive vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean Cruises. ``This is just a regular part of doing business.″

Maybe so, but cruise passengers are generally unaware of these arrangements. And the payments create just one more financial drain on a region already getting fewer tourist dollars than it used to from cruise ships.

In Nassau’s ``straw market″ shopping district, Carolyn Wright’s souvenir stand is just 200 yards from ships like the Fantasy. But she figures she gets two or three customers from cruise lines a day, while a few years ago she got 20 to 40 people. Her total income has dwindled to about $80 a day from $300.

``We’re just getting the crumbs from these ships,″ she says.

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