In Roseau, Dominica, the crew of Ty Dewi find that being anchored beneath, and indistinguishable from, thousands of cruise ship passengers gives pause for reflection.
“I guess it’s back to normal tomorrow.”
We were at the top of Jack’s Walk, a wonderful half hour climb up steep steps above the Roseau Botanical Gardens, in Dominica. The fabulous view of the town was all the better for the exertion required to get there. Unless, like almost all the other people looking down towards the ocean, you had come up the back road in a taxi with your tour guide, who had met you as you stepped off the cruise ship.
I was chatting to a few cruise ship passengers who had struck out on their own and walked up this delightful path. We noted that there were four huge ships in the harbour below, and another just up the coast at Portsmouth. “How many on your ship?” I asked him. “Seventeen hundred passengers.” So nearly seven thousand people have stepped onto Dominican soil today; that’s ten percent of the Island’s native population. Unsurprisingly, the souvenir vendors and taxi drivers were out in force and as white faces, we were just another dollar-laden target, as we always are in such places. The people I was chatting to, a very pleasant English couple from somewhere in the Midlands, noted the enormous amount of commercial attention that surrounds their arrival, and made the remark with which I began this posting.
Yet it won’t be ‘back to normal’ tomorrow, because this is what passes for normal now. Five ships appear to be a little exceptional, but most days they see at least two or more of these immense, floating cities arrive. They travel at night, saving their guests from the tedium of voyaging and tying up to their host cities in the early hours of the morning. Come seven or eight o’clock, after the restaurants have served whatever wonderful breakfasts they provide, the doors open onto the quayside and pale faced, culture shocked visitors step out into the waiting arms of thousands of locals. This provides tremendous income and employment; most of these islands derive the majority of their overseas revenue from tourism and the cruise ships are a big part of this. Huge docks are built to make it easy to stroll right into the heart of old world Creole Caribbean. Here in Roseau, the main waterfront street is filled with a market; beautiful shops; a very nice visitor centre and museum, and a very sizable taxi rank. It is also barricaded at each end, patrolled by police officers and off limits to any locals not holding a suitable ID badge or reason for being there.
There is no doubt that this tourism brings enormous benefits to these islands and few would want Dominica, for example, to remain locked in a sad cycle of declining agriculture and trade disputes over banana subsidies. But it is also living proof of the fact that you can’t observe something without changing it. The unspoiled beauty of the island is clearly being changed forever by the influx of visitors and, more importantly, so is the approach and attitude of those who live here. Like the British view of the American tourist, any white face near a cruise ship dock fits the stereotype of the cash-rich day tripper out to ‘do’ as many sights as possible in minimum time.
On the larger scale, the carbon impact of these holidays must be enormous. Whilst Europeans cruise for two weeks, Americans typically only have a week or even three days. There are long flights at each end of this, as well as a huge amount of fuel oil required to push a small town through the water fast enough to be at the next stop by morning.
I also wonder what the cruise experience is like and why does it appeal so much? In this, we are perhaps closer than I would care to admit to these passengers. Whilst our fuel consumption is mercifully lower, we too flit from island to island, rarely staying longer than a week and only getting the briefest glimpse into the life of these places. We never get the time to break far through the barriers of culture and experience and get close to the people who live here. Many people who take a two week holiday in a hotel will probably see more of any given island than we do, and may even get more time to pause and explore in some detail. In six months here, we will only get a taste and cannot really claim to be anything more than tourists. But I hope we see and experience more than those who drop in for one short day before sailing off again.
The cruise seems perfect for ‘box ticking’. Been there, and there, oh yes, there too, it was OK. On the delightful, sensuous walk up from the botanical gardens, we met a lady slowly making her way up the path. She commented that her companions had wanted to run up it, so they were off ahead. Why would you travel halfway around the world and choose to run up a path through tropical rain forest, iguanas, bird life and other marvels? Oh, Roseau, yes, went there – good view from the top of the hill, ran up in seven minutes forty three. Left Bob in the dust.
Perhaps it comes back to the ‘normal’ question. When daily life at home and work is so fast paced, so busy and crammed with things and experiences, a holiday that provides new soundbites and snapshots each day avoids the uncomfortable challenge of having to deal with sitting still with not much to do. The cruise is perfect for avoiding contemplation and confrontation. Don’t like the place where you are? Wait till tomorrow, it’s a new island. On our extended cruise, we have a little more time for contemplation and occasionally have to confront a few truths as well. But we too, can run away from a port we don’t like; change our outlook and setting at will, and fill the next week with something different. So perhaps, we really do have more in common with cruise ship passengers. Maybe I have to be more careful in my haughty disdain of the brief visitor, and sometimes we do envy those who can return to their ship for a long hot shower, a swim in the pool and dinner in the penthouse restaurant.