|Cartoon by Khalil
Environmental and community activists in the Mexican Pacific resort of
Zihuatanejo recently celebrated the cancellation of a cruise ship terminal
that would have accommodated two thousand-foot “floating hotels” at once.
Opponents feared a large pier on the town’s main beach would contribute to
bay pollution and ruin the quirky, small-town atmosphere that attracts
return visitors year-after-year. For months, the People in Defense of the
Bay coalition had staged protest rallies, posted on-line petitions and
fired off letters to government officials – including planners at the
federal Ministry of Communications and Transportation (SCT).
on Zihuatanejo’s main beach, the multi-story Casa Marina was a hotbed of
activism. Banners and signs opposing a new pier draped the building that
houses locally-owned businesses as well as the Humane Society, where
scraggly street cats and spooked pelicans are nursed back to health.
Inside the edifice, merchant and green activist Natalia Rodriguez Krebs
runs a store that offers eye-grabbing indigenous art, crafts and clothing.
Rodriguez and other locals have long received the cruise
ships that anchor inside the bay one at a time, and shuttle passengers in
small boats (known as tenders) to the existing pier where they run a
gauntlet of day-tour operators. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the
United States, Mexican marines guarding the municipal pier have joined the
That is not the only influence that Washington’s “war on
terror” has exerted on this small Mexican town. Since international
regulations drafted in the wake of 9/11 mandate that other boats maintain
a fixed distance from the cruise ships, industry expansions imply an
increasing privatization of public waterways. Hosting ever-bigger cruise
ships also means transforming the natural environment and reallocating
local resources. Bays are dredged, local water supplies tapped and garbage
unloaded. At terminals, walkways are fenced off, access roads expanded for
day-tour buses and local businesses sometimes threatened with relocation.
Invasive species hitchhiking on the cruise ships can alter local
“To allow the construction of a marine terminal in the
middle of Zihuatanejo Bay means the collapse of the town,” declared
environmentalist Silvestre Pacheco, project director for the SOS Bahia
The Business of Cruising
dynamic that boiled over in Zihuatanejo is simmering in coastal
communities across Mexico, the world’s Numero Uno cruise destination. The
number of ship passengers visiting Mexican waters doubled from about 3.2
million in 2000 to 6.4 million in 2007, according to the Florida Caribbean
Cruise Association (FCCA), a trade industry group. Some 22 Mexican ports
now host cruise ships, and federal officials plan to make the cruise
business even bigger. Sailing to Mexico on vessels departing from
California and Florida ports, U.S. and Canadian nationals comprise the
vast majority of cruise ship tourists. In recent years, cruise vacations
have become trendy. Even readers of the liberal Nation magazine and
listeners to Air America are pitched cruises hosted by their favorite
corporate-bashing celebrities. In fact, in a prematurely triumphant mood,
the center-left radio network plans a three-nation Obama victory cruise
after the U.S. presidential election in November to Belize, Mexico and
|Cruise Terminal Mega-Project
Against great odds and powerful economic forces,
the activists in Zihuatanejo have succeeded in fending off an
unpopular mega-project – at least for now.
Krebs represented one portion of the local community when she said
that the prospect of thousands of new cruise ship-delivered visitors
filing by her store “horrifies me. It scares me, it stresses me
Others, like harpist Jose Luis Ramirez, had looked
forward to more tourists. Wandering along a quiet bayside boardwalk
that is sometimes packed with tourists sipping Margaritas, he
challenged notions that cruise ships pose environmental risks. What
Zihuatanejo really needed, said the veteran musician, was even more
tourist dollars. “The economy of the U.S. went down,” Ramirez
shrugged. “If it weren’t for that, a lot of Americans would have
Undergoing rapid growth since the late 1970s,
Zihuatanejo suffers myriad environmental problems. Untreated
wastewater flows into the bay to such an extent that locals no
longer swim off the main beach. Environmentalists and federal
officials blame a half-finished jetty, part of a resort expansion,
for helping trap contamination inside the bay. Local divers say
sewage sludge on the bay’s floor is now several feet deep. “Another
(cruise ship) pier will aggravate the situation,” wrote
environmentalist Silvestre Pacheco to the SCT last year.
Anti-pier activists have also complained that they lacked
input into decision-making.
They charged that the Ministry
of Communications and Transportation (SCT) was making far-reaching
decisions about their town behind closed doors. In a letter to the
environmental group SOS Bahia, Angel Gonzalez Rul, SCT director for
ports, countered that local authorities were fully informed of
studies assessing viability of a new terminal. But fisherman Alfonso
Pintor, who launches his small boat from the beach slated for the
pier construction, said he and his co-workers were never
“It’s good for [cruise boosters],
but bad for us,” Pintor said. “They’re going to evict us.”
Strolling along the boardwalk, several visiting cruise ship
passengers were surprised to hear about the controversy. “The only
bad thing about these cruise lines is you just don’t have time to do
all you want to do,” said Dean Hale, a burly Californian who had
been a merchant marine. Hale agreed a new terminal would be easier
on the passengers who now skip across the bay in tenders for a few
minutes, but said the decision should be based more on local needs
than passenger conveniences. “It’s their town, their village,” he
said. “I would have that come first.”
Hale’s wife Laura
nodded in agreement. Describing herself as a southern Californian
who grew with “sea-legs,” Laura Hale immediately identified with the
big boat vs. small boat conundrum.
She recalled how her
fishing family was told by U.S. authorities that their small fishing
boat was unsafe for the waters around California’s Channel Islands.
Local boats disappeared and giant Korean trawlers with gillnets soon
arrived to scoop out the sea, Hale said, ending a way of life.
In Mexican waters, meanwhile, the presence of huge ships
that fill the ocean with thousands of partying foreign visitors is a
growing, conspicuous symbol of a tourist industry whose future
direction residents of coastal communities are debating.
Earmarking tens of millions of tax dollars for infrastructure
development, the Mexican government justifies its investment splurge as
classic, trickle-down economics: More tourists mean more money,
hence more jobs. The question is at what cost and to whose benefit?
According to Mexico’s National Tourism Ministry (Sectur), income
from the industry rose from $201.3 million to $487.5 million between 2000
and 2007. Using bigger numbers than Mexico’s federal government, the FCCA
estimated that cruise ships contributed $565 million and created 16,000
jobs in Mexico during 2006.
The cash flow from cruise ships is but
a small slice of a vast international tourism industry that earned Mexico
$12.9 billion last year, and employed about 2.4 million people, according
Two lines, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean,
are the undisputed lords of Mexican waters, according to trade industry
and media reports. Although the cruise lines run out of U.S. ports and are
traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the foreign-flagged companies are
officially based abroad and not subject to most U.S. taxes or labor laws.
Indeed, many of the largely unregulated cruise industry’s 150,000 workers
are from developing nations. They often sleep in hot, squalid underdecks
and get $10 to $20 for a 10- to 13-hour work day, according to the
International Transport Workers’ Federation. Tip earning domestic staff
are paid about $50 a month.
Carnival Corporation enjoyed a pair of
good years recently. The company’s worldwide revenues increased from $11.8
billion in 2006 to $13 billion in 2007, with net income moving up from
$2.3 billion to $2.4 billion during the same period. Royal Caribbean’s cut
of the market grew from $5.2 billion to $6.1 billion, although the world’s
second largest cruise line watched its net income slip from $633 million
to $603 million in the two-year period. Faced with the prospect of slimmer
profit margins because of soaring fuel costs in 2008, the industry has
begun charging passengers fuel surtaxes up to $140, according to the
online publication Cruisecritic.com. Nonetheless, a vibrant European
market and a strong euro favor the industry.
But opposition to the
expanding industry is also growing. Billionaire and Carnival CEO Micky
Arison, who is also the principal owner of the Miami Heat basketball team,
was involved with Mexican businessmen in a controversial plan to build a
home port on the Mexican Caribbean Island of Cozumel several years ago.
The proposed port elicited opposition from environmentalists and hotel
owners, and as in Zihuatanejo, the SCT eventually backed down from the
Representing 13 lines, the Florida Caribbean Cruise
Association participates in meetings and works with Mexican private sector
and government leaders to promote the cruise business. The industry
recently clashed with Mexican officials over a proposed per-visitor fee
for cruise ship passengers. Proponents argued that the charge would help
pay for port infrastructure and maintenance; industry countered that added
costs would discourage tourism.
Cruise ship companies operate in a
“very competitive market” and look for destinations where they can
maximize profits, said FCCA President Michele Page in a recent phone
interview. That competition means different rules for different ports.
Alaska, for example, has slapped a $50 per-visitor fee for environmental
and infrastructure services.
Cruise companies already pay their
fair share in Mexico, Paige said, given that docking and nearly a dozen
other port fees charged can exceed $30,000 per ship. Additionally, cruise
companies spend a combined $400 million every year to market Mexico and
the Caribbean, Paige said.
After years of wrangling, the
Mexican Congress finally decided to levy a $5 visitor fee for cruise ship
Roberto Maciel, operations manager for the Port of
Acapulco, said the fee was originally scheduled to kick in on June 30 but
was postponed until September to give Mexican authorities time to
implement a collection system. “They are studying the way to collect
this,” Maciel said.
“It’s something that’s breathing down our
necks. It’s not positive, ” said Paige. “Costs are extremely high.”
Cruise Ship Inspired Militarization?
Rising cost is only one of the challenges the cruise
industry is facing. The Mexican marines who watch over cruise ship
passengers in Zihuatanejo and other Mexican ports are stationed in
response to fears that terrorists will blow a giant floating duck out of
In the aftermath of 9/11, Mexico quickly mobilized its
naval resources to protect foreign-owned cruise lines. According to an
official report, Mexican navy personnel provided security to 719 cruise
ships in the year following the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, the navy deployed
more than 4,000 personnel to conduct 1,907 pier and 804 small boat patrols
around bays receiving cruise ships. Some 354 vehicles and 94 boats were
used to carry out the security missions. According to the Mexican daily La
Jornada, the US Department of Defense helped train 44 Mexican marines in
port security and anti-terrorism in fiscal year 2006.
Secretary Mariano Francisco Saynez told a university forum last year that
pressure from Washington sparked the cruise ship patrol duty. “It is known
that our neighbor is permanently embroiled in belligerent conflicts and is
threatened by terrorism,” Admiral Sayenz said, according to the Mexican
news service Apro.
In a broader sense, the Mexican navy’s
protection of cruise ships jibes with the country’s participation in the
Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a growing strategic
alliance between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that envisions the permanent
integration of the economic and security policies of the three North
American Free Trade Agreement partners.
Cruise ship watch adds one
more task to a Mexican military agenda that now includes everything from
immigration crackdowns to drug interdictions to chasing sharks from
tourist beaches. In a country where direct military involvement in
government decision-making is regarded as taboo, and where the
Constitution confines soldiers to their barracks during peace-time, the
Mexican armed forces’ growing role in public life is unsettling many human
rights and pro-democracy activists.
While foreign terrorists have
not attacked cruise ships in Mexico, home-grown violence has recently
touched some passengers visiting Mexican ports.
Zihuatanejo, especially, were rocked in 2006 and 2007 by narco-violence,
including grenade attacks, kidnappings and shoot-outs on public streets.
Interviewed during a surge of violence in early 2006, several
cruise ship tourists in Acapulco said they had not been warned of any
dangers. Due to security concerns, taxi drivers and tour guides are
required to receive training and obtain certification. But lax enforcement
of the rules sometimes triggers complaints from tourists about the
behavior of “guides” who have been known to leave tourists stranded in a
strange part of Acapulco.
Real Dangers to Public
Arguably, the greatest dangers are on the ships,
themselves. Heavy drinking, illegal drug consumption and gambling (cruise
ships have casinos) can spell trouble. Founded in 2006, the International
Cruise Victims (IVC) association has grown into a global organization with
hundreds of members in 16 countries. The group has documented dozens of
mysterious deaths and persons missing from cruise ships, including at
least eight people who disappeared in waters off Mexico from 2004 to 2008.
Since many crimes occur in international waters, U.S. authorities have
A shipboard victim who reported a sex or
other crime at a Mexican port of call would have almost no chance of
seeing the violation prosecuted. More than 90 percent of all crimes in
Mexico go unpunished, according to government and media reports.
ICV president Kendall Carver knows first-hand how difficult it is
to hold cruise lines accountable. He has tried in vain to find out what
happened to his 40-year-old daughter, Mariann Carver, who vanished on
August 28, 2004 during an Alaska trip with Celebrity Cruise Lines.
Cruise companies have an inherent conflict-of-interest in
seriously investigating mayhem aboard their ships, Carver contended, since
word of shipboard crime would undermine cruising’s carefree, festive
image. And that word is less likely to leak out because the companies
employ their own security personnel, answerable to their bosses. “We’re
not opposed to the cruise line industry,” Carver said in a phone
interview, “but when a crime occurs we want appropriate action taken.”
The ICV has lobbied in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento,
California, for the stricter regulation of commercial cruise ships and
unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a 10-point security action plan with
the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
In May, Carver
and Laura Dishman, who said she was raped on a Mexico cruise, testified in
Sacramento. “There is no security, there is no law,” Dishman said of the
cruise lines. “It is a lawless environment.” A 2007 report from Royal
Caribbean Lines submitted to the U.S. Congress admitted to 273 sex-related
incidents, including sexual battery, on its ships from 2003 to 2005.
Carver contends the real figure is likely much higher since many victims
do not report rapes. “Women who are raped [on cruises] never make the
papers,” he said.
Backed by environmental, labor, and crime
victims’ organizations, ICV actively supported a California law requiring
cruise ships docking in the state to carry an armed ocean ranger or
independent law enforcement officer, not only to safeguard passengers but
to ensure compliance with environmental laws.
passed in the California State Senate in May but died in a State Assembly
committee chaired by Jose Solorio, a Democratic Party representative from
Orange County, home to numerous cruise line terminals. Observers credited
heavy lobbying by CLIA and the Peace Officers Research Association of
California for the defeat. Working on behalf of CLIA was the well-known
California lobbying firm Aaron Read and Associates. Founded in 1978, the
company lists AT&T, Citigroup, Conoco Phillips, Northrop Grumman, San
Diego State University and the California Medical Association as among its
According to Carver, cruise lines had threatened to pull
out of California ports if the bill passed. “What do they have to hide?”
Carver asked. CLIA did not return phone calls seeking comment.
ICVA hopes for better luck at the federal level. On June 25, following
Capitol Hill hearings, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry unveiled the
Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2008. It would mandate improved
safety features on ships to prevent passengers from falling overboard,
require better reporting of crimes, permit rape victims instant access to
the FBI and National Sexual Assault Hotline, improve training for ship
crew members, and allow the U.S. Coast Guard access to ships in order to
monitor waste water disposal and to act as peace officers.
absolutely appalling that the cruise industry still has not instituted
basic reforms so that crimes can be prevented, and if crimes do occur,
victims have adequate access to justice,” read a statement from California
Representative Doris Matsui who introduced a similar bill in the U.S.
House. “When a goliath like the cruise industry will not act in the best
interest of the customers who are entrusting it with their personal
well-being, then Congress has a responsibility to step in and shed some
light on the problem.”
Testifying in the U.S. Senate, Evelyn
Fortier, vice-president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network,
described in painstaking detail the extreme difficulties a cruise ship
rape victim would encounter in getting a crime investigated in the United
Some Congressional members may have an incentive for going
slow on reform. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) data compiled by the
non-profit Center for Responsive Politics show a cruise ship industry
becoming more politically active. According to the Center, the industry
donated $4,743,792 to federal campaigns between 1990 and June 2, 2008,
with most of the amount coming after 2000.
The contributions were
divided almost equally between Republicans and Democrats. It is important
to note the FEC data exclude money invested in state and local races in
places where the cruise industry is important, including Hawaii, Alaska,
California and Florida.
Washington and Mexico City have a
different incentive for regulating the cruise industry. Despite
announced crackdowns, news reports document numerous arrests of ship
personnel for smuggling drugs and other prohibited substances. The bust
map traces a sea-going cocaine highway that begins in South America and
veers off to the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other.
Port-hopping cruise ships can be ideal smuggling containers for the White
Crime and insecurity aboard the ships is not a public issue
in Mexico, but the situation could change. Until now, cruise ship tourism
in Mexican waters has been almost 100 percent foreign, but the SCT is
studying the possibility of building home ports to allow affluent Mexican
tourists the chance to sail the high seas aboard commercial cruise ships.
For the Mexican government, the cruise ship industry is a winner.
In April, the Calderon administration signed a multinational agreement
with the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua
aimed at attracting even more cruise ships. A new pro-cruise ship
organization uniting the countries could be launched later this year. The
goal of the Mesoamerican alliance is to “consolidate the region as the
principal destination of cruise ships in the world,” said Mexican Tourism
Minister Rodolfo Elizondo.
Environmentalists, local activists and
communities, as well as passengers and workers may end up losers to the
expanding cruise industry.
Research and travel assistance for this article was supported in
part by the Fund for Investigative