Many years ago on a Caribbean cruise we stopped in Roatan, Honduras. Our ship docked at a commercial pier only a short walk into the small town of Loma Linda. We went shopping in the local market, bought some ground coffee and a tee shirt, visited a local leather shop where they did everything by hand. On the way back to the ship children skipped along with us and locals set up craft stalls in their front yards.
A few years latter we again stopped in Roatan on a cruise but things were much different. We docked at the new cruise ship pier in Mahogany Bay. Across a bridge from the dock is a well-equipped resort beach area and just a short walk down the pier is the shopping village featuring all the usual stores, Diamonds International, Del Sol etcetera. The area was clean, modern, attractive but except for the sales staff the only other people there came off the ships. It was hard to tell if we were in Honduras or Sint Maarten.
Theme parks treat you to wild animals, high-speed excitement and tastes of foreign lands and we appreciate that it is all part of a carefully orchestrated consumer experience. This experience is designed to be attractive, stimulating, clean, safe and above all else fun. It’s what makes people want to come back. As millions of people travel by ship or plane to Caribbean ports and resorts do they give much thought that they are taking part in a similar process?
Making tourists happy is big business and it has everyone playing to get a share of that dollar. Island governments go to great lengths to keep visitors safe and happy, telling their friends and coming back. Island resorts function very much like theme parks where the attractions are sea, beach, food and fun. The cruise industry offers ships that meet these same objectives but they are also faced with the need to make port calls. Over the past twenty years the cruise lines have done a lot to shape the on-shore experience of their customers on these Caribbean islands.
The first and obvious addition is the cruise lines creation of private islands. These are isolated locations where the cruise ships offer beaches, water sports and cookouts in a perfectly controlled environment. In the Caribbean these include Disney Cruise Lines – Castaway Cay, Bahamas, Holland America Lines – Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, Norwegian Cruise Line – Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas, Princess Cruises – Princess Cays, Bahamas and Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay, Bahamas and Labadee, Haiti.
Next are the new cruise ports, usually developed with the help of private companies, local governments and the cruise industry. In the most inclusive form they include Sint Maarten, Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan in Honduras, Sub Base St. Thomas and the port onGrand Bahama Island. In 2005 a private company with financial support from the government developed Port Zante to accommodate the big cruise ships visiting St. Kitts. Similar facilities where developed in St. Lucia, Curacao and St. Vincent with development planned for Belize and several other ports in the future.
Many passengers on cruise ships usually see the islands on arranged destination-focused tours. Unfortunately they completely miss the real Caribbean and spend their time shopping in the same stores on different islands that include
Diamonds International, Del Sol, Columbian Emeralds, Cariloha, Little Switzerland and others.
All-Inclusive resorts aren’t really much different from the cruise ships at giving us a feel for an island and its people. Their intent is to provide virtually everything the guest could expect or want in a relatively isolated location. They even arrange tours in much the same way as the cruises. There are also destinations where the entire island has been mostly overwhelmed by Western style and culture. Grand Cayman, Sint Maarten and Aruba can be characterized that way.
If the focus of your trip planning is turquoise water, sun and sand, water sports, entertainment and good food and you don’t really have an interest in island culture and history that’s fine. After all those are the things that have made the Caribbean the destination it is. But if you would like to spend some time exploring Caribbean life, that option is available.
Fortunately a number of the larger Caribbean destinations have cruise facilities near to larger towns that can offer some insight into the real character and lifestyle of the island. In Curacao the ships dock very near to Willemsted and in St. Thomas many ships dock at Havensight with a nice walk or short jitney ride into Charlotte Amalie. In Antigua ships dock on the waterfront of the capital, St. John. The area near the dock has been developed to offer shopping and restaurants but most of the city is a working West Indian environment. All opportunities to look around, try a local restaurant and talk to people.
NOTE: While most areas in the Caribbean are safe, just like in Europe or America there are places that should be avoided. While we have almost always felt safe we would be cautious in areas of Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. In the case of Jamaica every effort is taken to provide a safe environment at the major resort areas as well as major tour destinations.