In Helsinki the other day, I was shopping at a boutique when a staffer off of Holland America’s Rotterdam came in to chat up the sales ladies.
“How’s business today?” he asked.
The query was not a matter of idle curiosity. That’s because this shop in Europe’s Baltic — along with better known port-of-call retail meccas like St. Thomas’ A.H. Riise, Cozumel’s Cinco Los Soles, Turkish carpet bazaars in Kusadasi, and Diamonds International stores and Hard Rock Cafes nearly everywhere — pays cruise lines to funnel passengers its way.
More specifically, what these in-port businesses pay for is a blatant “recommendation” by the port and shopping “experts” who work on cruise ships. They mention them in shopping talks and feature them in port information leaflets that ships hand out to passengers. And they extol the value of these proprietors’ “satisfaction-guaranteed” pledges.
What frosts me (first) about these arrangements: Cruise lines sometimes deceive their passengers by not revealing that these so-called recommendations are bought and paid for. A simple disclaimer — “These restaurants and shops have paid the cruise line a fee to be included in our port shopping guide” –- would do the trick as far as I’m concerned.
What disgusts me (next) is the so-called “satisfaction-guaranteed” pledge, which is not taken — by retailers and cruise lines alike — as seriously as it should be. According to Cruise Critic members who feistily debated this issue recently on our Facebook page, retailers who do follow the pledge to the spirit of the law are out there … but sadly few in number.
Writes Vanessa Pellegrino: “Years ago I bought jewelry at a recommended store in St. Thomas and the item turned out not even close to the carat weight the store indicated. I found this out after I had it appraised back in the states. It took me almost two years to get all my money back … The cruise line did not back up the purchase as they originally said on the cruise, but I fought it tooth and nail.”
Beyond that, though, if you love to explore ports of call via shopping and dining (a great way to get a feel for a place), and you’re not really in the market for diamonds or perfume, don’t you want to discover places with more of a local feel?
Heather Morrissey put it into perspective. “Do a little homework. Recommend something with a little more local color … than the same things you can get at any duty-free shop. And try to come up with a restaurant other than the Hard Rock Cafe.”
Now my husband, a devotee of the Hard Rock, may balk at the last suggestion, but I’m with Heather. Look for color where you can. And if you really do need advice on where to shop or eat in port, there’s a much better source of information than the so-called onboard port guide. Ask crew members. They’ll know the best places in town.
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Read other Sea-Mail columns on kids running wild, saving tables at the buffet, the death of cruise traditions and bad balcony behavior.
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