January 28, 2011 Updated January 28, 2011
According to Seleni Matus, the tourist board's director of tourism, Carnival Cruise Lines is forcing tender operators to enlarge their fleets and take out higher levels of insurance -- while demanding a reduced rate at the same time.
Matus said Carnival approached the Belizean government at the beginning of the year to discuss new corporate policies the line was implementing, including the stipulation that all tenders carry at least 150 passengers. (Belize's fleet has carrying capacities ranging from 80 to 200.) In addition, Carnival wanted the tender operators to increase insurance coverage up to $2 million. Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher concurs on these points, telling Cruise Critic that "we advised a Belize contingent led by the Prime Minister in early January, that if they were not able to provide the tenders we needed to meet our standards that we would have to reduce the number of calls there."
But was it possible? Not according to Matus. "They didn't allow a transition period and just expected us to comply with the new requirements immediately," she says. The Belizean government approached Carnival about a more viable way to meet the requirements. Carnival agreed to a nine-month transition period, and the government would help the tender operators upgrade the fleet by October 1 with more affordable loans.
Despite the transition period, Matus contends, Carnival was still trying to avoid using the smaller ships that make up the majority of Belize's tender fleets. Hence, the five canceled calls to date.
Carnivals' rationale, says Gallagher, is that the "larger tenders in Belize ... are the only ones that meet our current standards for safety, comfort and efficient transport of our guests." He says that Carnival's safety standards include "having a valid certificate for transportation of passengers and confirmation of all safety and operating requirements such as life vests and seated shelter for all passengers in the event of inclement weather." He says that not all of the smaller tenders demonstrate that they meet these standards, and many do not have covered seating available to all guests for rainy days or when sea conditions are rough.
While Matus agrees that Belize does need to acquire larger tenders since ships visiting the port are carrying more and more passengers, she asserts that the tenders have a "stellar safety record." The Belize Tourist Board confirms that "out of the hundreds of thousands of passengers [the country's three tender operators] have taken from ship to shore, there have been only two claims reported due to slipping and falling." Matus also notes that "Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are fine with the situation."
The two lines have told us they are not currently canceling calls to Belize, but at press time could not say if they have experienced any problems with the tender operators.
But here's the kicker, according to Matus: In addition to enlarging the fleet and taking out more expensive insurance, Carnival also is requiring that the tender operators charge the line 20 percent less for their services, or else the line would discontinue calls to Belize permanently.
"How can our partner be so unreasonable?" Matus asks. "No one here wants to lose their job. We want to be good partners with Carnival. But the new policies are economically unviable." The demands put the Belizean government in a tough situation. Tourism makes up 22 percent of Belize's GDP, with one in seven people employed in the tourism sector. Carnival makes up 60 percent of cruise ship calls and 70 percent of cruise passengers. With the average cruise ship visitor spending between $45 and $80 in Belize, a Carnival pullout would be devastating to the economy.
Gallagher does not dispute that Carnival wants a cheaper rate from the tender operators, but offers an explanation for the request. He claims that "we can no longer sustain paying rates that are not competitive in that market."
So is Carnival using its size and power to force Belize to meet its terms, or is Belize trying to cheap out on Carnival? It's unclear. What is clear is that a solution to this stalemate may not be immediately forthcoming, as the parties continue to debate over the tender arrangements, claiming the other side is being unreasonable.
Bottom line: If you've got an upcoming Carnival cruise to Belize, don't be surprised if you're diverted to Mexico instead.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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