Cruising the Caribbean. The Curse of The Tax Free Duty Free Shopping Obsession. The Battle of Cheap Diamonds, Gems & Watches Versus History and Heritage.
It is somewhat depressing that the port talks on-board cruise ships travelling around the Caribbean are usually about shopping. Not about the heritage. Not about the fascinating, traumatic, brutal and exploitative history of the area. But about duty free, tax free shopping.
The British and French fought over the islands for decades, sending fleets of sailing ships to battle there. All because of the potential to make fortunes through sugar and spices. Fortunes that that benefited the conquering home markets – and not the islands and residents themselves. Fortunes that were made through horrific mass exterminations of indigenous populations like the Carib Indians, and then the brutal use of slaves.
It is a fact now that the sugar industry has collapsed, that the islands rely pretty much on tourism as their only source of income – and many rely especially on the cruise industry. It is sad too because, instead of cultivating the heritage and history, there seems to be another form of exploitation taking place. This is in the form of international chains of duty free shopping bursting up through out the ports. Instead of the islands working to differentiate and exaggerate their uniqueness, they are at risk of blending into a mix of endless and similar looking shopping malls. Malls with the same stores across the islands that are fighting to draw cruise passengers in, with bizarre promotions like tacky free charm bracelet charms to collect each time you visit the local branch the chain. Other free gifts of allegedly $150 free gem stone necklaces with every purchase on each island also prevail.
I found it dissapointing that even on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the port talk offered on board was run by a team of 2 “Island Experts” that were really just salesmen punting chain stores. In the talk they even dismissed, with some distaste I felt, islands like Dominica as it was a poor place for shopping, suggesting it was a port to plan to do tours to see the natural resources as you could not shop much. The implication was that it was a lesser destination, and almost a bizarre choice of a stop on the route, as it simply offered an unspoilt, undeveloped island – and was not a chain store shopping mall with a bit of beach attached that you could also pop out to after shopping.
Lured into the talk promising “insider tips and advice” along with “must have” port maps “exclusively” available only at the talk, you end up being given a map showing where the chains like Diamond International (“#1 Recommended Store in the Caribbean”), Tanzanite International (#1 Recommendation for all Tanzanite”), Effy Jewelers (“Only Authorised Retailer of DiVersa, Balissima & Passion Cut”) and Del Sol (“World’s Largest Color Change Retailer”) are. You get advice on the best and quickest way to get from the ship to the stores. You get no insight into the island, history and attractions. In St. Maarten, there was a beach tip. But only because the shops runs along the breach front!
On the TV in the cabins there were shows about the tours, but no talks about the Caribbean without a commercial angle to it. No guest speaker about the history, the stories and the legends of the area. All the talks were about selling tours and selling shopping. Despite the fact that there are speakers on-board talking about cruise liners, astronauts, relationships and Broadway, there are none of the area being visited to excite and give the same insights and aspiration.
We did get the night before, to be fair though, a good 4 page leaflet about each port that has the history and much more on the attractions and things to do and see. Along with a map of the city that focuses on the traditional city – and not the chain shops.
It is really disspointing that the Caribbean islands do not make more of themselves to cruise ship passengers. They do seem to make more of an effort to promote what their individual islands are about, and what makes them different from the others, to land based travellers. Maybe that is because they are fighting for travellers to make a choice to come and visit, and they know they have to make a choice on where to come and stay. For cruise passengers the real target for the islands are the cruise lines. While a few cruise passengers may choice a route based on the islands they visit, I suspect that almost all just chose to go the the Caribbean. Leaving the island choice to the cruise line.
The cruise lines then focus on what tours they can make money from, so all islands seem to offer the same tours: catamaran and snorkelling, zip lining, quad bikes on the beach and RIB boats – along with a bus tour drive around the island for the less active. They are all the same experiences no matter the island. Making the Caribbean a generic experience of beaches – with shopping to boost the coffers.
I have spoken to so many people visiting the Caribbean on a cruise who struggle to remember which island was which. They all blur into one generic experience through lack of differentiation.
On board cruise ships are these island shopping advisors, who clearly make a lot of money ensuring that passengers off the ships are directed to a set of stores. I assume they earn commission from getting the passengers there. The coupons, free gifts and incentives that are billed as “exclusives” for the ship or route no doubt also being measures of how many passengers they got to the store.
The Caribbean has to find industry to replace sugar. Land based tourism is one, and the cruise industry clearly another massive one. Some days there can be up to 7 ships in the popular ports, bringing 15,000 passengers and then crew on top. The creation of a tax free and duty free zone was designed to encourage trade for the region. It seems to have created a chain store mentality of ways to sell diamonds, gem stones, designer watches and other items. It is not creating new industry, it is not even creating new local enterprise as these chains seem to be US and other nationality owned corporations. It is sad to see the commoditisation of the islands.
The region is glorious. The islands are beautiful. They are places of great scenery and natural wonder. I would like to see the cruise industry try and work more to help (and encourage) the islands be more than just fleeting places to catamaran, zip line, snorkel and shop. It would be wonderful to educate and excite passengers more about the history and heritage. Passengers today probably don’t care, but there should and could be ways to make them care more.
In my observation, the more northern the island is in the Caribbean, the more it seems geared to and focused on shopping. These are the islands that are closest to, and so are more common, on routes to the Caribbean for USA based cruise lines. The vast majority of cruising to the Caribbean operates out of Miami, and then other more southern based USA cruise ports like Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville. The more south you go in the Caribbean then the less shopping focused, and less commercial chain store developed they seemed to be. This may be a function of the volume of traffic brought to the more northern islands by cruise ships – and the attitudes of passengers on these routes. They all lead the islands, the cruise lines and store chains into finding an easy and profitable mutual partnership focused on shopping, rather than on building anything else unique.
In an earlier series about the Caribbean, I have tried to explore more the history and background of the region and the individual islands in the region. I found it fascinating to better understand it. It has a dramatic and interesting history worth knowing about. Hopefully by reading the series you will too.
My plea to cruisers to the Caribbean is to explore and understand more about the individual islands you visit, not just collect charm bracelets, buy watches and necklaces and ride the Caribbean Sea on catamarans and zip lines while there. If we are more interested then the cruise lines and the islands will be too. Having a robust and strong local industry will make the islands stronger and more distinctive – and over time more interesting and unique places to visit.
Though, if you do really only care about shopping for cheap diamonds, watches and designer gear then make sure you have ports like St. Thomas, St Maarten and St. Kitts on your route.
And read my Ultimate Guide to Shopping in the Caribbean if shopping is your thing!