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Tour Operators Worried About Losing Cruise Lines' Business

Cite Legislature’s failure to allocate funds needed for incentives to cruise lines, poor working conditions at cruise ports

July 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Tour Coop, the oldest tour operator on the island, warned that the Legislature’s failure to allocate all of the funds necessary to implement a new incentives plan for cruise lines will have grave consequences.

"We are really concerned about the government’s delay in handling this situation; 90% of our customers are cruise passengers, and cruise lines are really upset with Puerto Rico," said Noel Crespo, vice president of Tour Coop.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. developed a new incentives plan in an effort to promote cruise activity and counter the 29% increase in cruise-passenger fees implemented by the Ports Authority. On July 1, these fees went up from $10.30 to $13.25 per passenger (CB April 29, July 1).

The government needs $8.5 million to implement the plan and had requested $3.5 million from the Legislature. At the close of the legislative session last month, however, the House had approved only $1.5 million.

"The Legislature only approved $1.5 million to implement the plan. The plan's implementation depends on several government agencies, including the Department of Economic Development & Commerce, which suffered a budget cut. Instead of funding the plan with $1.5 million, the department would be able to provide only $800,000. At this moment, our hands are empty in terms of the offer we want to make to the cruise lines operating on the island," said Tourism Co. Jose Suarez.

"We're still working with the Legislature, and expect to obtain good results during the extraordinary session," he added.

Crespo said Tour Coop has already noticed a decrease in the number of tours and forecast up to a 30% reduction in the number of vessels using Puerto Rico as a port of call. Puerto Rico must act quickly and allocate the funds for the incentives plan, he said, to ensure it doesn’t lose its leading position in the Caribbean to competing cruise destinations.

"Norwegian Cruise Lines has withdrawn its vessels from Puerto Rico for one year, and the [Carnival] Paradise has moved to the Dominican Republic," said Crespo. In addition, he said, Carnival Cruise Lines moved its Jubilee and two other ships from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville, Fla., in May and will reposition its 1,452-passenger Holiday to Mobile, Ala., in October.

Competing destinations such as these mounted aggressive campaigns to attract cruise business at the recent trade show of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, said Crespo. "Most destinations in the Caribbean attended the trade show. The state of Alabama made an impressive presentation promoting its port at Mobile, and Mexico is seriously promoting Calica-Costa Maya," said Crespo.

Security measures affecting cruise passengers’ experience

Another issue that must be addressed, said Crespo, is the poor working conditions for tour operators at Piers 1 and 4 in Old San Juan. "Piers 1 and 4 don’t meet cruise passengers’ needs. It is difficult to serve our customers when our shuttles aren’t allowed to get on the pier and park next to the vessels" said Crespo. "It could take one hour or longer to dispatch 2,000 to 3,000 passengers. Imagine the situation when it rains; it really is a bad experience for visitors."

Tour operators are required to wait far from the pier’s entrance to pick up passengers, when before the shuttles could park at the piers. Now, only Ports Authority employees and concessionaires use the parking areas that had been designated for shuttles.

Shuttles park in front of the pier, near the Ochoa Building and the Wyndham Old San Juan, or next to the federal court building. This and other new security measures, implemented after 9/11, have served to compound the traffic congestion in the historic district.

"We don’t oppose security measures, but they should be equitably enforced," said Crespo. "Everybody has access to the pier except us."

The new securities measures also require cruise passengers departing from Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport to carry their own luggage from the cruise ship to the airport, which Crespo said hinders their ability to do some sightseeing or shopping before leaving the island.

Litza Boyer, another tour guide, added that the air-conditioning system at Pier 1 has been out of service for several months and that the Ports Authority often gives no advance notice of changes to operational procedures at the piers.

"They change the rules from one day to another. We learn about the changes when we arrive at the pier," said Boyer. "There’s no communication between the Ports Authority and us. This affects tourists’ experience. It seems everything is against our work and the tourism industry."

Tour Coop has 23 tour guides and up to 180 drivers and dispatchers to transport cruise passengers and their luggage.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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