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Cruise ship season starts in Costa Rica's Caribbean port, but expectations low
The cruise ship season in Costa Rica's Caribbean province of Limón officially started on Wednesday with the arrival of the Island Princess and her 1,875 passengers.
Vice President Alfio Piva and Tourism Minister Allan Flores welcomed visitors on the 294-meter ship, but locals are worried about the sector's decline in recent years.
Figures from the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) show that Limón, northeast of the capital, welcomed 127 cruise ships in the 2008-2009 season. That number dropped to 71 in the 2011-2012 season.
The current season, which ends on May 30, 2014, likely will see the number decrease even more, to 59, according to a schedule posted by the Atlantic Port Authority, or JAPDEVA, administrators of the Limón dock.
Total numbers from 2008 to 2012 indicate that the arrival of ships to the Caribbean province decreased by 46 percent in that period.
ICT General Manager Juan Carlos Borbón said cruise activity depends on many external factors that vary from season to season.
“Arrival of the ships and the number of passengers can increase or decrease substantially from year to year, and several factors are involved including weather, fuel costs, changes or even elimination of routes,” he said.
Borbón said “it is important to note the negative effects of a strike or public demonstration in the area that prevents the docking of a ship. […] They can cause cruise lines to evaluate coming to the country, as companies' main requirements from the Costa Rican government are related to safety factors that ensure both the passengers and the crew a pleasant visit.”
Regarding the decrease in the number of cruise ships arriving in the country, Borbón said demand for longer trips has decreased in recent years, both because of price and the ability to cover as many destinations as possible in a shorter period of time.
“Although we cannot say that happens in all cases, Puerto Limón is usually included within these larger routes that are being cut,” he said.
On Wednesday, Piva said officials are aware that cruise activity has decreased in Limón, and they “are making an effort to bring more ships to the port."
A long-term solution, he added, “is to build a dock exclusively for cruise ships, with all the required facilities such as shops, cafes and other services that currently do not exist in the Caribbean port."
Piva noted that Limón dock currently serves both tourists and cargo ships, meaning tourists must share dock space with cargo trucks loading products for export and import.
Traffic Police officers are required to oversee pedestrian travelers, who must cross the same road dozens of trucks use to enter and leave the dock.
President Laura Chinchilla's administration set their hopes on the construction of a new cargo dock in Moín, north of Limón, but its construction has been delayed after a public contract was awarded to Dutch company APM Terminals.
At least three environmental groups oppose the construction of the $992 million terminal, arguing that it may damage or pollute a nearby aqueduct and surrounding wetlands because of an access road that must be built. Dock workers also opposed Moín port expansion, fearing they could lose their jobs.
The project that would ease cargo operations at the Limón dock awaits approval of environmental impact studies from government agencies, which could delay the start of construction, innitially scheduled for February 2014. The new port is expected to be fully operational by 2016.
Direct benefits to the city from the cruise industry also have been affected by the drop in the number of ships. Each tourist on board a cruise ship that docks in Puerto Limón pays the municipality and JAPDEVA $3.50 in taxes.
In 2011, Limón Municipality collected ₡138 million ($276,000) in taxes. That figure decreased to ₡61 million ($122,000) in 2012.
Meanwhile, about 100 local artisans offer their products along the dock to tourists who decide to disembark. However, most visitors barely spend any time on the dock and are quickly shuttled by bus to pre-arranged tours outside the area. Lack of appropriate tourism infrastructure in Limón doesn't help, and the province has both the highest unemployment and murder rates in Costa Rica.
Some tourists visit nearby destinations such as Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Tortuguero, but depending on cruise schedules, most guests are taken to the capital or to tourist attractions in other provinces.
Flores said the ICT has undertaken several efforts in collaboration with the private sector and community leaders to ensure that “this cruise season reflects the hard work to improve conditions for tourists.”
Also on Wednesday, the ICT reported that they had signed a cooperative agreement with the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. That agreement states that starting Oct. 31 officials will promote tours to Costa Rica in the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York.
Promotions include tour packages of three days and two nights in Costa Rica, guided tours, and other benefits.
Investment in this promotion totals some $60,000 and will be financed in equal parts by the ICT and Royal Caribbean.
ICT also signed a cooperation agreement with JAPDEVA to improve boarding rooms and outdoor areas at the Limón dock.
"We have reached important agreements in attracting more cruise lines and promoting this destination, and we have strengthened the relationship with international organizations such as the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, aimed at seeking closer ties with cruise-line executives," Borbón said.
On Wednesday, guests on the Island Princess spent only a few hours in Limón. The cruise ship left port at 5:30 p.m. on its way to the Cayman Islands.