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Ebola, cruising and questions 

Anybody with a modicum of travel sense and even a passing interest in current events knew this weekend was coming. Anybody with a hint of common sense knows the question was just hanging there: “When will ebola affect cruising?”

This weekend, it did.

There has not, at least so far, been a cruise passenger with ebola. However, there has been a Carnival Magic passenger who had contact with an ebola victim. There have been two port calls missed because the countries (Belize, Mexico) refused to allow the Magic to dock. There has been a change in the security questions you’ll be asked the next time you get on a ship. And there has been an impact on the travel companies that trade on the stock market, including cruise lines.

And now there are questions:

• How many people are canceling cruises because they fear this deadly disease is out there waiting to touch them, as difficult as that is?

• Did the Carnival Magic have to undergo a decontamination before people would step on her decks again, even though there is no evidence of contamination?

• Is there going to be a drop in cruise fares because of cancelations?

• Are cruise officials going to find that it’s an exercise in futility trying to convince clients there is no logical reason to fear cruising when there are still illogical traits associated with ebola?

• What will passengers say if they see their cruise ship is “registered” in West Africa (yes, there are some), even when the ship hasn’t been near West Africa for months or even years?

The major cruise lines — Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival — have already announced tougher screening on embarkation, which will add to the annoyance of passengers if they’re already annoyed by the check-in process. The new protocol for all cruise lines is to ask if passengers have been to the ebola hotspots in Africa or have had contact with somebody who either has ebola or who has been in contact with an ebola patient. Beyond that “contact screening” is recommended and cruise lines can “deny boarding” to any guest, which they’ve always had the right to do anyway.

Meanwhile, it had to be Carnival.

The “ebola contact person” could have boarded any cruise ship, but it was one from Carnival, which has just completed rebuilding its brand and image from a series of problems. This one makes Carnival an innocent victim.

Here’s how Carnival, this decent and completely innocent victim, responded:

All passengers on the Magic were given a $200 onboard credit. All passengers will receive a 50 per cent discount on a future Carnival cruise.

Remember when it was norovirus that caused panic?

Today at portsandbows.com: On the rivers of America

Norwegian Spirit
12 nights
November 14, 2014
Venice, Athens, Ephesus, Istanbul, Mykonos, Naples, Rome, Florence, Toulon, Barcelona
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $49

Norwegian Playing Its Belize Cards

There's a negotiation process underway between Norwegian Cruise Line and Belize right now and when you read through all the he-said, he-said, what it comes right down to is this:

Democracy at work.

Norwegian wants to help the Belize government built a new port, south of Belize City in a place where no cruise ship of any substance has been, called Crawl Caye. For cruise passengers who have been to Belize more than once — that would include us — this is a welcome change because it means an opportunity to see part of the country that was otherwise off limits.

Crawl Caye is a small island, a mangrove island ringed by the Barrier Reef. It is located approximately 25 miles south of Belize City, between it and Roatan, Honduras, and east of the long strand of land known as Placencia, Belize. It is privately owned and sits inside a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Therein lies the debate about building a cruise port.

Environmentalists are concerned about the impact of cruise ships on the Barrier Reef. Lobbyists are more concerned about the economic impact that comes with cruise ships. These discussions have been going on for a few years, the Belizian Government on one side, Norwegian on the other. Last week, Minister of Labour Godwin Hulse said this:

"Crawl Caye is off the table and we've informed NCL accordingly. That does not mean that we are not continuing to dialogue with the people, we must understand that this is a huge investment. NCL is a reputable company, it's a world-class cruise company and any investment proposal to our country that could enhance jobs, enhance growth and create a better way for people – we can't just simple 'shush' away. So we have informed them of that, they have not completely withdrawn, we are continuing to talk and we will see where we go from there."

In other words, the people of Belize will decide whether the economic benefit outweighs the environmental impact. The politicians will be forced to listen to the people…isn't that what politicians always do?

If they do, that is democracy.

Here's a touch of irony for you…the idea is being called a $100 million tourism project, and Crawl Cayes is for sale, for $5.6 million.

Coral Princess
7 nights
July 17, 2013
Vancouver, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, College Ford, Anchorage
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $114

Oceans to River in Belize

BELIZE CITY, Belize — What to do in this friendly country under the arm of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and bordered on one side by Guatemala and the other by the Caribbean Sea, yet 400 miles from the Gulf of Mexico…

If you're a deep-sea diver, or even a snorkeler, there's no shortage of activity. If you like to wander around a butterfly farm, you can do that. Visit some Maya ruins…take your pick. Shop 'til you drop…hey, Belize is a cruise port, albeit one that's a 25-minute tender ride from the Crown Princess, parked with three other cruise ships six miles away in the bay that separates Belize from Honduras.

Aha…a cruise up the Old Belize River!

Well, it seemed like a good idea, especially since on the Princess website it's rated the most popular shore excursion in Belize, and especially since it included your basic Central American lunch (beans, rice, chicken). Punctuating that was a short visit to some old ruins that were new, at least to us. And to be fair, it had its redeeming moments, spread over nine hours.

In case you're ever here on a Western Caribbean itinerary, there are some things you should know about a river cruise on the Old Belize:

1. At all costs, avoid sitting at the back of the boat. This is a boat built for 35 or 40, powered by two outboards that pump fumes into your air space for the better part of two and a half hours. There is no escape, short of joining the manatees in the water, because this is a "tour boat" in which you sit in one place and watch.

2. Be aware that wildlife can be fleeting. The boat races out to sea where dolphins feed and stops for a photo-op, then races towards the shore where the manatees hang out for another one. The amazing thing is how anxious tourists can be to snap a shot of a manatee's nose or a dolphin's fin, because that's usually about all you see.

3. Monkeys are everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but at a couple of spots along the river bank and just outside the restaurant with the beans and rice and chicken. In the final analysis, they gave tourists a choice. You can go to a place on the shores of the Caribbean and see them au natural, in their own environment (they like hanging around on coconut trees)…or you can find them close to home in captivity. Monkey sea, monkey zoo.

4. There are some hot spots along the 27-mile journey up a river that goes all the way to Guatemala. There are iguanas of varying sizes, especially in the area tour guides call "Iguanaville" and there are mangroves everywhere. This is particularly enchanting if you are into mangrove trees, of which there are 57 species. On some of them are bat-like bugs that eat 300 mosquitoes a minute (who counts them?) and more than one passenger from the Crown Princess was trying to figure out a way to get a couple of them through customs.

As for the Maya ruins, once a small city called Altun Ha (water on the rocks), it's like many others. They're interesting, especially if you're an expert on the people or ancient history, with some still accessible if you're okay with walking 67 steps up and 69 down for a panoramic view of a landscape organized in a time when we assume nothing was organized.

Travel is a big part of this trip. Also waiting.

Of the nine hours, three were in the boat and three in a bus, two having lunch or seeing ruins and one just waiting. The bus trips — there were two — give you a sampling of what life is like in Belize, from the rural areas with homes on stilts because this can be hurricane country to the winding streets of Belize City, the heart of the tourist industry that is 50 per cent of the country's economy.

And the students here all wear uniforms because, as the guide explains:

"That way, we know if they are causing trouble or out of school which school they're from."

It seems, too, that Belize is a good place to take a ship-sponsored shore excursion. The last tender back to the Crown Princess left at 4:30. The one we took left half an hour later. Had it not been a ship shore excursion, we'd have been…up the river.

Norwegian Sun
7 nights
May 27, 2013
Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $409
Cost per day: $58

Belize it or not…Costa Maya

News item: Carnival has canceled 10 stops in Belize City because the Belizians have taken on so many ships that the tendering process (necessary) has created congestion. Instead of Belize, passengers on the Carnival Legend or the Glory will be taken to Costa Maya.

Okay, and the winner here is…

Not Carnival's passengers. 

Almost four years ago — before we started writing this blog — we went to Belize on the Norwegian Spirit. We eagerly anticipated the visit because our daughter had often been heard talking about going to Belize, which means she'd done more research on it than us. If you can make a judgment on an eight-hour stopover, it was everything she'd imagined it to be: pretty, friendly, accommodating, interesting, safe. The only thing wrong were the red ants at the butterfly garden…but that's another story.

Not Costa Maya. 

This is a Mexican port we have visited twice, the first time on the way to Belize. As much as we enjoy making lemonade out of lemons, so to speak, this is also a port that needs time to develop, even though it has been nearly six years since Hurricane Dean almost wiped this dot off the map. There's not a lot to do or see in the immediate area, unless you want to sit on the beach and drink beer. As a substitute port, to us it doesn't hold anything close to the appeal of Belize.

Not Carnival.

The cruise line loses on the public relations front with everyone. Passengers may be annoyed at the port substitution, especially if they've been to Costa Maya. Belizians from restaurant owners to street vendors to government bean counters will surely be annoyed at the risk of losing business they were counting on, no matter who's fault it is.

Not Belize. 

There are probably more Carnival ships going there than any other cruise line, to the extent that Carnival believed there was an agreement that no more than four ships would be there at a time, and that Carnival had first dibs on the parking spots in the harbor. So while Belize may — that's may — have more people visiting by crowding the harbor, the increase comes at the risk of alienating its largest cruise ally.

There was a 10 per cent decrease in cruise visitors in 2012. Local tourist officials are being grilled about dealing with the issue, to the point that a "Director of Cruise and Regional Initiatives" is being added to the Belize Tourism Board. The government is engaging potential investors in developing a "Cruise Tourism Village" berthing facility, otherwise known as a cruise ship terminal.

In the end, the buck stops in Belize.

Holland America Volendam
7 nights
May 1, 2013
Vancouver (return): Inside Passage, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Rina and Friends, Just as Expected

The specter of Hurricane Rina and the fact that she’s disrupted more than a few cruise-ship schedules this week is a reminder about the approaching end of Hurricane Season.

Excepts…there’s still a month to go.

As Hurricane Seasons go, this one has seemed rather tame. Nobody even showed up until Irene, and that was the third week of August. She was a Category 3, but nobody paid her much attention because she didn’t cause much disruption, nor damage.

The arrival of Rina, which hasn’t reached Cat 3 status, caught everyone’s attention in the cruise business. As she peaked at Cat 2 while for the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico, a dozen ships changed direction, eight of them Carnival, and popular ports like Belize and Cozumel welcomed fewer visitors.

When the threat of hurricanes all began (June 1), predictions from NOAA (National Hurricane Center) were that there would be six to 10 hurricanes, three to six of them Cat 3 or higher. This was considered an “above-normal” prognosis.

Guess what?

With a month to go, there have been six hurricanes, three of them Cat 3 or higher — Irene, Katia, Ophelia. Maybe it hasn’t been so tame after all.

Norwegian Epic
7 nights
March 3, 2012
Miami return (St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Nassau)
Inside  $719

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