I used to regard a cruise as a travel experience — an encounter with cultures, lifestyles or natural phenomena different from what we know at home. I totally underestimated the ability of cruise executives to eliminate those contacts. And my growing concern about what's happening with cruises has been worsened by last week's reports about Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica (although the news wasn't entirely unexpected).
Indeed, when I first heard (at least a year ago) about the new port area in construction at Falmouth, I suspected it might be another of those artificial urban theme parks — like Coco Cay (Bahamas), Costa Maya (Mexico), Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas), Labadee (Haiti), Mahogany Bay (Roatan, Honduras), Little Stirrup Cay (Bahamas) and others — that cruise lines ranging from Royal Caribbean to Norwegian to Carnival have been throwing up at cruise stops in the Caribbean.
These, of course, are not towns but enclaves, "private beaches," "private villages" or "private islands" fenced off from the life of each surrounding Caribbean nation. Increasingly, the popularly priced, mass-volume cruise lines are fashioning their itineraries to spend one to three days of each weeklong cruise at such totally artificial, contrived, imitations of a real port.
The purpose is to keep the cruise line's passengers grouped in a single confined area serviced by stores, restaurants, bars and beach facilities owned or controlled by the cruise line. That way, the cruise company earns the income from a day's expenditures on shore, without having to see it go to local merchants. And passengers are protected from the occasional unsettling presence of actual residents of the islands they are visiting.
The latest report about Falmouth, though not entirely conclusive, seems to confirm my prediction in toto — and my worst fears. The new port stop has been developed by Royal Caribbean Cruises, which is officially named the developer. The new port is primarily designed for use by those humongous, 6,000-passenger monster vessels of Royal Caribbean, the Oasis of the Seas and the forthcoming, similarly sized Allure of the Seas. The port will open in January 2011. And the announcement of its near-completion is chilling.
To begin with, the new, fake town of Falmouth is built on a landfill where the ocean used to meet the shore. It is not part of the tiny old town of Falmouth. The re-created plot of land eventually will house, according to Travel Weekly, "shops, restaurants and boutique hotels."
Are these new commercial establishments built by Jamaicans? No, it is Royal Caribbean Cruises that is the developer. And the pedestrian streets of the town will be, according to Royal Caribbean's John Tercek interviewed by Travel Weekly (May 12), "lined with buildings inspired by local structures that weave building styles into a distinctive pattern of early Jamaican architecture with Georgian-era buildings dating from the 1760s to 1840."
"Georgian-era buildings dating from the 1760s to 1840"! In other words, the new town will be like Walt Disney's Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, only older. It will not be a real town, but a playground, like the gigantic amusement park (all bells and whistles, toys and games) maintained aboard Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.
Or, as the latest edition of Cruise Critic puts it, approvingly: The attempt is to "refashion the area into a Colonial Williamsburg of the Caribbean." No longer will U.S. and Canadian passengers visit the real Jamaica. They will be taken to a fake Jamaica.
If, like me, you're repelled by these new policies of the mammoth cruiselines, you will henceforth study the itineraries of cruise lines and make sure never to board a ship that goes to Falmouth, Coco Cay, Great Stirrup Cay, Mahogany Bay, Labadee, Little Stirrup Cay, Costa Maya or other insults to our intelligence.