Excursion operators like myself that take guests from ships independently through the use of our own websites or through independent travel agents, are not held in very high esteem by cruise ship executives or their local agents. The main reason for this is that the ships and their local agents profit extremely well from having exclusive contracts with excursion operators where cruise passengers are booked on board the ships to go on their contracted excursions. Usually these are referred to as "ship excursions".
It has often bothered me that I am not part of the cruise association here locally while taking many cruise ship passengers on my excursions. Having no say in an industry that I somewhat rely upon seems like bad business to me. Many excursion companies have started long after my company and have contracts with ships and attend the annual Florida Caribbean Cruise Association conventions. This year I made the decision to attend one of these FCCA meetings to get a better understanding of how the entire system works and also to decide for myself if it was good for my company to be contracted directly by ship lines. As it happened I was also persuaded earlier in the year to join forces with the Barbuda Council in an effort to attract ships to the shores of our financially troubled sister island. I am spokesperson for a company called Denco which is contracted to represent the Barbuda Council on all cruise ship dealings. I'll talk more specifically about that on another blog post.
Anyway, when you pay your US$900 to attend this convention you are given a clear itinerary of the different talks and seminars that will be given, and also a list of special "one on one meetings" with pertinent cruise executives.
Six weeks before my departure I wrote a letter to Patrick Ryan of Brysons shipping, the main cruise ship agent here in Antigua asking for a meeting to discuss our Barbuda plans. I never got a reply.
I didn't write to Nathan Dundas, the chairman of the Antigua Cruise Tourism Association, and one of Brysons top executives because I knew he wouldn't reply to me. You see, in 2003 I was chairman of the Antigua Barbuda Excursion Alliance, and I caused great embarrassment to Mr Dundas by exposing what appeared to be a fraud he was orchestrating. It was a very sticky situation where all the boat excursion operators were notified via an announcement in The Daily Observer of a meeting at the ministry of tourism the following day where there would be a discussion on licensing of captains. The next day about thirty excursion operators met at the ministry and were briefed by the then Junior Minister of Tourism, Hilson Baptist. He told us that Mr Dundas, who was standing next to him, was the main agent for the cruise lines that visited Antigua and that he had been contacted by these lines on a very serious matter. According to the Minister, the cruise lines had told Dundas that if the excursion operators didn't have licenses for their captains by the end of the year that they would stop coming to Antigua. He told us that Mr Dundas has located a new company in English Harbour that would be providing the training and testing for these licenses. He then introduced Mr Dundas who pretty much said the same thing.
The day before someone had notified me that this was going to transpire and I had made a few calls. I was told that Mr Dundas was a major shareholder of this new company which would be handling the licenses. Anyway, when Dundas finished telling us about the costs of instruction and time our captains would need to be off work, it was time for questions. I got to ask the first one. "Mr Dundas, I understand that you are a shareholder in this new wonderful company. Could you tell us if this information is correct?"
For a second, the room was silent and then he spat out a reply that essentially ended that days meeting in chaos. "THAT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS". He practically screamed those words at me. The meeting ended with even the minister shaking his head and walking off. I haven't had much dealings with Dundas since then apart from appearing on a tourism panel talk on Observer Radio.
Four top cruise ship executives gave presentations on how their particular company decided upon a particular itinerary and upon particular ports. This photo shows one of the sides which was shown and refereed to throughout the presentations.
After they had all given their presentations there was a question and answer session and many people asked questions of the panel. The Minister of Tourism from Grenada and also The Minster of Tourism from Dominica asked questions. The Tourism Minister of Grenada asked questions, Excursion operators asked questions, port managers asked questions, agents did as well. Each time someone asked a question they introduced themselves and mentioned where they were from and what company they were involved with. I was intrigued and worried with what they had said about dropping ports and decided to ask a question. I introduced myself and said I was from Antigua. I said that I came to this convention to see if I could negotiate excursion contacts after working as an independent excursion operator for 13 years. I said that after graduating from university, I worked in the duty free shopping center at the cruise port and heard about certain problems the ships and their guests faced. When I started my company years later, those problems still persisted and today those same issues were still there. Joanne nodded her head in agreement. I said that considering what they had mentioned a short while earlier about dropping ports that didn't fix problems I wanted to know if they ever considered another tactic that could help ports like ours solve their long standing issues. I said that despite obviously telling our island's cruise representatives about these issues they remained fixed. I asked them if they thought that it would help if they were interviewed by our local media so that people back home could actually hear from the horses mouth what the ships loved and what problems they experienced. I said that possibly coming from them a greater impact could be made back home. The CEO of one of the lines answered by saying something very simple. He said, "Mr. Fuller, our job is the ship and your job is the island". That was good enough for me and I didn't need any further explanation. It was that clear. There are more and more ports coming online each year and more and more money being spent on existing ports. The cruise lines have more choice and making a decision to stop visiting a port isn't as difficult as some would want to believe.
Remember Colin James is a government worker who's paid by our tax dollars. Anyway, he says to me that someone told "them" that there was a person from Antigua in a seminar saying that they (He and Nathan) had no credibility back home in Antigua. I immediately said that I was the only person at this seminar from Antigua that had asked questions and so obviously they were speaking about me. I did say that the person misrepresented me and that he, Colin, should have been there to have heard exactly what I said. I told him that I didn't say that they had no credibility in Antigua. He was clearly upset and told me that I shouldn't have mentioned "Antigua". He suggested that I was damaging Antigua's reputation. I reiterated that he should have been there and that he's got this all wrong thanks to bad info that was brought to him. He was clearly upset, and I told him that he shouldn't be so sensitive to what people say. I also asked why he was getting so upset at the things I did say since I was trying to find a solution to chronic problems that threatened our cruise tourism industry. I asked him if it was a state secret that we had issues at our port? I asked him if the ships were in the dark about taxi issues or dredging problems?
Nathan then jumps in saying that I simply shouldn't have spoken about Antigua. I reminded them that each person asking question was asked to say where they were from. He angrily snapped back at me saying that I shouldn't have asked any questions. Here we were, ambassadors of Antigua and Barbuda inside the Cartagena Convention Center clearly having a argument. There were executives there from all the major cruise lines as well as 600+ other industry folk from the Caribbean and around the world walking by us. I was astonished at this coordinated attack from Nathan and Colin, not so much that it was happening but that they chose to have a confrontation in front of all these people. The message that sent was awful and I was very cognizant of that. Remember I have been representing Antigua and Barbuda internationally in sporting events since I was 12 years old, and I know how to carry myself abroad. It was incredibly disappointing to me to be involved in this conflict. I said to Nathan that he had received incorrect information and that he should have been there. This enraged him even more and he shouted at me saying that he'd been in this industry for "twenty seven years" and that he didn't need to attend every little seminar that was offered. (The Ministers of our neighboring islands felt that the seminar was important enough to attend though.) He exclaimed that he had taken Antigua's cruise arrivals from nothing all the way above 700 ships. He yelled at me asking what had I ever done for Antigua? "You're not even an authorized tour operator"!! He screamed. I was so dumfounded that I didn't know how to reply. I asked him what he was speaking about and told him to settle down. He then told me to just get away from there. Again I was surprised and asked him if we wanted to "run" me from this place. "YES! I want to run you!! Nathan Dundas said it several times. "I want to run you. That's exactly what I want." I lost a little of my composure at that point and quietly asked him where he planned to run me. I asked him if he wanted to run me to Guyana. That was a very rude thing for me to have said because of course, he's originally from Guyana, and I said it to upset him. If you're reading this Nathan, I apologize for that. The next thing I told you was that you were a joker. I am not sorry for that!!
In fact, I didn't get a chance to tell the same to Collin James, but because of what transpired during that exchange and overall at the FCCA Conference, I have to say that I think he is also incredibly unprofessional. It's one thing for Nathan Dundas to be unprofessional because he's just an independent business man (despite getting his entrance fee and possibly other expenses provided by the Ministry of Tourism), but Colin James works for the people of Antigua and Barbuda. I am astonished that in this day we have someone like him working for our tax dollars and behaving in the way he did.
I had a chance to sit down for a private lunch with The Minister of Tourism from Dominica the next day, and he was also astonished to hear about what had transpired. He had heard clearly my question during the seminar and thought that there was nothing at all wrong with what I had asked. In fact, I was approached by quite a few other people over the next few days who heard my question and thought it was a good one which provoked a very good and telling answer from the lines. They were also surprised to hear that I had had received harsh criticism from my fellow Antiguan delegates.
Within no time, the word was being spread to Antiguans at the conference in Cartagena and to people back in Antigua that Eli Fuller was "slandering Antigua", "airing our dirty laundry", and "damaging our country's name". Weeks later people on the street here in Antigua are telling my friends that I was hurting Antigua's reputation at the FCCA conference in Colombia. Gentlemen outside of the RBBT bank were overheard saying this nonsense just yesterday.
Exclaiming in public at an FCCA conference that I am an unauthorized tour operator and then telling people far and wide that I was damaging Antigua's reputation at the conference is hurtful and damages my reputation. I have spent all of my adult life promoting Antigua and Barbuda. I don't need any pat on my back for the work I do to promote this country but I also don't need to have people slandering me. I don't think there is a person alive that has put more positive Antigua content on the web. Try running through a list of the results after a google search for Eli Fuller Antigua or even better have a look though some of the content I have put online over the years.
Here are a few of my online accounts:
I own and help moderate www.antiguaforums.com on behalf of The Ministry of Tourism, because our Tourism Ministry couldn't afford to have their own message board and relied on an old unmoderated forum that internet trolls had taken over. Thankfully we had that one which was tarnishing our country's name taken down. I have been one of only a handful of people actually in Antigua actively writing on the official Ministry of Tourism message boards since 1999.
I also am active on Tripadvisor's local message board posting in the old days as 365 and more recently as antiguaadventures
I have been one of the only local contributors on the main cruise forum Cruise Critic since 2004. You need to register to see the things I have written on there to help promote Antigua and also to help with damage control. I posted under the name "Antiguan" which you can search for.
I have provided photography for many international and local tourism related magazines.
I have also written countless articles about Antigua and Barbuda for international publications in an effort to promote this beautiful and unique destination.
I also have been featured and interviewed in countless articles about Antigua and also in many pieces for international TV always with the sole purpose of promoting our country as a unique destination.
For these guys to be telling people that I was tarnishing our country's image is asinine and speaks volumes to their characters and professionalism. Neither of them heard me speak and got second hand info from someone who didn't represent what I said correctly. I will continue to promote Antigua and possibly will start taking a more active roll in Antigua and Barbuda's cruise tourim's future.