Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why the hell would Eli Fuller want cruise ships coming to Barbuda?

As many of you may know or would know just from reading through the years of blog posts below this one, I am very concerned about ecology and conservation. You would also know that I have spent huge amounts of time in Barbuda enjoying the most natural side of our country that anyone can find. Some of my first steps were taken on Barbuda's beaches and some of the my first sights underwater were seen on Barbuda's reefs. I have camped countless nights in the most remote places around Barbuda's coastline since I was a child and still do to this day. Like many others, I would selfishly like Barbuda to remain an undisturbed ecological gem but while we have been holding on to that unrealistic pipe dream, change has come to Barbuda and huge changes are on the horizon.

When I was a little primary school kid my father and his brother would take me and my cousins and brother to Codrington to stay in small rented houses often without running water or electricity. We would walk to one of the wonderful bakeries in the morning for bread and would go to Carter Nedd or Burton for other supplies. In those days there were very few vehicles and no paved roads there. We would go by "Bully" to get gasoline for whatever vehicle we managed to rent or get over to the island. I used to love the smell of the syphoned gasoline. Bully would sell by the container full and would syphon fuel from the metal oil drums which were stored outside his home.
Half of the time we would have flown in to hunt for migratory duck and the other times we would be there to snorkel and fish off the beaches.

I'll never forget how strange it was to be walking though Antigua's airport with shotguns on our way to the plane. Of course, in Barbuda we would have to make sure that the animals were chased off the grass air strip before we landed. There was never any officials at the airport that I can remember.

From the age of about ten we started going to Barbuda by boat for a week at a time during any public holidays. My family never did any other vacation other than going to Barbuda. Spanish Point, Welches, Two Foot Bay, Cedar Tree Point, Hog Hole, and Fishing Creek were our Disney World.

Morris Nedd, known to me as "Tumoch", would always accompany us on our adventures. Vernon Joseph was often with us too. We would often spend a week there without seeing any other Antiguan or Barbudan people. It was simply that remote and that natural teaming with wildlife above and below the waterline. A secret undisturbed paradise is what Barbuda was to me growing up, and that is how I imagined it would stay forever.

I don't have to go into all the changes that have taken place since my first visits there in the seventies but you can imagine for yourself. 230 acres of land was leased to build a small hotel called the K-Club. Palmetto Point hotel was built on 164 acres. Then the Lighthouse Bay hotel was built on 140 acres. Lighthouse has plans to develop along an area which may have the highest concentration of Hawksbill Turtle nests in the Caribbean. Here is an example of what they plan to build in the near future.
As you can see, they have already cleared plenty of the natural vegetation in the image below:
You can read more about their plans on this link.

Some of the other proposals are way bigger and would have much more of an impact on the ecology of the island and everything else that some of us have loved about Barbuda since we were kids. I was told of one proposal recently by a member of the Barbuda Council which would have had the entire east coast leased indefinitely to an entity supposedly connected to the Qatari Fund. There have been two groups of separate Chinese investors visiting Barbuda in recent months who were looking at areas of possible investment in connection with the Citizen By Investment Program (CIP) and I strongly believe that Barbuda is on the verge of a huge change. This change may be good for some and not so good at all for others. Those of us that want Barbuda to remain natural have to understand that the people that live there are tired of being the "forgotten" sister who begs for handouts from Antigua in order to sustain herself. Things are rough in the island's only village and most people there are without work. Unemployment and poverty have started to take their toll in every aspect of life there on the island, and anyone who thinks that things will remain the way they were in the seventies is fooling him/herself. 

Up until now, I haven't said anything about sand mining in Barbuda either, which to be quite honest is how I became involved in trying to bring cruise ships to Barbuda. This article from IPS kind of explains how I got involved. Click here for more
Here is a quote from that article: 

"Calling large-scale sand mining a “destructive and irrational practice”, Eli Fuller, a marine environmentalist, offered alternatives means of income for Barbudans, including light tackle and deep-sea sport fishing. Fuller added that cruise tourism could also be a source of income. “Many of the ships visiting some of the Caribbean’s most celebrated destinations anchor offshore and tender their guests to little docks on the mainland,” he said. “Without any significant investment, this could happen in Barbuda almost immediately. One or two small ships a week could provide significantly more employment than the entire mining industry does in Barbuda,” Fuller added."

According to the Antigua Observer 28/6/12, "Sand mining, which began in 1976, generated around $5 million in revenue annually for the council."
Thousands of barge loads of the most perfect white sand have left Barbuda since I was a kid despite every warning and every bit of expert advice from scientists and engineers saying that this was a bad idea. There have even been legal decisions which supposedly would have ended sand mining in Barbuda and those have been ignored. The local government has even made decisions time and time again to stop mining, but despite all of this barge load after barge load filled with 200+ 20 tonne truck loads of sand leave Barbuda each week. Check this report from 2006 where they made another decision to stop. 

The little money that Barbuda receives doesn't equate to the huge damage that is being done to the island, but they just don't yet have an alternative means of getting income for the council's bills. 

Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinions, and I for one think that building concrete hotels and luxury villas all over Barbuda is the wrong path to walk. It's my opinion that Barbuda's value is today and will always be highest if most of the island remains undeveloped. Think of St. John, USVI for example. If the goal is to help the economy and to get rid of sand mining and other very destructive economic practises (unregulated fishing comes to mind) then it needs to be something sustainable, something that doesn't rely on huge capital investments, something that doesn't leave a mark when it's time has come and gone. Remember that Sustainable Development which is something that we are all supposed to be striving to adhere to refers to (wikipeia quote) a mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while ensuring the sustainability of natural systems and the environment, so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.

This is why I suggested cruise tourism as a alternative. There are islands up and down the Caribbean that are smaller than Barbuda and have smaller populations than Barbuda has, that receive regular scheduled cruise stops. I went to one of them recently in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Mayreau is 1.5 square miles and has been receiving cruise ships for twenty years. They use a little wooden dock to receive guests via tenders lowered from the cruise ships moored off shore. The very simple and profitable operation can be seen better through the Wind and Sea website here. You need to click through to the cruise ship section and the island of Mayreau. Have a look to see how simple it is. This tiny tiny island takes a maximum of 2000 guests to their very basic facility on Saline Bay. From there excursions are staged to one of the Caribbean's best Marine Protected Areas, The Tobago Cays. One day, if we are lucky, we here in Antigua and Barbuda will have a marine park as well managed and as rich in sealife as the Tobago Cays!

Of course, this is just one of many ecologically sensitive places that ships visit. The perception that ships are destructive monsters that blaze a trail of environmental catastrophe in their wake is not accurate in 2013. Things have changed and more and more eco sensitive areas are receiving ships in order to provide alternative means of income to their residents. There has to be a balance and after seeing how Antigua's hotels and tourism developments have damaged the environment over the years and as recently as this month, I am more convinced than ever that carefully managed cruise tourism can have a lower environmental impact that traditional hotel developments.

I met with the cruise agents responsible for managing the cruise ships stops on Mayreau and it was interesting to note that the only thing that is left on the island is cash and footprints in the sand. Everything else is taken back to the ship. Compare that to a hotel... I know we need both forms of tourism, but dismissing cruise tourism as bad for the environment is misguided. The list of eco sensitive areas and islands that cruise ships visit around the world is huge.

Another interesting cruise ship list is the list of tiny islands in the West Indies that receive cruise ships. Almost all without cruise ship docks too. Here is a list of 6 "private islands" which are owned by cruise lines. Click here.  There are quite a few more that are not private.

I think that another thing that got me interested in being part of this idea was that if people who are interested in nature, ecology, conservation and ultimately sustainable development are not interested in getting involved, then the inevitable impacts of future developments will be worse as a result. Those of us who care about this stuff have a responsibility to get involved more than just talking and writing. We have attempt to influence the way our small islands are developed. I really don't need the extra work or headache that is involved as you have seen from my last blog, but at the moment I am still prepared to try. 

As a side note, since getting involved in this thing, I have come to find out that designs for a large Barbuda cruise ship dock were paid for recently, and within the past few months there has been some back room lobbying by certain interests to try to make this a reality. One of these dock design representatives tried to get Barbuda Council permission to go and look for financing for the construction of a large cruise ship dock. These are things that I will fight tooth and nail to stop from happening.

The Denco Management website is in the very early stages of development as we explore this initiative on behalf of the Barbuda Council and I will have more info on there in the near future. I just wanted to give some personal perspective on the whole thing because so many of my friends were puzzled.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why I'm being slandered by two tourism powerhouses.

I am writing this blog post to give my side of a story which I had hoped wouldn't have gotten this far. There are some people who are actively trying to damage my reputation and I have to set the record straight. It's going to be a long one so please don't bother unless you have heard something about my recent trip to Cartagena. 

Several weeks ago I purchased a ticket to attend the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association annual convention in Cartagena, Colombia. The entrance fees, airline tickets and apartment cost me over US$3500, but I felt that this trip was important enough to justify the high expenses. Since 1999 I have been operating my company Adventure Antigua which is an excursion company taking guests by boat around our country. We have four boats taking visitors and local guests on a variety of different and exciting excursions to areas off the beaten track. I employ 19 men and women and also hire subcontractors to do things like catering, transportation and maintenance. I pay my taxes on time too! Since 1999 I have promoted my company and my country on the Internet and have built Adventure Antigua around our reputation on the internet and here on the island. Through my website, I started taking cruise ship passengers independently on my tours in the year 2000 and each year the number of cruise passengers that we take out has grown steadily.

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.
On my first day in Cartagena, I met Dundas in the hall of the main hotel and said hello explaining that I was there with the Barbuda Council. As expected his coldness and disinterest wasn't hidden. For the next two days he and Colin James, Chief Executive Officer at The Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, made every effort to avoid me and my Barbuda associates. There were no questions about how our meetings were going or anything for that matter. I saw them at the Antigua Trade Show booth and asked Colin how things were going. I also asked how the dredging plans for the harbour were coming along. They coldly explained that 3D Construction would be getting started on St John's harbour soon. I was slightly surprised and asked if 3D was bringing in another dredge. They didn't think so, and asked why. I just said that I had watched the little dredge this summer doing a job in Jolly Harbour and would be surprised if they were going to be using the same one in Deep Water Harbour which sounded like a much bigger job. 

The next morning, Tuesday, I had several meetings with top level cruise executives about Barbuda and about my company Adventure Antigua. In the afternoon a special seminar on "Itinerary Planning For the Future. What You Need to Know" was scheduled and as this seemed very important to our plans, I was there early with the other Barbuda continent. The room had seating for about 65-70 but well over 100 turned up early. More and more seats were brought in to accommodate as many as would fit in the room. No other people from Antigua were at this very important seminar.

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.

It was very interesting hearing about what made a destination so valuable, and one thing echoed by each presenter really caught my attention. The first to talk about it was, Joanne Salzedo, an executive from Norwegian Cruise Lines and specifically it had to do with lines making painful decisions to stop visiting a destination if and when particular problems went unaddressed for too long. She described ports which had everything going for them with wonderful and profitable excursions, beautiful beaches or other natural landscapes and fantastic ports, and described that sometimes she would make recommendations to her CEO that they stop visiting a port like this because of a problem which hadn't been corrected.
Imagine that! A cruise line happy with a destination but dropping it because of one issue that remained unresolved year after year. Sounds like Antigua could be in danger right? Could this explain some of the cruise ship arrival decline?

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.
After the seminar finished there was the Trade Show Grand Opening next door. Many different ports had wonderful exhibits and it was a great opportunity to see what other islands were doing to be competitive. As it was winding down one of my Barbuda colleagues and I decided to leave. At that point we saw Nathan Dundas (from Brysons Shipping and The Antigua Cruise Tourism Association) and Colin James, Chief Executive Officer at The Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority looking more cold than usual. We said hello as we walked past, and Colin said he needed to speak with me about something. 

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 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.