Protecting The Environments and Cultures We Visit

The following article was written by a friend of mine, Richard Detrich while finishing up a contract on ROYAL PRINCESS in the Amazon.  His words reflect some valuable thoughts on an important subject related to cruising.

Dr. Richard Detrich is a Port Lecturer for Princess and has lectured on Holland America and Celebrity.  He has been a minister, travel agency owner, director of ecommerce and real estate agent before retiring to grow Arabica coffee high in the mountains of Chiriqui, Panama and lecture on cruse ships. He writes of his adventures in Panama and on the seven seas online at  Detrich can be reached at

Richard Detrich and Embera

When I started cruising, in the late ‘60s, you would stand on the aft deck in the evening and watch a seemingly endless stream of black plastic garbage bags drifting into the sunset.  It was the standard and accepted way of disposing cruise ship garbage.  We’d shoot skeet off the aft deck, happily drive golf balls into the ocean, release thousands of balloons from the swimming pool and throw tons of paper streamers into the water as we sailed.

All of that has changed! Now a crew member who throws or discharges anything into the water is subject to dismissal.  Cruise lines have hot lines where anyone can call from anywhere in the world to report an infraction which is immediately investigated.

Stimulated by regulation, enforcement and huge fines, cruise lines have discovered a different way of doing business while at sea.  But it hasn’t just been regulation and fines.  Cruise lines have realized that when you make your living sailing the seven seas, it makes good business sense to protect and preserve the oceans on which you sail.

From a strictly business perspective, if we destroy the ocean . . . no business!  So cruise lines have made great strides in conservation, recycling and preserving the ocean.  Most ships carry a senior officer with a title like Chief Environmental Officer or similar.

Cruise guests en route to Embera village

“Sustainable tourism” has become a kind of buzz word, on land as well as at sea. Sustainable tourism means that we want to be able to take passengers to experience various parts of the world without destroying what it is that our guests came to experience in the first place. Whether it’s the ocean,  a national park or monument, an island, or a remote village . . . we need to learn to explore and visit without destroying.

For some areas we may already be too late.

When I first went to St Thomas in the late 60’s you could park your jeep on the front street next to the harbor and just leave it with keys under the mat. Only on the one or two days a week when a cruise ship was in port did you contend with traffic jams in Charlotte Amalie. The old St. Thomas families were warm and gracious and it really was “America’s Paradise.”  Today St Thomas is a massive parking lot for cruise ships with what amounts to a giant mall with a pre-Christmas traffic jam.  Is this just “progress” or has something irretrievable been lost in the process?

St. John is hardly better. When I first visited St. John a 4-wheel drive Jeep was essential to venture anywhere outside of the tiny town of Cruz Bay. Now all the roads are paved and Cruz Bay is quickly becoming a sprawl of gift and T-shirt shops and condos. Thankfully Rockefeller had the foresight to snap up much of St. John and turn it over to the National Park Service, so you can still experience some of what it used to be if you try hard enough.

Nassau has become a cruise ship parking lot.  When I first went to Aruba it was nothing but beautiful beaches, divi divi trees, a casino and two shops selling Dutch imports like Gouda cheese and Delft ware.  Now Aruba is imitating Nassau.   And so it goes.  What, pray tell, do Columbian Emeralds have to do with Alaska . . . or diamonds, or watches, or ball caps that change color in the sunlight?

For many cruise passengers the only orientation to the history, culture, and sights of the ports they are visiting consists of a promotional sales presentation urging them the follow the map and visit only the “cruise line preferred” shops.  As a stockholder of three of the major players, I appreciate that this contributes to the bottom line and that lots of people come on cruises wanting to shop. And it’s probably much better now that the “kick back” goes to the cruise lines, rather, than as the “old days, when the cruise director walked around town visiting the shops with a big bag collecting money and jewelry for himself.

But don’t we have a duty to tell our guests something about the places they are visiting?

Trust me, I’m not dissing the cruise industry. As a former cruise-only travel agency owner, a passenger, stock holder and now on board lecturer, I have contributed my share . to the industry and its growth.   There is nothing wrong with cruising per se, BUT we have to learn to treat the places and people we visit with the same respect with which we have learned to treat the oceans. Cruise ships will continue to be built, and most will probably continue to be bigger, and cruising will continue to be one of the most enjoyable, relaxing, hassle-free and cost-effective way to see the world. Let’s just not destroy the world in the process!

Embera visiting Zuiderdam

As I write this I am cruising in the Amazon Basin on the Amazon River, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. We’ve struggled to do this in a way that respects and preserves this very fragile, yet extremely important ecosystem. Yet when I look at all the plastic garbage that is thrown in the Amazon by locals in Manaus, I think that the cruise ships may respect the River more than the people who live here. Fortunately Brazil, already a world leader in using alternative fuels, has realized that it must legislate to protect and preserve the Amazon basin. It has already restricted cutting of timber and exporting any wood from the Amazon basin, much to the frustration of some of the locals who create beautiful carvings which ship passengers can’t purchase because Brazilian law forbids unlicensed wood products being brought onboard.

A little less than 20 years ago, cruise ships coming up the Amazon began stopping at a tiny village along the river called Boca da Valeria in order to give guests a glimpse of life in Amazonia. One of the first ships was owned by Epirotiki. Princess, Holland America and others started stopping at tiny Boca da Valeria about 15 years ago.

One of the entertainers on ROYAL PRINCESS is a magician/comedian named Bernard Reid. Reid has been working Princess ships for years and was on the first Princess ships that called at this tiny village of Boca da Valeria some fifteen years ago. He recalls a much different society where people walked around almost naked, and had no idea what money was, or what to do with it. It was an economy in which people traded with their neighbors and lived a lifestyle that was totally dependant on the river, the forest, and the community. Enter the tourists! According to Bernard, when the ships started stopping at Boca da Valeria and the passengers started passing out US dollars, suddenly things changed. When the ship left the men of the village would collect the money, get in their boats and go up the river to Parintins, get drunk, and come home and beat their wives and kids.

Now, fifteen years later, when the ship is stopping people flock to Boca da Valeria from villages all around the region and for the most part, put on a show. Every imaginable animal is on a string (totally against Brazilian law) and despite what I tell guests, some are willing to encourage this by paying $1 to take a picture. One of my best moments this season was when a toucan managed to escape and flew free with a string on its leg.    Score one for the toucans!

Arriving at Boca da Valeria.jpg

People dress their little girls in feathers and loin cloths to pose for pictures a $1 a pop. Is this exploitation of children? It depends how you look at it, but everyone is hustling for US dollars! If you want to buy a beer at the little bar you’d better have US dollars.  Nobody will have change for a 20 Real note, but pull out a $20 US bill and they’ve got change.  So what happens to all these US dollars?  A man from Manaus, connected to the cruise industry, arrives with a stack of Reals to change US dollars for Reals on a one-to-one basis, about forty percent less than the going exchange rate.  So only sixty percent of what our guests spent and gave in Boca da Valeria actually goes to the people our guests wanted to help.

Ship guests will throw oranges and fruit off the ship to folks who come out to meet the ship in small skiffs, even although we ask guests NOT to do this because it endangers the lives of the folks in the small boats. That same sense of power, nobless oblige, and entitlement leads guests to save up pillow candies and pass them out to the hordes of children who come to beg, grab and demand, this despite the fact that we ask them NOT to give candies to children who have little access to dental care, and can buy candies at the store just like anywhere else in the world.

The really magnanimous guests scarf up the tiny “golf score” type pencils in front of the Shore Ex office, lift soap and shampoo from the room stewards’ carts in the hallway, and then, acting like lords of the manor proceeded to throw out pilfered stuff to hordes of grabbing kids. Really generous!  There are times when you to have these tourists, as opposed to travelers, and passengers, as opposed to guests, as shipmates.  Most of folks I’ve met on board this season know how to visit another culture and not stick out as ugly Americans, Germans, British, Canadians or whatever, but some . . .

Freyzer Andrade is an ambitious, twenty-something, young Brazilian artist from Boca da Valeria who paints beautiful acrylic paintings of Brazil on heavy paper and sells them to visitors to Boca da Valeria for $20-35. He is very talented, speaks English and teaches art in nearby Parintins.  So this guy from the ship wants to trade a beautiful painting for a cheap . . . cheap being the operative word here . . . pen knife. Of course Freyzer, recognizing the worth of his artwork, smiles patiently and turns down the offensive offer. Now this ugly American, Canadian or Brit . . . I don’t know which . . . ups the ante. He’s offering $5 US and his cheap pen knife! (How he got the knife on or off the ship, I don’t know, and I was tempted to throw him to our Chief of Security, but I didn’t.) Freyzer declines nicely, and the guy stomps off loudly claiming that the locals were taking advantage of him. I’m sorry, but what a jerk!

Over the years we have destroyed much of the culture we came to see. So we have a circus of people all grubbing for US dollars. We have children who are rude, demanding, unruly little beggars and sometimes thieves, who swarm anyone with a plastic bag and start grabbing whatever they can get their hands on.

In an attempt to begin to correct these abuses by our guests, not the locals, we have asked folks not to hand stuff out to the kids, or give out dollar bills randomly, which the kids then immediately take to the little bar to buy potato chips. My wife watched an 11-year-old pull out a roll of US dollars to buy  potato chips! This in a country where the minimum wage for a family, guaranteed by the government, is about $240 US a month! This kid’s dad, by working hard all day, might bring home the equivalent of $8 US.

When we first stopped this season in the tiny Amazon village of Boca da Valeria our guests were stampeded by children begging for dollars and grabbing bags. Guests passed out trinkets to children who pushed and pulled, one time knocking a guest’s bag to the ground then fighting for pencils and candy. Another time child grabbed a guest’s bag and safari hat, running away with things the guest had no intention of giving away.

This is not only dangerous to our guests but also to the local children. The mob scenes were indicative of the “beggar society” created by cruise ship visits and the denigration of the local culture. Guests also gave grabbing hordes of children the pillow chocolates they had saved up from the ship and stolen from room stewards’ carts in the hallways, leaving a pathway of candy wrappers in our wake.

So all season I worked hard to encourage guests to respect the culture. I asked them to think before handing out dollars like a visiting sheik, suggesting it might be better to purchase a craft item if you wanted to help the local economy, rather than teaching children to beg. I asked them to think if dressing little girls up in feathers for tourists to take pictures was exploitive of children. I pointed out that all of the jungle animals on strings, and often obviously being mistreated, are not pets, but belonged in the jungle and not on strings, but that keeping such animals was illegal under Brazilian law.

It was a small attempt, but gradually it was working. The kids weren’t knocking people over, begging, grabbing or demanding. I talked with a few local folks who spoke some English and asked them to ask the village elders to impose some discipline on the kids, and I tried to impose some discipline on our guests.

But on a cruise ship the players are constantly changing. While there are people in charge of the operation of the ship, all aspects of hotel operation, security of the ship, and the guest experience on board, nobody has responsibility to address the guest experience ashore. We have people who sell tours, and as a Port Lecturer, as opposed to a Shopping Lecturer, I try to share information, history, and practical suggestions to guests, but there is nobody coordinating or addressing directly the guest experience ashore.

So we had guests going ashore in Manaus wearing tons of real gold jewelry and getting it ripped off. One night I was riding the shuttle from the floating pier where we were docked in Manaus to the terminal and two women got on who were off to explore Manaus by night . . . wearing beautiful, expensive gold jewelry.  The one had on a necklace so beautiful that I was tempted to steal it!  And she had a gold designer watch dangling from her wrist, and her friend had diamond stud pierced earrings. Maybe the ear rings were costume jewelry, but I didn’t know the difference and certainly a would-be thief wouldn’t know.   So, nicely I suggested that if they wanted to keep the gold and if didn’t want to risk having the pieced earrings ripped off, it might be a good idea to ditch the bling. Had there been some coordinated effort to address guest experience ashore this woman would have known to be cautious walking around at night and to leave the family jewels in the cabin safe. Another gentleman, same weekend, was knocked down on the ramp leading to the terminal and had his gold bracelets ripped off. We owe it to our guests to give them the information they need to have the marvelous time ashore that they paid for!

For Boca da Valeria we worked asking our guests to respect the local culture and to minimize as much as possible our negative impact on the culture and the people.  We asked that they  . . .

  • Not give the kids candy  since we don’t want to contribute to the litter and, most importantly, recognize that these kids don’t have regular access to dental care;
  • Not to create a mob scene and teach the children to be beggars by handing out pencils, soap, or whatever;
  • Not to just hand out dollars to kids begging or demanding money, but, if they want to contribute something, buy some craftwork, even if it’s something they’re just going to leave on the ship or sell at the first rummage sale after they get home.

We asked folks who had brought along school supplies or gifts to take them to the reception desk, promising that the items would be boxed up and given to the school principal or priest for distribution.  But since the crew is constantly changing, and most of the crew being pretty much out of touch with what goes on with guests unless it is something in which they are directly involved, we ended up with crew members going ashore . . . even a senior officer in full uniform . . . doing just what we had asked quests not to do!

As an industry we teach crew members not to dump contaminated water into the ocean or throw stuff overboard.  We coordinate and educate in order to provide a safe and secure environment for our guests, to protect the ship and the ocean environment.  But when it comes to understanding and protecting the environment and cultures ashore there is no effort to coordinate or educate.

An interesting contrast to Boca da Valeria are the Embera Indian villages that guests often visit on Panama Canal cruises.  I came to move to Panama largely because of meeting some of these Embera people on a cruise on the ROTTERDAM.  I went back home and went online to find out more about the Embera, and in the process discovered a lot about benefits of retiring in Panama, and ended up there.  I have also become good friends of one of the Embera village leaders who is very involved in the ship tourist business.

The Embera are one of seven living indigenous peoples who were in Panama before Columbus.  The Embera spread across Columbia and into Panama and Ecuador. The Embera have often been considered one of the most primitive because of their traditional ways of living and dressing.  In the days of the US Canal Zone parents would sometimes warn their children not to go outside the Zone because of the “savages” and “cannibals” who inhabited the jungle. When the Canal was turned over to Panama, those who live in the jungles around the Chagres River faced a crisis.  To protect and preserve the rain forest surrounding the Canal, essential to providing the fresh water on which the Canal is dependant, Panama declared the area a national park.  Suddenly the Embera living in the national park areas were prohibited from their traditional lifestyle which relied largely on subsistence agriculture and hunting.  To stay alive and remain in their villages and homes, the Embera turned to tourism.  Thousands of people from cruise ships visiting Panama come to visit and experience life in authentic Embera villages.

The Embera are committed to preserving their traditional lifestyle.  To prevent any one village from being overwhelmed, tourist visits are divided by the Embera chiefs amongst all the villages.  Guests are asked to respect the culture, and specifically requested by the Embera chiefs, not to give anything to the children.  No gum, no money, nothing!  The village leaders want to preserve their tradition of hospitality and welcoming guests and do not want the children to become beggars.  Guests who visit are given a presentation about Embera culture.  Guests who wish to contribute can purchase the beautiful baskets, tagua nut carvings, and wood carvings created by the Embera.

So what kind of impact has this cruise traffic had on these remote villages?

A few of the villages have made some accommodation for visitors, perhaps by creating more traditional “visitor only” toilet facilities, but for the most part the cruise tourism has given the Embera the resources and ability to preserve their traditional culture.  Guests who travel 45 minutes across Madden Lake and up a jungle river to visit the village at Rio San Juan de Pequini describe the experience as the “best shore excursion ever” and “the best experience of my life.”

Dr.  Dimitrios Theodossopoulos, is a professor in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol in England and has studied the impact of tourism on the Embera people in the Chagres.   His conclusions are that tourism has actually benefited the Embera people, not only providing them an economic livelihood, but also protecting their culture by raising their own sense of self-esteem and the national sense of the worth and value of protecting and preserving these Indigenous cultures.  According to Dr. Theodossopoulos, “. . .  tourism has increased the visibility of indigenous cultures in Panama . . . [that] is much preferable to the previous disenfranchisement and stereotyping of indigenous culture.  National tourism campaigns promote ethnic diversity and consequently shape the politics of ethnicity . . .In Panama, the identification with an indigenous culture is slowly emerging as a process of empowerment and self-respect.  The Embera, previously a peripheral and disadvantaged ethnic group, have no rediscovered the advantages of an indigenous identity, one that they had struggled to maintain in the past.”

It is possible to take cruise guests to visit fascinating and remote parts of the world without destroying them. We may not be able to undo the damage already done, but we can try to prevent further damage and protect and preserve not only the oceans on which we sail, but also the places and cultures we visit.