Failure to Communicate

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.

As mentioned in my earlier post [“Sustainable Tourism”], not only was this 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 I’ve 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 Port Lecturer try to share information, history, and practical suggestions to guests, but there is no coordination.

So we have guests going ashore in Manaus wearing tons of real gold jewelry and getting it ripped off. This past weekend I was riding the shuttle from the ship to the terminal and a guest who had just boarded, and hadn’t had any opportunity to hear my cautionary lectures, got on the shuttle wearing a beautiful, and expensive gold necklace. She and another woman were off to explore the area around the port at night. The necklace was beautiful: even I was tempted to rip it off! And she had a gold designer watch dangling, and her friend had diamond stud pierced ear rings. Maybe the ear rings were costume jewelry, but a thief might not know the difference. So, nicely I suggested that if they wanted to keep the gold and if didn’t want to risk having the pieced ear rings 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!

Take Boca da Valeria. There is no coordinated message to guests about the shore experience. The promotional materials say one thing, the Princess Patter another, and I, as the Port Lecturer and man on the ground am saying something else.

We had worked out a consistent message that was . . .

  • Please don’t give the kids candy – we don’t want to contribute to the litter and most importantly these kids don’t have regular access to dental care
  • Don’t create a mob scene and teach the children to be beggars by handing out pencils, soap, whatever, whatever
  • While giving out dollars may make you feel good, it is culturally insensitive. If you want to help buy some craftwork, even if it’s something you’re just going to leave on the ship or sell at your first rummage sale
  • If you have school supplies or gifts, take them to the reception desk where they will be boxed up and taken to the actual village where most of these people live and given to the school principal or priest for distribution

Well, the cast of characters on board is constantly changing . . and the crew is pretty much out of touch with what goes on with guests unless it is something in which they are directly involved.. So we ended up with a senior officer who went out in full uniform (hat and all . . . very official) . . . and started handing out pencils and stuff (which I think had been contributed by guests to go to the school) to mobs of kids. OK, I tried to get that message through . . . of course I have zero “stripes” . . .

Then today . . . our final call at Boca da Valeria . . . Most of the guests, as requested, took all of their gifts to the reception desk [flashlights, tape measures (inches, not meters, but hey, the thought was nice), 30 baseball caps, piles of school supplies] and what happens? Junior Assistant Pursers (1 stripe) decide that they will go ashore and they will create a beggar mob scene with them handing out the stuff the guests had given with the understanding that they would go to either the school or the church. [At least they weren’t in uniform!]

Oh yes, and one of the security officers had a big bag of pillow chocolates and . . . you guessed it . . . was giving the kids candy!

I just can’t wait for all the guests to start asking me, “What’s this? Doesn’t anybody coordinate this stuff?” If they do I’m just going to send them to this blog.

Now I know that all these crew members wanted to do the right thing, it’s just that they weren’t informed since . . . you got it, they didn’t know. Which is why we teach crew members not to dump contaminated water into the ocean or throw stuff overboard. We coordinate and educate to protect the ocean environment, but when it comes to the environments we visit and the cultures we impact . . . And believe me, this is not just Princess, but the cruise industry as a whole.

We may not be able to undo the damage already done, but we can try to prevent further damage. Thankfully this is our last port call to Boca da Valeria . . . and in 10 days I’ll be home.

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