Last week I traveled to Jamaica to visit clients in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. During our trip, we also attended to some matters in the port town of Falmouth where Royal Caribbean parks its new mega-ships, the Genesis class Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas.
Falmouth is the capital of Trelawny parish, Jamaica, located on Jamaica's north coast near Montego Bay.
Falmouth was named after the birthplace of Sir William Trelawny in Falmouth, Cornwall, Britain. In the late 1700's, Jamaica was the world’s leading sugar producer. At the turn of the 1800's, one hundred sugar plantations in Trelawny parish provided sugar and rum for export to Britain. Falmouth has a notorious past because it was a center for the slave trade from Africa. Based on its rum, sugar and slave business, it became one the wealthiest ports in the "New World."
Falmouth has since fallen on hard times; its quaint Colonial architecture appears now largely in a state of ruin.
Several years ago, Royal Caribbean had a problem. It designed its new "Genesis" class cruise ships (Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas) but few ports could accommodate them. These mega ships were far too big to dock at the Freeport / Montego Bay facility.
The cruise line approached Jamaica and proposed a deal where Royal Caribbean would agree to use Falmouth as a port for its new cruise ships - provided that Jamaica would spend around $120 million deepening its port and creating a new facility to handle the new ships. The trade-off to Jamaica for this investment would supposedly be the infusion of money into Falmouth and the surrounding parish when the Oasis and the Allure, each with over 6,000 passengers, arrived in town.
Falmouth has a population of around 7,500. In theory, the population of the town would essentially double any time one of the Genesis class ships arrived at port, with lots of Americans with cash in their pockets.
Jamaica jumped at the deal. No environmental impact statement or detailed economic analysis was prepared. The Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) prepared promotional materials suggesting that "the destination will deeply reference the town's history, offering visitors a unique sensory experience of the Colonial era." Royal Caribbean's President Adam Goldstein signed the deal with Jamaica's Prime Minister Bruce Golding and promised to deliver 400,000 passengers a year to Falmouth over the next 20 years, with an expectation that each passenger would spend over $100 in the port.
So is Royal Caribbean living up to its promises to Falmouth?
The Allure of the Seas was in Falmouth when we arrived. To my surprise, there were relatively few cruise passengers sightseeing, eating in restaurants, or buying souvenirs in town. It was hard to determine whether the passengers were remaining on the gigantic Allure city-to-itself cruise ship, or they had left in tour buses.
There are few signs that Royal Caribbean has invested anything in Falmouth. There is a new plaza in the middle of the town which replaced a traffic roundabout. There are a few newly planted palm trees desperately in need of irrigation.
We asked a number of store owners and local Jamaicans what they thought about the new port. A few restaurant owners were appreciative of the cruise ships which brought crew members looking for a place to eat and relax. But no cruise passengers were inside. Most Jamaicans expressed mixed feelings, complaining that the passengers are loaded up in cruise-line-arranged tour buses inside of the port, where excursions sold are largely for the benefit of the cruise line and then the passengers are quickly bused out of Falmouth towards Ocho Rios and Dunn's River Falls.
Were Royal Caribbean promises to Falmouth just sweet talk and part of the seduction of Jamaica to belly up over $100 million to dredge a deeper port for the Oasis and Allure mega ships which could not port in Freeport? Will even a dime of the hundreds of millions of dollars in cruise line profits ever find their way into schools for the kids of Falmouth or the sick and infirm in the modest medical center at the outskirts of this historic old town?
When we left Falmouth to drive over to Ocho Rios, we parked and looked back at the new port. I took a photo of the Allure of the Seas looming over the few two story buildings at the port which were not knocked down during the "revitalization" of Falmouth. I could not help but think what an appropriate image of the relationship between this huge cruise company and the little town of Falmouth.
Counting all passengers and crew, the Allure contains more people than all of Falmouth. When the cruise ship left to sail back to Miami, it was leaving with literally tens of millions of dollars destined for the cruise line's coffers. Aside from the money spent on Bob Marley t-shirts and wood carvings, few U.S. dollars remained in Falmouth.
As a history major, I believe that the answers to questions about the future remain firmly planted in the past.
Jamaica has a history of being exploited by foreign plantation owners, sugar barons, slave owners, and bauxite-mining companies.
In the end, Royal Caribbean will do no better for Falmouth than those in the past who have taken greatly and given little in return to this beautiful island.