Free cruise for officials on duty
Colonia, Yap-- Explorer Diego DeRocha is credited with the discovery of Yap in 1526. Several other explorers and adventurers visited the island in the years that followed. Accounts of these visits tell of the people of the island, which was originally called “Wa’ab,” approaching the ships in their hand-carved canoes to greet the newcomers.
Today, cruise ships bearing the 21st century equivalent of explorers and adventurers – modern-day tourists – are greeted with canoe rides, traditional dances, cold coconuts, a tour of the island and an opportunity to learn about the rich history of Yap and its people.
But the tourists and the ships that bring them also encounter an entrenched, self-interested island bureaucracy, which requires a free cruise for its staffers—cabins, food and all the perks given to paying passengers—in exchange for performing their duties.
Rather than using industry-wide technology to upload and check passports and other documents remotely, border clearance agents board each ship and remain onboard for the FSM portion of the cruise, or longer if they need to be dropped off on another island that has an airport for their return home.
In 2013, five or more agents from different agencies were being sent to meet the ships. That has now been reduced to three agents in the clearing party representing Immigration, Customs and Quarantine according to Bermance Aldis of the FSM Visitors Board.
However, word is out among cruise ship operators that FSM border clearance procedures cost the ships lost revenue since the agents may be aboard for a week or more at a time and require cabins and food, not to mention lost revenue from other onboard merchandise and service offerings for paying passengers. “We’ve been told by the cruise lines that it’s not worth the expense and hassle for their ships to come to Yap and its outer islands,” said Don Evans, general manager of the Yap Visitors Bureau.
Maritime industry vet John Nell of Nautic Consulting estimated that total lost revenue to a cruise line during a 15-day voyage to ten islands and atolls throughout FSM would average $112,600 based on five border officials occupying three cabins for the duration of the trip. This has now been cut back since fewer agents are sent to the ships, but it is still lost revenue.
Cruise ship operators complain of “onerous order processes” that will result in deployment of ships elsewhere. They want to get rid of the free rider government officials and obtain port clearances within 30 minutes.
There’s a technological alternative. Commonly used software designed for the cruise and shipping industry allows cruise ships to upload passenger and crew passports and other manifests to a central site for processing. Other solutions take a similar approach.
The Australian Government mandates use of yet another system, that allows cruise ship operators to report all passengers and crew to the Department of Home Affairs before they enter the country. According to the Home Affairs website (www.homeaffairs.gov.au), “The report confirms for the cruise lines and agents that their passengers and crew hold a valid visa or travel authority to enter Australia. The report also provides advance warning to the Department about who is arriving, including any ‘persons-of-interest’.”
Ricky Falcam, Chief of FSM Immigration and Labor, claims that alternatives are being reviewed, but offered no date by which that would be completed.
There’s a lot of money at stake. John Nell estimates the economic benefit “per ship call” at US$155,000. Multiply that by ten cruise ship visits a year and it comes to $1.55 million in revenue to the main island alone that is being lost. Most of the itineraries include two or three Outer Islands, as well, that are also losing revenue for local handicraft makers, community groups, shop owners and others.
Silversea Discoverer passengers taking in Yap culture during stopover (Photo: Joyce McClure)
Putting up barriers to cruise ships hampers the opportunity to increase the number of visitors to FSM. The loss is not just to the ships, since local economies lose potential sources of revenue as well. According to a study commissioned by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Carnival Australia and IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, to assess the economic impact of cruise ships on small Pacific islands, it was reported that passengers spend an average of US$90 per person when they visit small islands in the Pacific Ocean. In addition to purchases by passengers of things like souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, food and beverages and taxi services, crew members shop at local stores, visit restaurants and purchase souvenirs while the ship is in port.
But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Additional revenue is gained from port services and port and landing fees and dues, pre-purchased tours and entertainment sold to passengers by the cruise line on behalf of local companies and organizations, catering, ship supplies, and, in the case of Yap, fees to visit historic sites like the Stone Money Banks and WW II memorials that go directly to the communities. And don’t forget the small business opportunities and jobs that result when a robust cruise tourism program is part of a larger, well-supported, funded and managed marketing plan.
One downside of the current growth of the cruise industry is the mega-ships carrying several thousand passengers and an equal number of crew members. The negative effect of this overdevelopment can be seen in ports around the world. But the channel in Yap is narrow, preventing large ships from entering.
The Silversea Discoverer, a small, yacht-type cruise ship operated by Silversea Cruises and holding a maximum of 128 passengers, visited Yap in Oct. 2017 during a 17-day voyage from Honiara to Koror. Ninety passengers, most from the U.S. and Germany, disembarked for a daylong excursion that included a land tour, a traditional dance performance at the Living History Museum and the opportunity to visit the Museum’s Canoe House to learn about traditional canoe building and buy hand-carved souvenirs. Several visitors were overheard expressing a desire to return for a land-based holiday. And, in fact, the Australian DFAT study found that 30 percent of visitors to Vanuatu would consider returning for a longer visit within three years.
The MS Bremen, another small, German expedition ship owned by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises with capacity for 155 passengers and 100 crew members, is scheduled to arrive in Yap in Oct. 2018. Passengers will be hosted by the Manta Ray Bay Resort with a traditional dance, land tour and other activities to introduce them to Yap’s unique culture and environment with a special invitation to return soon.
According to the Australian DFAT study, despite its “small share of the global market,” which is estimated at 2 percent of the overall market, “the Pacific cruise ship business is growing steadily.” There are many factors associated with cruise tourism, both pro and con. However, with a mandate from FSM’s national and local government leaders to increase the number of visitors to the small country’s remote island states, FSM’s border clearance officials would be well advised to take a lesson from their ancestors who paddled their canoes out to greet Captain DeRocha and his crew 600 years ago by installing modern-day technology that will easily and quickly welcome the ships to the country’s shores. The review of the current management system is a first step in this direction that tourism officials would like to see fast-tracked.