Well would you believe it, Ilha Blue are now doing Cruise Ships. I say it that way because we promote ourselves as responsible tour operators delivering small group tours and intimate experiences, and yet here we are dealing with the masses.
We had our first cruise ship here at the end of last year and it was a huge success. That was the MSC Sinfonia, 2600 mostly South African passengers visiting Ilha for the day. I don’t mind admitting I was a bit nervous, tourists on mass can be pretty intimidating, but as it turned out these guys were really great. Easy going and wanting to take it all in, we couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to kick-start our cruise ship experience.
Lots of passengers pre-booked guided tours, snorkeling on the reef, dhow trips and meals in local restaurants; over 500 activities on the day and the feedback was great, I loved their enthusiasm. Others did their own thing, wandering around Stone Town taking photos and talking with locals, popping in and out of beach bars and Barraka Cafés before heading to the sea to cool off – life should always be this easy.
Of course the fear is that so many tourists in one go will spoil things, their behavior will undermine local values and cause offence, or, from the other side of the coin, local people will prey on the tourists, somehow it would bring out the worst in them and they’d take advantage of the vulnerability of the visitors. But none of that happened, it was all very friendly and chilled, I know the locals enjoyed it as much as the visitors did.
My one regret is that I didn’t get to talk with as many passengers as I’d have liked to (because I was busy running around making sure everything went ok) but those I did talk to impressed me both with their appreciation of the island, and with their commitment to making a difference – “we want local people to benefit from our visit” was a popular sentiment.
Our next cruise ship is the MS Island Sky in early February. This ship is different, smaller with a max of 100 passengers and only on the island for a few hours. The museum, O Escondidinho and about 10 dhow boat operators will benefit, as will the guides who are building their professional reputation and making very good money. After that it’s back to the big ship the MSC Sinfonia later in February and then again in March.
So how does all this sit with our responsible tourism commitments? Well, to begin with we are treating it as a work in progress, learning about cruise ships and improving as we go. As I said the first trip went well and the economic benefits were enjoyed by lots of small business operators, tour guides and tour operators as well as the museum and of course the restaurants. Some of the small stallholders selling souvenirs and things said they didn’t do as well as they hoped so we will be looking into that before the next visit. We had a bit of a win marking off the reefs for snorkeling. This is the first time marker buoys have been used here and it helped to establish the idea that this is an area of special significance, the first step in gaining environmental protection for the reef and associated sea-life. Culturally, Tofu dancing is a form of cultural expression that islanders are understandably proud of, so it was great that the local Conselho arranged free performances at various spots around the island. And lets not forget all the positive social interaction between islanders and visitors and the special sense of community pride, it means a lot.