A revolt is growing in the Caribbean over massive cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers who swamp beach towns, buy perhaps a soda and a few trinkets, and reembark a few hours later.
Mexico's government is considering charging the country's first per-passenger cruise tax, while beach towns that no longer want to serve as a mere backdrop for the $15 billion cruise industry are beginning to say no to the big ships.
Belize recently became one of the first nations to try to limit the number of cruise ship passengers, capping them at 8,000 per day after the tiny Caribbean nation was invaded by about 13,000 people simultaneously -- equivalent to a sudden 5 percent increase in the country's population.
The movement has support from groups ranging from local hotel owners to environmentalists who say the ships leave few benefits in their wake. Discontent has been fed in part by the explosive growth in the number of cruise passengers, whose numbers have tripled in Mexico in the last decade.
Mexico's Tourism Secretariat submitted a proposal July 28 to charge from $5 to $10 for each of the more than 5 million cruise passengers who visit Mexico annually.
Other new tax proposals appear to be making headway in the rest of the Caribbean, host to almost half of all the world's cruise voyages.
The Mexican tax proposal represents a victory for Playa del Carmen, a Caribbean beach town that last year became one of the first ports in the region to reject a cruise ship dock unless the industry paid a fee for local development.
"There have been shows of support from other towns, and this position is becoming generalized throughout the Caribbean," said Playa del Carmen spokesman Angel Torres.
During a public comment period on Mexico's new cruise policy in 2003, a tax to benefit local economies was one of the main demands of Caribbean beach towns.
Playa del Carmen's mayor wanted to impose a head tax of $30 for each passenger who used the proposed dock to come ashore at the nearby resort of Xcaret.
Industry leader Carnival Cruise Lines, a partner in the Xcaret dock project, brushed off the town's demands.
"It was a ridiculous amount of money," said Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher, who argues the companies already pay a significant amount in local service charges.
However, in Mexico, those port fees go to private harbor management companies -- not local communities. And the stores that line cruise docks are often owned or leased by the cruise companies themselves.
The industry appears ready to fight any increase, no matter how small. It pressed Belize for a five-year moratorium on a proposed $2 increase in its $5 passenger tax. Belize had planned to use the money to protect its coral reefs and jungles.
The Xcaret dock project was finally put on hold, in hopes of better times. But opposition hasn't waned.
The industry barely managed to beat back a 2003 proposal in the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization, the CTO, to charge a uniform $20 cruise passenger tax to fund marketing for the region. That would be in addition to the $3.50 to $5 local levies currently charged by many Caribbean island nations.
Karen Ford Warner, the deputy secretary general of the CTO, said she believed negotiators would soon reach some sort of compromise with the cruise lines, under which the companies would give the region cash, training, or even promises to hire locally and buy local products.
"I think there is a strong feeling that the cruise lines have to make a greater contribution," Ford Warner said. "The cruise industry realizes and appreciates that they have to enter into a true partnership."
But the Mexican Ship Pilots' Union says cruise lines and the government have conspired to begin eliminating one of the few locally hired positions, in which pilots guide ships into dock. The government says local pilots are no longer needed at the Pacific ports of Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco and Zihuatanejo.
When taxes are proposed at one port, cruise operators talk about switching to another where costs are lower, something that may have played a part in Mexico's decision to charge less than the CTO's proposed $20 levy.
Environmentalists have long been opposed to the giant cruise vessels, saying they dump oil and refuse at sea and have been known to run roughshod over coral reefs.
In Belize, hundreds of passengers land on tiny coral-strewn islets off the coast, and residents say it's almost impossible to police crowds that trample the coral.
However, some of the opposition to cruise ships also involves snobbery. Some in the Caribbean, long a luxury destination, don't want the kind of working-class tourists who often take cruise vacations for as little as $500 per week.
Some use the dismissive term cruceritos -- little cruisers -- to describe the less affluent clientele.
"They don't have the same purchasing power," said Torres, of Playa del Carmen. "Many come over in third or fourth class, so far below decks they never see the sun."
Ana Patricia Morales of the Quintana Roo Hotel Association says there are valid reasons for locals to dislike cruises.
"A hotel makes a commitment to a community," she said. "It buys supplies there and hires people there. A cruise ship doesn't do any of those things."
Carnival's Gallagher counters that the cruise industry shouldn't be forced to subsidize local hotels. "I don't think taxing one industry is how you make another one competitive," he said.