The Collusion of the Willing

April 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Royal Caribbean master plan for the development of Coxen Hole cruise ship dock.

Royal Caribbean master plan for the development of Coxen Hole cruise ship dock.

When I hear of a Honduran government program, I assume it will contain an element of self interest for people that manage it. I assume that there will be corruption and unethical behavior. I can be proven wrong, but it is safer to assume the worst.

Honduras has a history of selling out to the high bidder, if the bid goes out at all. Honduras’ politicians have sold their railways to banana companies, they have sold out the public’s right to a decent road infrastructure, and just recently, they attempted to benefit from another asset that belongs to all Hondurans: a cruise ship dock.

For the last four years Hondurans and Bay Islanders have allowed Honduras Institute of Tourism (IHT) to go into the business of competing against private business. IHT created a myriad schemes to promote Honduran tourism and make money. The “make money” part seemed to have been the priority of the top IHT brass who now find themselves in key and exclusive positions to rake in the benefits of the booming tourism industry.

It all started with the IHT’s letsgoHonduras.com website that was expensive to create, inefficient and competing with already existing, privately owned reservation sites. The Tela Bay land purchase scheme rubbed mainland Hondurans the wrong way, but Roatanians, led by the CANATURH-BI president, remained unquestioningly and blindly supportive of all IHT projects. The Roatan business community has no one to blame but themselves as they have followed its business leaders like lemmings.

There was the country wide tourism map that barely acknowledged the presence of the Bay Islands. Then in 2005, Caribfest showed how a government can compete against West End and West Bay businesses for El Salvadorian tourists who would be on the island anyway. The idea of a festival is great, but the organizers never attempted to bid it out to the private sector.

In 2004, without raising much scrutiny in the press or amongst local business owners, the IHT managed to gain control of the Roatan cruise ship dock, paid for by taxpayers through the Empresa National Portuaria. From that point on, looking at the cruise ship dock lease was like looking at a train wreck in slow motion.

After a non-transparent year-long bidding process, in the eleventh hour of Maduro’s presidency, a 30-year lease deal was signed with Royal Caribbean. Bay Islanders, Royal Caribbean and their competitors deserve better. While there is a need for some confidentiality in such a cruise line deal, the culture of obscuring the bid process and its content created uncertainty in Royal Caribbean and among other cruise ship companies.

Local tourist businesses got sideswiped by a contract clause that would give Grayline, a tour operator company in part owned by an ex-tourism minister, a 40% cut of all Roatan’s shore excursions and a monopoly on all cruise ship passenger transport. With a stroke of a pen, dozens of small island businesses would be destroyed.
The deal that would allow government officials: an ex-minister and an ex-vice-minister of tourism, to move from awarding a multimillion dollar contract, to working for the winning company is not only immoral, in some places, it is illegal.

With everyone ready to sign, it was the current minister of tourism who walked out on signing the deal. The ex-mayor was ready to sign as well, but stated that he didn’t know of the contract clause referring to Grayline.

Many local tour operators and people working in the tourism industry feel disappointed and betrayed by the individuals involved in the dock deal and the elected officials and representatives who are supposed to look after their interests.

We all have to learn from this experience. While the Roatan dock contract may have been corrected, the manner in which the cruise ship deal got passed leaves doubts as to how a much bigger matter, a Bay Islands Free Zone, will affect the Honduran archipelago. [/private]

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