Cruising is booming. A Caribbean cruise is still one of the totems of romantic tourism, and cruising has shown a robust immunity to the post-9/11 depression that deterred many people from taking holidays. What's more, many cruises are cheaper than holidays on land.
The "Admiralty" of the Caribbean cruise fleet is the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA ), which represents the industry to the region's governments. The FCCA is powerful. Its 14 members operate about 140 ships, carrying well over a quarter of a million passengers. The biggest can take 2,700 each. There are more on the way: 36 new ships, with an average capacity of 2,000 passengers, will be delivered to the US-based cruise lines within the next four years. Seven out of 10 will head for the Caribbean.
In 2004 the Cayman Islands had 1.6 million cruise-ship visitors, up almost 30 per cent from the year before; the following year there were more than 1.8 million. The numbers have grown consistently for the past 10 years. Cruising is a red-hot topic. Cruises are an integral part of the tourism product here. They bring a lot to the economy. But there has to be a balance between the infrastructure and the number of passengers coming ashore.
But what happens when all those passengers hit the shore? The image is seductive: an imperious ship at anchor, alabaster white, lustrous in the tropical sun. But pause a moment and pan your gaze to the left. Three similar vessels gleam on their moorings a few hundred yards apart. Pan right and there are four more. Eight ships, line abreast, drawn up like a ghostly fleet awaiting review.
That was the sight to which the residents of George Town, capital of the Cayman Islands, awoke one morning last year. Something like 20,000 people landed in a town with a population not much more than 3,000. There was gridlock - three-hour traffic jams. People were not getting to work until after 10 - the very people who worked in the stores that were going to open for the cruise ship passengers. That day was not unusual. The passengers stand to lose out as much as the locals.
Whether you choose to spend your Caribbean holiday in a hotel, villa or ship, this is something you increasingly will have to consider before going to the smaller islands. Places such as the British Virgin Islands (where there is a plan to prevent concentrations of visitors at specific beaches and attractions), Aruba, Belize, the US Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman have neither the space nor infrastructure to absorb the sudden influx of visitors that today's big ships discharge.
Cruising's problems are on shore, not at sea. In Dominica earlier this year we took part in one of the island's main tourist trips up the Indian River in a rowing boat. It was slab-sided and flat-bottomed, built of planks and painted orange with turquoise thwarts. No motorboats are allowed to disturb the river's tranquility; not for nothing does Dominica call itself the "Nature Island of the Caribbean". Beside us, land crabs scuttled between the weird webbed roots of the mango trees, whose branches were slung with lianas. We saw herons, a kingfisher and a humming-bird on its nest. The only sounds were the whistles of forest thrushes and the dip and clunk of the oars.
But such soothing interludes were transformed when there were a couple of cruise ships in port. Intimate experience became group excursion. Passengers were directed from their coaches to a flotilla of rowing boats that filed up the river in procession. The return, fuelled with glasses of rum punch and beer, was more like a Bank Holiday on a boating lake than an eco-trip in one of the least developed countries in the Caribbean. Cruising, however it likes to present itself, is essentially a mass activity.
The significance of this is that most Caribbean islands, desperate to keep up visitor numbers, are turning to their often neglected natural resources - their flora and fauna - to extend and vary their tourist appeal. For some countries no tag carries a greater buzz than "eco-tourism".
The cruise ships' offer of bounty can soon become a burden. The Cayman Turtle Farm, one of the islands' most popular attractions, receives more than 450,000 visitors a year, three quarters of them from cruise ships. Yet, in the words of Ken Hydes, its managing director, the growth in cruising brings diminishing returns. "If we get too many [visitors] we just can't process them. In fact we find that as the admissions go up the takings in the shop go down, and occasionally we have to turn people away."
The most famous site is the one closest to saturation. At Stingray City, swimmers can mingle with as many as 50 rays in the shallow waters of Grand Cayman's North Sound. More than 700,000 people go there every year. There are times when they get more nudges from the shoals of fellow swimmers than from the endlessly tolerant stingrays.
New regulations to control the number of boats are currently before the government, though there is opposition - because people are so damn greedy. They are happy to see cruise ships, but they do need managing. They put enormous stress on the environment at places like Stingray City and shallow snorkelling sites."