WASHINGTON -- In remote waters of the South Atlantic, Kevin Kilmartin counts on big cruise ships to deliver tourists to the Falkland Islands, hoping to lure them to his 35,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch and take them on a safari adventure to his very own wilderness beach, which is inhabited by thousands of Gentoo penguins.
But Kilmartin says visitors to his Bluff Cove Farm have slowed to a crawl in the middle of the summer season on the popular islands off the southeastern tip of South America, with business down by more than two-thirds from last year.
“We are just waiting and hoping that the news will soon improve and that we still have a tourism business at the end of the season,” Kilmartin said.
More than 30 years after the United Kingdom and Argentina went to war over who should possess the Falklands, the two sides are fighting again. This time the disagreement is over how many British cruise ships should be allowed to dock on the small islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, or to navigate in surrounding waters.
The dispute is part of the ongoing tensions between the countries, which have escalated in the past week.
On Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain was prepared to fight militarily again to keep the islands, rejecting a call to return them to Argentina. Cameron made his remarks to the British Broadcasting Corp. after Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner urged Britain last week to return the islands to Argentina, saying the United Kingdom had first taken control of them 180 years ago in an “exercise of colonialism.”
Argentina is angry that Britain already has conducted military exercises near its borders, and Cameron told the BBC that Britain has strong defenses in place and won’t do anything to risk losing the islands. With residents of the Falkland Islands prepared to decide their political status in March, Cameron said he was confident they’d vote to remain British.
Against this backdrop, more cruise ships have stayed away, fearing for the safety of their passengers. Officials in the Falklands worry that nearby Chile will benefit by welcoming the business.
In Washington, the British Embassy says that at least six planned visits to the Falklands by cruise ships have been canceled since Nov. 17, a big blow to island businesses. Two more were canceled early last year.
Officials say the cancellations have thwarted the vacation plans of thousands of people and threaten local efforts to make the Falklands an international tourist destination.
Kilmartin said he’d received word that more cancellations were in the offing in the new year. He said the blame fell squarely on the Argentine government.
“If this Argentine thuggish bullying behavior doesn’t stop, the whole region may lose out,” Kilmartin said.
U.S. citizens accounted for nearly a third of 2011 visitors to the Falklands, a compact group of 778 islands.
The stakes are high for U.S. businesses, too.
“South Florida is the world’s capital of the cruise line industry,” said Kevin McGurgan, the British consul-general in Miami. “A majority of the cruise liners visiting Argentina and the Falklands are headquartered in South Florida.” He said the U.K. government had raised its concerns with Florida-based cruise companies “and urged them not to give into bullying actions.”