When cruise ships arrive off Oak Bluffs in late summer, passengers interested in taking a sightseeing tour of the Vineyard are directed to one bus company, Island Transport Inc. and offered the opportunity to buy their sightseeing tickets while still on board.
As the passengers arrive onshore, they board Island Transport buses and are taken on a tour of the Vineyard which includes stops at Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah and downtown Edgartown.
The two cruise lines that visit the Island — Norwegian and Royal Caribbean — have an agreement with Island Transport allowing them to sell tickets for the tour on the boat in exchange for collecting a substantial surcharge for each ticket sold.
The agreement has drawn the ire of some Oak Bluffs businessmen and elected officials who feel the cruise ships have a vested interest in making sure people take the tour, even if it means hurting the Oak Bluffs business community.
Kerry Scott, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen and owner of Good Dog Goods on lower Circuit avenue, recently has emerged as a vocal critic of the arrangement between the cruise ships and Island Transport.
“These people are not given the information they need to make a choice about how they spend their time on the Vineyard,” Ms. Scott said.
“They get off [the cruise ships] and are funneled into buses that bring them out of town,” she said. “A lot of them wind up spending little time in Oak Bluffs; I think some leave here not even realizing there is a town called Oak Bluffs.”
Scott Dario, owner of Island Transport, dismisses the notion that cruise passengers are shepherded onto busses without experiencing Oak Bluffs. He said in fact cruise line passengers likely spend more time in Oak Bluffs then any other Island town, and are provided with plenty of information from the Oak Bluffs Association about where to find businesses and points of interest.
Mr. Dario said his tours last three and a half hours; cruise passengers are not required back at the docks until the later afternoon. If a group of passengers takes the tour at 8 a.m., he said, they have all afternoon to spend in Oak Bluffs, longer then any stop on his tour. Mr. Dario estimated that approximately 90 per cent of his customers come off the various boat lines — including the cruise ships, the Steamship Authority and New Bedford Fast Ferry — all of whom start and end their tour in Oak Bluffs.
“I would say [Oak Bluffs] benefits the most from our tours,” Mr. Dario said. “During the tours our drivers tell the customers about all the places to go and things to do in Oak Bluffs; and then they drop them off right in town.”
Mr. Dario said he is committed to working with local merchants to establish routes and schedules that work for everyone. This year, for example, he changed the routes to again include a half-hour visit to the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah for all Island Transport tours.
He acknowledged the cruise ships that visit the Vineyard earn a profit by selling his tour tickets on their boat. Last year, his company sold the tickets for $23 while the cruise lines sold them for around $45 and kept the difference, he said.
But he also said cruise lines might not even visit the Island if a sightseeing tour was not available to its passengers, and he brushed aside the suggestion of collusion between his company and the cruise lines.
“We want people to learn about Oak Bluffs; we want them to experience everything the Island has to offer. From a business standpoint, both the company and the drivers benefit by selling the customers on what a great place this is — from the gingerbread cottages to the cliffs in Aquinnah,” he said.
There may be some competition this year; spokesmen for a local startup bus company that bills itself as green has been making the rounds of selectmen’s meetings to secure permission to run tours to Aquinnah.
Renee Balter, a member of the Oak Bluffs Association, said she has had heard grumbling from town businesses for years about cruise ship passengers being bused out of town. But she said Island Transport has done a good job of promoting the entire Island — including Oak Bluffs.
“The people who go on the [tour] buses are learning about the town; then they get off the bus right in our downtown and have a few hours to kill before they go back to the boat. It seems like a win-win situation,” Mrs. Balter said.
Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander, who also has heard complaints about the cruise ships, noted that the town does benefit financially from the ships. For every boat that visits with more than 500 passengers, he said, the town receives a flat fee of $3,500.
An e-mail to Norwegian Cruise Lines requesting information about the agreement between the cruise line and Island Transport Inc. received a response from AnneMarie Mathews, director of public relations for Norwegian Cruise Lines. She wrote back that no one with the company was available to answer questions.
Selectman Ron DiOrio, who owns Craftworks on Circuit avenue, said more could be done to encourage cruise ship passengers to spend more time in Oak Bluffs. But overall, he said, the cruise ships provide a valuable boost to business in the slower shoulder seasons.
“I think we should focus our energy on attracting more cruise ships to visit the Island. Once they get here, there seems to be plenty of business for everyone,” he said.