Bocas del Toro Boat Captains Protest New Tourism Attractions
Nowadays visitors of Bocas del Toro are able to explore the archipelago on a variety of vessels; from traditional cayucos and pangas with outboard engines to catamarans and motor yachts to an actual 120 foot Spanish Galleon pirate ship. The Federación de Boteros, a local union of boat captains, consider the new offerings to be a threat to their tour businesses. They want these vessels anchored permanently and they are pleading with authorities to forbid their tour activities.
“Foreigners come here, they do whatever they feel like and we’re tired of that,” said boat captain Geovani Torres in a Bocas TV national broadcast. Torres went on to express how he feels that it is the Bocas foreigners who are the ones who own the supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, bars, and that locals don’t have the resources to do this, and the only thing they have left to provide for their families are boat tours.
The group claims that the offerings of the larger vessels present unfair competition. The counter argument is that having a variety of attractions encourages more visitors to the islands and that the end result financially benefits all hotels, restaurants, service providers, local workers in all industries and especially the very independent tour operators that oppose the vessels in which the tourists travel around the archipelago.
In a conversation with The Bocas Breeze, the president of the Federación de Boteros (Boat Captain Federation) Eustaquio Valencia informed us that if by Saturday, November 20, the group has not received a favorable response from the government, they will strike and create a blockade halting all boat traffic in the archipelago. Valencia also indicated that there may be support from the terrestrial taxi unions and the syndicate of banana workers in Changuinola.
October 30 Letter from the Federación de Boteros
While the group has expressed its discontent in general for non-traditional tour boat operations, they have made the new pirate ship, Black Magic Bocas, the focus of the protest. The Saturday November 20 strike date is strategic as it is the day the ship plans to set sail for their next event – a party cruise to Starfish Beach.
On October 30, the Federación of Boteros presented a letter to Black Magic requesting the business to cease their weekly cruises to Starfish Beach, reasoning that “your activities directly affect our main source of income, which is tourism.” The letter also mentioned that if their request is not respected, the union will take the “necessary actions.”
November 6 Letter from the Federación de Boteros
On October 30, the boteros opposed the pirate ship’s operation for one stated reason: the negative effect on their business. Then on November 6, they presented new complaints and demands not mentioned in the initial letter. This second letter was addressed to the Bocas del Toro municipality and national tourism and maritime authorities with the following demands:
- The Black Magic be relocated because it is affecting the coral reef where it is anchored
- Prohibited to travel to sites already established to tours already offered (Starfish Beach)
- Only allowed to operate as a bar-restaurant/discotheque
The letter concluded that if the ship continues to operate, that the botero union will have to take more extreme measures of pressure and urging the municipality to enact a law that “rescues or promotes the activity of artisanal boats.”
November 12 Meeting
In a November 12 meeting that was broadcasted on Bocas TV, other boat captains mentioned more reasoning for their discontent. They claim the boat is too big and dangerous to operate around the archipelago, that the 11 foot draft is too deep for the coral in the area, that the pirate ship is held to less regulation by authorities and that it takes away businesses from not only boat drivers, but also the land transportation business to Boca del Drago and restaurants in Starfish Beach. In this meeting president Valencia announced the group’s plans to strike on November 20.
Black Magic Response
Captain of the Black Magic Bolivar Solis, told us this:
“We are not competing with the boteros. It’s a very different thing that we do. And I think Black Magic is one more good reason for people to come visit this archipelago and go see more of it with the boteros on different tours, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”
“The ship is not damaging any coral reef. We revised the area with divers before ever placing a mooring in that location,” commented Solis, in response to the Federación de Botero’s claims. He continued, “And our ship doesn’t travel where the other boats go. We go where the ferry travels and the rest of the trip is in the channel where the big container cargo ship of Chiquita Banana goes. We only cruise at 5 knots. Super slow…We are very much legal. We went through every step to get this done right from the get-go.”
Previous Agreement the Water Taxi Union
Also mentioned in the original October 30 letter from the boteros was an agreement that was made between Black Magic and the Boteros federation that the local captains would have exclusive rights to all passengers checking in at Taxi 25 and taxiing to the boat. Valencia expressed in this letter that this agreement was not withheld and this seems to be the initial reason for their disapproval of the pirate ship.
Solis says that this agreement has been honored. When guests check in to the Taxi 25 Black Magic reception desk, they are directed to the boat taxis who are on site and all form part of the union. Advertised on the flyer is instructions for the Black Magic guests to “taxi from Bocas Town.”
Solis pointed out that while 99% of the time transportation comes from local water taxis who are able to profit from the drop offs and pickups, there are residents with their own private boats who elect to arrive at the Black Magic while it’s anchored in the channel. This is what is happening that could be perceived as a breach of their agreement. Solis related that much like how people arrive at a nightclub in a taxi or their own vehicle, the ship’s crew cannot regulate how 100% of their guests arrive.
When it comes to the short boat ride between Taxi 25 and where the pirate ship is anchored, passengers pay $2 each and there are frequently 15 passengers per boat. Based on the fuel consumed and time spent, this has to be one of the more profitable water taxi rides in the business, according to our conversation with Solis.
Comments from local captain Hernaldo Napoleon
We reached out to boat captain Hernaldo Napoleon who summed up the concerns of the Federación de Boteros:
“We are looking to preserve our product in the market in a way that is equitable for future generations, so that we as locals are the only ones that can be providing this service to the tourists. We are not against foreign investment but we consider that it shouldn’t be in the way of unfair competition…It’s very important to emphasize that it’s not only Black Magic; there is a lot of other competition out there and we have been working on this for a while.”
Status as of November 19, 2021
The Bocas del Toro municipality is currently mediating the situation, seeking that both parties reach an understanding. “A strike does not benefit anyone,” commented Mayor Emilano Torres in an Bocas TV interview after the November 12 meeting. As it stands now at the time of this publication, Black Magic is set to sail Saturday and the boteros are planning to strike and form a blockade.
UPDATE: November 20 Protest
At 11:30am, the boteros arranged their boats in the docks at Taxi 25 and Brother’s Burgers, preventing guests passage to attend the pirate ship party. The boat captains of the local union also proceeded to block the entrance of the actual pirate ship, gaining access to the dock, pushing arriving boats away while getting into altercations with boats and passengers.
In the end, 79 guests were refunded and there were a lot of confused and disappointed national and international tourists seen fleeing the scene. We spoke to two tourists from the US who mentioned that they already had to walk through a terrestrial taxi strike to arrive to Bocas and then another protest canceled a party they had been looking forward to.
The business community is hoping for a resolution that will suit both parties soon, as the conflict portrays a poor image of Bocas del Toro and its tourism offer at a time where recovery is essential for its tourism based economy.
UPDATE: November 24 Agreement
On November 24, 2021, a meeting was held at the ATP office (Authority of Tourism). Officials from Panama City came representing the national Authority of Tourism, Maritime Authority, Presidential office, along with local ATP director Lesbia Rubides and governor of Bocas del Toro Estela Stephenson. The parties came to the following agreement, which will be in place for 15 days and then evaluated by both parties:
Black Magic will stay away from Starfish Beach, Zapatillas and Cayo Coral and they can navigate anywhere else in the archipelago, on any day of the week and as many times per week as they want. The Black Magic will be anchored in front of Tropical Suites. With this agreement, the Federación de Boteros has agreed to leave them alone.
If I were planning a trip to Bocas del Toro, I would be very intrigued by the Black Magic and would probably want to attend one of their cruises. I might want to book a catamaran tour as well. However, I know I would definitely want to experience the traditional tours with local captains as well. Though if the only option were panga tours, Bocas might seem less attractive when compared to other destinations. In my opinion, Bocas del Toro is the best, but it’s not the only place…
When you visit Bocas del Toro, we encourage you to experience the islands the classic way, cruising around on pangas with local guides. Support local Bocas del Toro boat captains and tour guides!
– Nicholas Corea