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.”
Dick Sawle, a member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, said Argentine authorities and agencies had applied increasing pressure on cruise companies not to visit the Falklands for the past two years. The pressure, he said, has included “covert threats” and actions by militants to disrupt business.
In December, for example, Sawle said, a militant group protesting the planned visit of a cruise vessel to the Falkland Islands ransacked the offices of a shipping company in Buenos Aires.
“This action was carried out in broad daylight in the Argentine capital, yet no arrests were made and the Argentine government has made no comment,” Sawle said.
He said the Falklands government “is saddened by the fact that, despite our best efforts, the Argentine government continues to refuse to engage on matters such as this, which are of mutual benefit.”
Many cruise lines are opting to play it safe.
Carnival UK, for example, said it had made “the difficult decision” to stay away from Argentina’s ports in 2013 because of fears that the ships wouldn’t be allowed to enter or would experience delays.
“As a British cruise company we cannot allow ourselves to be the subject of any political dispute or put our customers and crew into any situation where their enjoyment may be compromised,” the company said in a statement.
The British Embassy said a number of other cruise lines had either been refused entry or decided to cancel cruises, including Adonia, Princess, Prestige, Holland America and AIDAcara.
The Argentine government, which calls the Falklands the Malvinas Islands, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
In the past, Argentine officials have said they’re relying on an Argentine law passed in 2010 that requires any ships or vessels traveling from Argentina to the Malvinas Islands to request official authorization from Argentina. The Argentine government contends that it has the right to stop any ship that it believes is exploiting natural resources in its South Atlantic waters.
The dispute has revived the bitterness of the Falklands War in the spring of 1982, when Argentina invaded and occupied the islands until the British government used a naval task force to retake them. The 74-day conflict ended when Argentina surrendered, but not before hundreds were killed.
James Barbour, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington, said the Falklands had become increasingly popular for American tourists and other visitors who appreciate their remote location and “quirkiness,” including the colonies of penguins. He said the British government had made it clear to the Argentine government that its aggressive actions were “unacceptable and must stop.”
“The question is really where we go next, whether the cruise companies will reverse their decisions to cancel or whether Argentina will continue to pressure them not to visit the Falklands,” he said.
While the Argentine government is saying little, it’s made its case to the United Nations.
In a September report, the Argentine government said the United Kingdom was “carrying out unilateral activities in the disputed area” by trying to militarize the South Atlantic and exploiting resources there, in violation of a 1976 resolution adopted by the United Nations. The report said the issue of sovereignty was at the heart of the dispute but had yet to be addressed because the United Kingdom had refused to resume negotiations.
In the meantime, people trying to make a living on the islands are caught in the crossfire of the feuding nations.
In the past 20 years, Sawle said, the Falklands have responded to the demand for increased access to the islands by expedition vessels and large cruise ships, which bring in 65,000 passengers each year. He said the dispute had hurt a number of small companies that had invested heavily in facilities and equipment to provide a range of shore-side excursions to visitors.
Kilmartin, who began offering the penguin tours in 2002 as a way to diversify his farm operation, is hoping that the number of visitors begins increasing soon, bringing more business to his Sea Cabbage Cafe and a museum that tells the story of his farm, the 1982 war and life on the Falklands.
He said a visiting ship could easily provide work for as many as 50 people on his farm, including Land Rover drivers, guides, musicians and caterers.
“Ours is one of many small businesses here that are being destroyed,” Kilmartin said.