Falkland Islands
P&O Cruises' Adonia and Princess Cruises' Star Princess (R) are seen moored in the harbor of Port Stanley on February 25, 2012. Both cruise ships were prevented by authorities from docking in the Argentine port of Ushuaia on February 28 due to their prior stop in the disputed islands, upping the ante in the country's spat with Britain over the Falklands. The situation has gotten worse as the new cruise season kicks off in the South Atlantic. Reuters

The 30th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War thrust the South Atlantic islands back into the news in 2012, but little has been said about how cruise ships trawling this remote corner of the planet have been used as pawns -- much to the detriment of the islanders caught in the middle.

The decades-old dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines call the Malvinas, heated up back in February.

Some blamed Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher movie, “The Iron Lady,” coming out in time for the anniversary of the 74-day scuffle, which the U.K. won but claimed 900 lives. Others said Britain flaunting Prince William and the world's most advanced new warship, the HMS Dauntless, in South Atlantic waters, didn’t help.

Those who follow Argentine politics believe it had to do with sagging pre-election opinion poll numbers for President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has used incendiary rhetoric about the islands in the past to rally nationalist support for her administration. Perhaps the biggest reason it remains on both nations’ minds is much simpler: oil. A recent Edison Investment Research study suggested that Britain could receive up to $167 billion from oil recovered around the English-speaking UK Overseas Territory.

Largely overlooked in the debate: Most of the 3,000 Falkland islanders work in one of two industries, agriculture or tourism. Seasonal visits by the cruise industry between October and April, when the weather is more favorable for wildlife viewing, are particularly important. The islands, which lie about 400 miles east of the South American mainland, initially expected 35,000 cruise ship visitors for the 2012-2013 season, but that number has fallen significantly as cruise ships destined for the site sail into a dangerous crossfire.

“Cruise ship tourism and indeed tourism in general is the Falkland Islands’ second-largest industry. It involves a huge number of people and is a huge contributor to the local economy,” said Samantha March, tourism coordinator at Sulivan Shipping Services, the port agency for cruise vessels in the capital, Stanley. The industry is highly vulnerable to the high winds that plague the islands in the summer months, but the loss of cruise ships for other reasons “has been felt keenly by everyone,” she said.

‘Violent Acts Of Intimidation’

Most of the incidents scaring off the cruise ships have apparently been incited by Argentina or political forces in the country, although the government denies it. In February, P&O Cruises' Adonia and Princess Cruises' Star Princess, both owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., were refused entry at the Argentine port of Ushuaia because they had previously visited the Falkland Islands and bared British flags.

And on Nov. 19, the radical left-wing Quebracho group attacked the Buenos Aires offices of the Argentine Shipping Services, an agent for cruise companies. Because of the incident, AIDA Cruises’ 1,186-passenger AIDAcara cancelled its visit to the Falkland Islands. The British Foreign Office, or FCO, labeled the attack a “violent act of intimidation.”

“It is shameful that elements within a large country like Argentina should seek to strangle the economy of a small group of islands. Such action benefits nobody and only condemns those who lend it support,” the FCO said in a statement.

British officials believe Argentina has contacted cruise companies and other firms in an attempt to pressure them out of doing business with the Falkland Islands, lest they be refused access to Argentine ports.

The Falkland Islands government has also condemned Argentina for bullying and threatening its people.

“We strongly encourage the tourism industry to stand firm, and not allow themselves to be scared into assisting attempts to damage our economy in what is tantamount to an economic blockade,” Dick Sawle of Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly said in a prepared statement. Many families’ livelihoods, he added, depend on the cruise industry, which brings in at least $16 million annually, a sizable revenue stream for the scarcely populated islands.

Argentina, meanwhile, accuses London of maintaining “colonial enclaves” and illegal hydrocarbon extraction in the South Atlantic. Fernandez has repeatedly demanded that the two nations meet to discuss the disputed islands.

Cruise Ships Sail Into Murky Waters

In addition to AIDAcara, Holland America’s 1,350-passenger MS Veendam also canceled its planned stop in Port Stanley this week. Both ships are owned by Carnival Corp. and were the first large commercial vessels to call on the islands this summer season.

Though Holland America Line said it canceled its voyage due to weather, the chair of the Falkland Islands Tourist Board, Mike Summers, said “all indications are that it is a lot more than just weather,” adding that the cruise line had probably been threatened.

The Tourist Board believes that if the powerful Carnival Corp. withdraws its ships, it could mean a potential 40 percent loss in terms of passengers visiting the island. But it’s not just Carnival Corp. ships that are axing trips.

Sulivan Shipping Services said several other lines, including the Seven Seas Mariner and the Regatta, have ditched their calls in early February “due to the Argentine government’s actions with other cruise vessels visiting Stanley.”

Those actions include an incident with the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn, which was delayed while trying to leave Buenos Aires on Dec. 4. Irene Lui, Seabourn’s public relations manager, claimed the problem was merely “due to the temporary unavailability of a required tugboat escort,” but there were many other reports claiming the delay was due to a protest by Argentine workers who, under the direction of bosses from the United Maritime Workers Union, or SOMU, held the ship, demanding that the captain pledge he would not return to the Falkland Islands.

IBTimes obtained statements (which have not been made public) filed with the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee by both the UK and Argentina regarding several incidents. The UK claimed it had grave concerns over the safety of crew and passengers while at Argentine ports. Argentina, meanwhile, asserted that there was no evidence among maritime authorities that the safety of shipping or ships has been jeopardized. It also said the Argentine Federal Police filed a report regarding the actions carried out by the Quebracho group at the shipping agency on Nov. 19, and regretted that the UK had used the IMO in the first place to make what it believes are groundless claims having to do with an ongoing sovereignty dispute.

Cruise Ships Fight Back

Cruise ships have not taken the situation in the South Atlantic lightly. UK-based P&O Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., announced Friday it would remove all ports of call in Argentina from its itineraries in order to continue traveling to the Falkland Islands.

“On numerous occasions over the last year ships associated with Britain and flying the red ensign have not been permitted to call into Argentina or have been severely delayed,” said Michele Andjel, head of public relations.

Andjel said the company was not able to gain assurances from the Argentinean government that its ships would be allowed to call into their ports.

“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.”

P&O Cruises’ 2,016-passenger Arcadia and 710-passenger Adonia will replace stops in Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia with a stop in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Lawmakers in both Buenos Aires and several southern Patagonia provinces approved the so-called “Gaucho Rivero Law” last August, which bans ships involved in hydrocarbon-extraction near the Falkland Islands from entering Argentine ports. A loose interpretation of this law has led to problems with several different cruise lines like P&O.

Lui of Seabourn said the company had also canceled one of its ships’ planned stops in Ushaia on Dec. 10 because “recent actions in Argentina directed at ships calling in or planning to call at the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas have raised international concerns.”

“We were unable to obtain sufficient assurances from local authorities in Ushuaia as to the ability of the ship to enter and leave the port in accordance with accepted maritime practices,” she noted. “We are continuing to discuss the situation with local authorities as Seabourn has additional calls scheduled in Ushuaia that we expect to make.”

Despite a referendum addressing the Falkland Islands’ sovereignty this coming March, the situation isn’t likely to die down anytime soon. Residents, most of whom have British roots, are expected to affirm British rule and reject Argentine efforts to claim ownership. However, Argentina and several of its Latin American trade partners have said they will reject the referendum results.

In the meantime, cruise ships are left with a difficult decision: Bow to pressure, or defy and be punished.