Gibralter: Rock of Contention
Published: April 2009
By Melinda Mahaffey
Britain and Spain have argued over Gibraltar since it became a British colony. With the conflict now escalating, cruise passengers may be caught in the middle.
In April, the Norwegian Dream was the first of several ships to be denied entry at a Spanish port the day after making a stop at Gibraltar. The Spanish Foreign Ministry blocked the Dream's entry into Barcelona based on a rarely enforced EU regulation that prohibits vessels registered outside the EU from docking in its ports. (The Dream is registered in Nassau.) Wary of further problems, other non-EU-flagged ships—the Bahamian-registered Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity among them—dropped Gibraltar from their immediate itineraries and then revised later ones, arranging to call on the Spanish ports first even if that meant backtracking geographically.
It's unclear why Spain chose this moment to ban the Norwegian Dream. In fact, the decision seems capricious—the very same ship had docked in Barcelona after a stop in Gibraltar less than four weeks before without incident. However, the timing—one week after José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's election as prime minister—led some to believe it was a spiteful move, related to Spain's ongoing attempt to recover sovereignty over Gibraltar.
Spain and Gibraltar have always been physically linked by the Iberian Peninsula, but Spain lost control of the Rock in 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch force invaded and took possession of it during the War of Spanish Succession. Gibraltarians—who celebrated their 300th anniversary as British citizens this year—are culturally more British than Spanish. Red phone booths and pubs line the streets, and locals are more likely to have afternoon tea than to take siestas. Gibraltarians' loyalty to the crown was proven in 2002 when 99 percent of them voted to remain British, collapsing talks between Britain and Spain over possible joint sovereignty.
Besides the iconic Rock itself, which travelers scale by cable car in order to see the resident population of Barbary apes, Gibraltar's main attractions are St. Michael's cave (which was once thought to be a subterranean tunnel to Africa) and VAT-free shopping. Still, the colony—whose economy relies on tourism—is not an easy place to get to. In 1969, General Franco closed the border between Spain and Gibraltar; it was reopened in late 1984. But no regular bus, train,or taxi service operates between the two countries. In addition, the only scheduled flights into Gibraltar come from England.
At press time, Spain had announced that it would lift its ban on non-EU cruise ships entering its ports for three months, a move that many interpreted as an attempt to improve relations with Gibraltar and eventually persuade Britain to return to the negotiating table. But while London may welcome future talks, Gibraltar's own 1969 constitution prohibits the colony from being given away to another country against Gibraltarians' democratically expressed wishes.
According to 2005 Mediterranean schedules, most cruise lines have kept Gibraltar and Spain side by side on next summer's itineraries. "We would like to include Gibraltar if we can make it work," says Mimi Weisband, vice president of public relations at Crystal Cruises. "We're waiting to see whether or not this ban will be upheld for next summer before revising future trips."