USHUAIA, Argentina - An Argentine province turned away two Carnival Corp. cruise ships early Monday, seeking leverage against Britain in the country's sovereignty dispute over the Falkland Islands.
The Star Princess and Adonia ships were refused entry to Argentina's southernmost city of Ushuaia early Monday after stopping at the islands en route to Chile. The decision was made by the provincial governor a month after the Falklands government turned away the same Princess ship, citing health safety reasons, after it had stopped in Argentina.
Refusing entry to the ships meant losing a big payday for Ushuaia. Taxi drivers, tour operators, wildlife guides and boutique workers had arranged to work on Monday's Argentine national holiday, and restaurants had prepared food for thousands of disembarking passengers.
But as the ships approached the docks, veterans of Argentina's brief 1982 war against Britain for control of the islands persuaded Gov. Fabiana Rios to enforce a provincial law passed last August that bans British vessels, ships partly owned by British companies and ships flying flags from British territories from docking in Argentina.
"We have verified that British financial interests own these cruise ships," said Juan Vera, a spokesman for the veterans' group. "We are seeking to hit the Brits where it hurts them most: their money. We're aiming to hurt British financial interests until they return the Malvinas to us."
Local tourism officials said the law was meant to cut off Argentine support for offshore oil and gas exploration in the islands, and was never intended to apply to cruise ships, which have been a boon to the remote city's economy. The decision also violates orders from the navy and foreign ministry to allow Princess ships to dock without trouble, said Marcelo Lietti, president of the tourism chamber.
"This is a terrible image to show the world," Lietti complained, calling it a "vulgar and shameful kind of patriotism."
"It's a very poorly thought out and rushed decision that goes against the national policy of fomenting the growth of the cruise ship industry in Argentine waters," he added.
Vera, who doubles as the leader of the local stevedore's union, said local economic losses aren't his group's concern.
"The tourism executives who feel affected by this should do things better. We don't have any problems with cruise ships flying the flags of France or other countries," Vera said.
The Star Princess, carrying 2,580 passengers, is registered in the British territory of Bermuda and owned by the Miami-based Carnival. The Adonia, with 710 passengers, is sailed by P&O Cruises, a British subsidiary of Carnival based in Southampton, England.
The British foreign office said there was no justification for the action.
"We are very concerned to hear the Adonia and Star Princess have been refused access to the port of Ushuaia," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "British diplomats in Argentina are urgently seeking to clarify the circumstances surrounding this incident."
Rios, an ally of President Cristina Fernandez, said in a statement that she had sought guidance from the national government throughout the night and finally decided to turn the ships away at 4 a.m. because she hadn't received authorization to let them dock as they approached the port.
Rios' Tierra del Fuego province nominally includes the British territories Argentines claim as Las Malvinas, as well as the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, Argentina's slice of Antarctica, and the seas in between.
In January, Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson said her company was shocked that the Falklands government took the unprecedented step of turning away the Star Princess because a small number of the 3,562 passengers and crew on board had stomach flu after stopping in Ushuaia.
Falklands spokesman Darren Christie said then that the island was ill-equipped to handle a potential norovirus outbreak.
Both Princess and P&O Cruises said they would refund the cost of shore excursions to the passengers.
On the docks in Ushuaia, both the Star Princess and the Adonia were seen passing the port at 6:30 a.m. en route to Punta Arenas, Chile.