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 Falklands residents 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 said that at least six planned visits to the Falklands by cruise ships have been canceled since Nov. 17, a big blow to island businesses.
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.
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 in to 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.
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.