Is the cruise industry finally out of its depth?
“We’ve been asked – and we’ve asked ourselves – why Covid-19 seems to be impacting Princess so heavily.” Thus spoke Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, in a video posted on social media in mid-March. She looks sad-eyed and baffled into the camera: “We don’t really know.” Perhaps, she muses, the problem is something to do with the “diverse mix of people onboard our ships” and is “being magnified by our core values to respect, protect and connect the world”. She implores her “guests” with a “simple request”: “We ask you to book a future Princess cruise to your dream destination … as a symbol to the world that the things that connect us are stronger than those that divide us.”
Her company does seem to have been terribly unlucky. Their Diamond Princess, quarantined off Yokohama, which suffered over 700 infections and eight deaths among its passengers and crew, was a conspicuous early victim of the pandemic, its global fame growing on wry-turning-to-desperate postings from its passengers. The Ruby Princess, from which 2,700 passengers disembarked in Sydney on March 19, became the single largest source of Covid-19 cases in Australia. The Grand Princess was stuck outside San Francisco, its passengers confined to their cabins, after an outbreak in early March. Something similar happened to the Coral Princess in early April, off the coast of Florida. And this to say nothing of the Caribbean Princess, which has twice this year had to end cruises early, due to hundreds falling ill from a quite different infection, the vomiting bug norovirus.
But not everyone is yet convinced that all of Princess’s misadventures are purely bad luck. New South Wales police have launched a criminal investigation into the Ruby Princess, to see whether its owners were “transparent in contextualising the true patient and crew health conditions relevant to Covid-19”. They are suspected of lying, in other words, about conditions on the ship. Legal actions have sprung up from unhappy “guests” of the Grand Princess, their trips-of-a-lifetime wrecked by allegedly inadequate screening procedures. Professor Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese expert on infectious diseases who went on to the Diamond Princess, described the onboard response to the virus as “completely chaotic”.
Princess is not alone in its troubles. It is one of several lines owned by Carnival Corporation, a giant and aggressive company, which as long ago as 1996 was reported by David Foster Wallace, in an epic article on the cruise experience, to be nicknamed “Carnivore”. Carnival’s roughly 40% share of the market also includes the Holland America line, which owns the Zaandam, which had to travel up the west coast of South America with sick and dying passengers on board, after Chile closed its ports. Other ships, both owned by Carnival and not, have had outbreaks of disease or been denied permission to enter ports. All new cruises have now been suspended, with some provisionally scheduled to restart in May.
A rather obvious question is whether Covid-19 is simply an act of God, or whether its impact on their passengers, crew and host ports has been magnified by the practices of cruise companies. They vigorously push back against this suggestion: a spokesman for Carnival tells me that “the cruise industry took action before most other industries on land took actions”, that “cruise ships are social gathering places, but no less risky than any other social gathering venue”, and asks “when was the last time you were asked to fill out a health record before being allowed to enter a concert?” In the case of the Diamond Princess, say Princess Cruises, they were following instructions from the Japanese health authorities.
Trust on this question, on the other hand, is not improved by reports that some cruise-line salespeople (not Carnival), in mid-March, were being instructed to talk punters out of their concerns about Covid-19, for example claiming that the coronavirus could not survive in tropical climates and that therefore it was a good time to visit the Caribbean. Trust is further weakened by the cruise industry’s long history of environmental and safety lapses, and their special skill at minimising the consequences to themselves.
A bigger question is whether the virus will dent, deflect or alter what has been a phenomenon of our times, the many-times multiplication of ship sizes, of passenger numbers and of profits, generated by an industry that manufactures its own version of reality, then shapes the places that its ships visit in the image of that reality. Cruises, as Wallace put it, serve that “part of me that craves pampering and passive pleasure: the dissatisfied-infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately wants”. Cruises are founded on fantasy, which means the removal from view of anything irksome or demanding of difficult choices.
Cruise companies have been growing at least since the 1980s, with a 7.2% compounded rate of revenue growth from 2010 to 2019. Their ships, which were generally under 50,000 tons until the mid-90s, have become beasts of 220,000 tons and more. Alongside the growth in quantity has gone an ever-advancing science of customer experience, of investment in ice rinks, climbing walls, spas and casinos, in decking out ships like Vegas resorts, a process that reached some kind of apogee with the 5.260-passenger Costa Venezia. Aimed at the Asian market, this Venice-themed ship comes complete with gondola rides and a version of the Piazza San Marco. For cruising is above all an entertainment and hospitality industry, albeit grafted on to the serious engineering needed to keep large ships afloat.
All of which might be good, clean fun, if the growth of cruises weren’t accompanied by reports of pollution spills, outbreaks of disease, accidents, mistreatment of workers and sexual assaults and other crimes. If these reports don’t change much over the decades it is because the cruise lines don’t change much, either. They can spend lavishly on lobbying and campaign contributions to friendly politicians, and hire lawyers to see off the lawsuits when things go wrong. Their business being offshore, cruise lines are free to choose the countries where they register their ships and incorporate their business, which means places like Panama, the Bahamas or Bermuda, where they can pay low taxes and get an easy ride on labour rights, and on health, safety and environmental regulations.
“They only change when they have to,” says Ross Klein, a sociology professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, whose website cruisejunkie.com chronicles the mishaps of the cruise business. And nobody much makes them change. There is a trade body, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which promotes the business and in theory upholds standards. “They will tell you that they have mandatory regulations and that they meet or exceed international regulations,” says Klein. “Well, we asked CLIA’s senior vice-president what happens when a company violates these regulations: nothing. Perhaps a stern talking-to, but otherwise nothing.”
Cruise companies’ aversion to responsibility can be seen in a legendary court filing following the “poop cruise” of 2013, in which failing generators on the Carnival Triumph caused a backup of raw sewage into the passenger areas. Carnivals’ lawyers, CNN reported, said that the “ticket contract makes absolutely no guarantee for safe passage, a seaworthy vessel, adequate and wholesome food, and sanitary and safe living conditions.” Equally striking was the legal outcome to the 2012 wreck of the Costa Concordia, when the party atmosphere of cruises mixed fatally with questions of navigation: the owner Costa Crociere (another part of the Carnival empire), with the help of a plea bargain and €1m fine, and despite clear failings on its part, was freed of any management and operational responsibility.
Or you could take another incident that befell the ever unfortunate Princess Cruise lines, when the Caribbean Princess was found to have been dumping oily waste in the sea off southern England. In 2017 a Florida court found that the Caribbean and four more Princesses had been engaging in illegal practices, issued a record fine of $40m and put the company on probation for five years. President Jan Swartz performed a hand-wring to camera, as she has over Covid-19, to say that “we are very sorry for the actions of our employees” and that “the marine environment is incredibly important to us”.
Princess ships then continued to pollute, for example by depositing faecal coliform in Alaskan waters. In 2019 they were fined a further $20m. If a combined penalty of $60m sounds like a lot, it is as Klein points out a small portion of the $3bn or so annual profits of Princess’s owner, Carnival. “To them, that’s just a cost of doing business,” he says.
And you have Venice, the actual city rather than the theme versions, where for years what are effectively multistorey hotels have been looming over its historic architecture, their mighty parps competing with church bells, their diesel smoke polluting the air, damaging the ecology of the lagoon and, say protesters, the foundations of buildings with the water they displace, and discharging thousands-strong fluxes of tourists on highly managed six-hour trinket-and-selfie binges in the city. Then, last summer, the 65,000-ton MSC Opera, its engine failing, crunched into a moored tourist boat like a boot on to a bug. There were miraculously no deaths, but the crash made the cruise industry’s previous assurances of safety sound hollow.
Despite excited reports last year that large ships would be banned from the city, nothing definite has been decided. At most, larger ships will be displaced to other ports in the Venetian lagoon, which would involve new environmental impacts. Among the complications in finding a solution is the fact that Carnival, Royal Caribbean and other big cruise companies are shareholders of the company that owns Venice’s maritime port.
The issue is not just about the filth and damage that ships emit into Venetian air and water, but of the superficial interaction that cruise ships generate between passengers and their host city. Eleonora Sovrani, of the local campaign group We Are Here Venice, argues that the cruises’ “guests” – on their brief visits, following itineraries proposed by the ships, visiting outlets suggested by them – never leave the cruise “bubble”. The city is forced “to change its aspect to answer expectations of the cruise companies,” she says, in what is a form of “cultural appropriation”.
What goes for Venice now goes for many other places in the world. In pre-virus Sydney, successive ships would be moored near the considerably smaller Opera House, almost permanently blocking certain views, while others would be waiting their turn out in the bay. Cruises have shown increasing enthusiasm for invading the Arctic and Antarctic, their paths eased by the melting of globally warmed ice, with many thousands of gawpers descending on tiny Inuit settlements. In New Zealand, Princess Cruises – hello, my old friend – were obliged to apologise for their crassness, after some non-Maori men with DIY skirts and scribbles on their face were hired to perform an am-dram version of a traditional Maori welcome to passengers on the Golden Princess.
To all these points the cruise industry naturally has its responses. They make claims about health, safety and the environment, which for the reasons given by Ross Klein should be treated sceptically. They say, for example, that norovirus is rare on cruise ships, using data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, however, is only able to obtain information on ships that visit US ports, so can’t give global statistics, which limits the usefulness of any conclusions that might be drawn.
Cruise companies argue that they create employment, which they do, for everyone from officers to crew to waiters to beauticians and standup comedians. They say that they bring revenue to their host cities, which they also do, though Klein and others dispute the level of benefits claimed by the companies
Since cruise passengers sleep on their ships and also tend to eat and drink on them, their benefit to local hotels, restaurants and bars is limited. Those shore-based traders to whom the ships direct their passengers generally have to pay a handsome cut for the privilege. Cruise lines also acquire interests in terminals and retail outlets, such that even more income is whisked away from their host ports. Just supposing that the tourist dollar were not so relentlessly hoovered up by cruises, might it not be generating other, maybe more rewarding jobs in businesses that don’t have the same breaks on taxes and regulations?
The cruise companies’ strongest argument is that their customers love their product. Which, mostly, they do. Even some who endured the Covid-cursed cruises say they will go back to the ships when they can. And to sail the seas and see the world is, indeed, a great thing. But perhaps cruise passengers would have an even better time if there weren’t a nagging feeling that the management might not be totally on top of novel or familiar viruses on their ship, or that the excretions and eructations of their big white ships are trashing the beauties they are paying to see.
And claims of passenger satisfaction and revenue-generation should not invalidate the wishes of host cities for basic respect or the argument that the quality of interaction between tourists and locals is as important as the quantity. As Sovrani puts it, cruises should adapt to cities, not the other way round. Again, cruise passengers might have a better time if they were not thrust into the cogs of an engine of exploitation.
Much, of course, depends on what happens in the world to come after the virus, which not so long ago was barely a blip on the radar. Forbes magazine, on January 20, could see only “smooth sailing into the 2020s”. In February CNN quoted various experts saying it was still OK to cruise. The Cruise Dialogue conference met in Cartagena, Colombia, also in February, asking its industry delegates and speakers “how best to accommodate the seemingly unstoppable growth of cruise activities?” Almost no one mentioned the virus.
The Zaandam set off on its disastrous voyage on 7 March (when, as Klein points out, a number of ships had already been turned away from ports). On the previous day there was the first talk of federal help for the cruise industry, an idea that seemed open to doubt, given the cruise companies’ exotic registrations: if they don’t pay US taxes, how could they receive US subsidies? Even President Trump, who notwithstanding those pesky Panamanian and Bahamian flags called cruises “a great US business”, acknowledged the problem, before saying that “we’re going to try and work something out”. Which, not least because Carnival’s chairman Micky Arison is a friend and backer of Trump, the company having been a sponsor of The Apprentice, you can be sure he will try very hard to do.
“The infantile part of me,” wrote David Foster Wallace, “is by its very nature insatiable.” However much gratification and pampering it will receive, it “will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.” He could as well have been describing the cruise business as its customer experience. Now, though, it is time for cruises to grow up: if the industry has been based on the outsourcing of reality, reality has come back to bite it. A CLIA spokeswoman tells me that they “aim to do our part to protect the sanctity of the destinations we visit so that they can remain a vibrant place to live and visit for generations to come”. Let’s hope so: if it wants public money and public trust, the cruise business should accept the public responsibilities it has been so good at shirking.
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