Cruising ... Convenient Luxury or Monolithic Petri Dish
The November blahs ... how could we escape those dreary, dull days?
We decided to check the popular cruise site Vacations to Go. A great offer - eleven days including Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica with throw in ports in Mexico and even one Caribbean island (Grand Cayman) was too much for us to resist. We booked it.
For leisure travel, cruising was the fastest growing segment of the travel industry and continued to expand rapidly. However, with the onset of COVID-19, the long term impact on cruising is still to be determined.
And we were part of that demand.
As Elizabeth Becker mentions in Overbooked, cruising takes all of the risk out of travel ... no planning, no moving from one hotel to another, no navigating buses or taxis ... The excursions are tightly planned ... you unpack once, sleep in the same bed and read an activities bulletin to determine what to do for the day.
Shortly after booking, emails encouraging us to purchase excursions began popping up in my inbox. Seven hundred dollars later, we were excited to do everything from visiting an indigenous tribe in the Panamanian rainforest to a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica.
More emails. Drink packages starting at $89 USD a day – (water and coffee were good enough).
Other offers including WiFi and specialty dining also came our way. The upsell was on!!
We took care booking our cabin. Inside cabins, the least expensive, are like being stuffed in a closet. Oceanview is a step up but often the view is obstructed. We chose a balcony ... nice plus as it extends your living space but of course comes with an additional cost. In retrospect, a wise choice if for any reason you are confined to your room for an extended period.
Once settled it was a pleasure returning to our cabin, cleaned twice daily by a foreign national from Indonesia who worked tirelessly to please us. The diverse, international staff was friendly and engaging, working extremely long hours. However they became suddenly tight lipped when one inquired about the salary they earned on generally a six month contract of non-stop labour. Hmm... With a mandatory gratuity of $14.95 USD per person per day (and it is going up), I wondered how much each individual actually received. With a staff of approximately 1200 and passenger capacity of 3000, do the math assuming it is equally distributed.
There are many amenities onboard to choose. The well equipped fitness area is next to the spa offering $130 USD massages and many other services to maintain well-tuned and coiffed bodies. It certainly is pleasurable sitting beside a pool, reading a book knowing that copious amounts of food awaited me whenever I felt a twinge. If I felt the need for exercise, I occasionally navigated the upper deck walking track to burn off a few calories.
Effortless indulgence ... heaping buffets, endless amounts of alcohol and for the well to do diamond, art or fragrance shows with a touch of casino on the side ( beware the odds they are even longer on cruise ships). After all who couldn’t use a diamond tennis bracelet to add to their growing diamond collection. Servers abound, obligingly bringing you whatever you desire. Just flash your sea pass card.
An attendant dutifully mops the deck floor as dripping vacationers exit any number of onboard pools. If one tires of sunbathing, dance sessions appear throughout the ship along with trivia games, the occasional talk and promo presentation for future cruises.
Excursions abound ... swim with the dolphins, visit a tequila factory or tour to observe how the locals live (generally not quite like you or I). I wonder if dolphins would prefer to be in their natural environment, rather than performing continuously day after day. Well organized, buses obediently line up on the pier patiently waiting for the thousands to be dispersed throughout the countryside.
There are no end of trips while in port – the cruise ship has every experience covered. Our visit to a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica supported rehabilitation of these cute Costa Rican mascots. Many tours (walking tours etc) provide employment for locals. We visited an indigenous tribe in the rain forest of Panama. We thought carefully about the excursions we selected and decided the positive outweighed the negative (of course that could be open to debate). If you book an excursion other than with the ship, you may have to walk a distance to find the van or taxi ... no sense in making it easy for the competition.
It is a sight to behold ... four cruise ships in port and 12 000 people descending on a small Mexican town especially constructed for the massive hordes. Some ports are somewhat sparse and offer very little (Colon, Panama/Cartagena, Colombia) while others are a maze of stores and shops (eg. Costa Maya/Cozumel) with endless jewellery stores, copious amounts of alcohol for sale and the ever present souvenirs. Preferred stores are recommended in the daily planner by the cruise line offering outstanding products of the finest qualities. A convenient business arrangement, I am sure!
If you prefer to stay onboard and shop, cruise lines have that covered. The shopping promenade on the fifth deck had everything from watches to art shows and of course more alcohol. I wondered if the $500 watch I pondered over for several seconds didn’t work would I have to track down the ship to follow up?
We looked forward to the early dining experience. Seated at a table with two or three other couples, gave us a chance to share experiences, make new friends, be waited on with superb service and have a wonderful selection of starters and entrees topped with your favourite wine. Our dining room head waiter from India worked non-stop to serve us. The menu included everything from Tuscan Vegetable Minestrone to Chicken Kiev. It certainly beats the dilemma of, “What’s for supper tonight?”
Cruise ships make it very tempting ... no question. And if those meals weren’t good enough, you could select specialty dining for an additional price.
The nightly entertainment in the main theatre is quite popular. Comedians reviving their careers along with a youthful and energetic singing and dance troupe, acrobats and gymnasts and many others fill out the evening events to packed audiences.
Throughout the ship various bands or combos play an assortment of music. The centre of the ship is the main focal point. Surrounded by elevators shooting to the top, plants and sculptures; a small dance floor is the showpiece for couples who have practised their dance moves for years and can now display their acumen while the rest of us wriggle and twist to the best of our ability.
As enjoyable and tempting it is for many travellers, the cruise industry also has a number of contentious issues.
With the norovirus as a test run, we have seen the headlines of ships refused port entry due to COVID-19. In the process of writing this article, there were number of cruise ships unable to find an accepting port to dock (they all eventually found a sympathetic port). The spread of the corona virus onboard The Diamond Princess is a case in point of how challenging it is to prevent any contagion from spreading once the ship sets sail and you are captive in your suite. However, as late as mid May, thousands of crew members are still stuck on board off US and international waters.
There are many conflicting reports about waste (sewage, food scraps, materials, grey water etc) and what cruise ships can and cannot do. Regardless, with whole towns transported for days on end in a water borne vessel, challenges arise on what to do with the vast amounts of accumulated waste when out at sea.
The U.S. EPA estimates that a 3,000-person cruise ship generates 210,000 gallons of sewage weekly — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools, and 1 million gallons of graywater — another 40 swimming pools full of waste. One cruise ship equals 50 swimming pools full of highly polluted waste which can be dumped into our oceans each week!
The Motorways of the Sea newsletter 2017
The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.
... the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.
Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires ... Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, ... The Guardian Jan 2020 According to Kate Wheeling, writer for the Pacific Standard specializing in criminal justice and the environment,
... each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land ...
I often wondered why ships were registered under different foreign countries.
Some 60 percent of cruise ships are now registered in Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas. By doing this -- by obtaining "flags of convenience" from these and other countries -- ship owners can avoid the laws of the nation from which they actually operate and take advantage of weak safety, labor and environmental standards.
(Anarchy on the High Seas – The Huff Post 2012 Karl Grossman Investigative Reporter)
Some countries have stricter regulations, such as the US, which supplies the cruise market with the majority of its customers.
A ship registered in the US is governed by United States maritime law, which specifies the wages that must be paid to crew, the environmental safeguards that apply to waste disposal etc ... A cruise operator might decide that they would rather operate under a less strict regime, and most do.
Michael Gebicki March 2019 The Traveller
From what I understand the country of registry is suppose to monitor ships under its flag. Perhaps there were Liberian representatives in Cozumel. I didn’t notice.
Bringing massive groups of people to impoverished countries must have a great financial benefit ... surely. There are many studies on the actual economic impact cruising has on the many international destinations visited. The conclusions are all over the map. With limited time in each port and the services the cruise ships provide onboard, I would hazard a guess not as much as you may think. But it is only a guess!
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), for every $100 USD spent on a vacation by a tourist, only around $5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy. So where does the money go?
Skift and G Adventures Jan 2020
Consumers are constantly growing in their awareness of sustainability. Cruise lines are beginning to respond implementing more environmentally friendly technology and programs to boost the destinations they visit, both economically and culturally. ... According to the Cruise Lines International Association, by 2030, the cruise industry has committed to reducing its fleet-wide rate of CO2 emissions by 40 percent. Travel Pulse Cruise Line & Cruise Ship Janeen Christoff JANUARY 15, 2020
They have a long ways to go and with the current world crisis and will have to be innovative and creative to lure many former clients back.
Carnival has recently announced the relaunch of a number of cruises this summer. Enhanced cleaning of staterooms, trip protection, alternative food service methods, deep cleaning of public areas are included in the 'new' approach to cruising. Will it be enough ... time will tell.
As the Covid 19 virus rages on and the impact of travel on the environment and our health continues to sink into our consciousness, many travellers will be rethinking their travel plans. We have some very difficult decisions to make. Individually, we have to decide whether we want to take a bite of the apple ... a very delicious apple at a cost possibly to ourselves and the world around us.
The apple may not be as appealing as it once was!