This piece was originally published on November 15, 2018. It has been updated to account for the 2020 coronavirus cruise ship quarantines. You can see all of our coronavirus coverage here.
Off the coast of Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, floated the Diamond Princess, a luxury cruise ship that claims to be a “treasure trove of exceptional delights.” On board were steakhouses, spas, a 700-seat theater, and the highly contagious, rapidly spreading coronavirus. Of the 3,711 passengers and crew members on board, 695 reported contracting the virus (almost one-fifth of the ship’s manifest). It is the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China and it happened on a ship operated by the most profitable cruise line in the world, Carnival Corp.
The first reported incident was from a guest who traveled for five days on board the ship, from January 20 to 25, before disembarking in Hong Kong. He was diagnosed with coronavirus on February 1. Symptoms may not appear for as long as two weeks after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the passenger might have contracted and spread the virus while on board.
According to reporting by the New York Times, Hong Kong officials had alerted the Japanese health ministry of the infected passenger on February 2, a day before the ship was scheduled to dock. A spokesperson from Princess Cruises says they only received “formal verification” on February 3 and then notified the passengers. What commenced after the announcement was the opposite of luxury: two weeks of quarantine in passenger rooms, the least expensive of which have no windows.
On March 4, it was reported that the Grand Princess, a cruise ship containing 2,500 passengers, was being held off the coast of California, also due to the coronavirus. A passenger on a previous voyage became the first person to die of the illness in the state of California; his death, which occurred after he disembarked from the ship, caused the Grand Princess to cut its current journey short. There are no confirmed cases on board, but some passengers and crew are ill, and all are awaiting test kits.
Exhaustive coverage of these outbreaks has illuminated what a bastion of disease cruises can be. But even before this incident threatened the $45 billion industry, cruises were always both popular and divisive.
The number of people who go on cruises has increased every year for the past 10 years, and 32 million people are expected to cruise this year, according to data from Statista. And it’s not just seniors who are interested. A study by the Cruise Line International Association found that the demographic with the highest growth in bookings is people ages 30 to 39. From 2016 to 2018, this demographic booked 20 percent more cruises. The CLIA 2020 report found that 71 percent of millennials have a more positive attitude toward cruises than they did two years ago.
Despite steadily climbing ticket sales and evidently broader appeal, there remains a vocal contingent of anti-cruisers — people who take pride in saying they would never book one, citing their refined tastes and disdain for being ferried from port to port on a floating amusement park.
But there are bigger problems than being trapped in a consumerist funhouse. As recent events have indicated, cruises can be bastions of disease. Ships can also be dangerous, with high sexual assault rates, frequent poisonings, and the ever-present possibility of going overboard. And, of course, cruises are horrible for the environment: Their heavy and growing use of fossil fuels means someone on a seven-day cruise produces the same amount of emissions as they would during 18 days on land. And they can damage fragile ocean ecosystems due to practices like irresponsible disposal of sewage.
Cruises are regimented and creepy
In his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” first published by Harper’s in 1996, David Foster Wallace describes his cruise experience as a “special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under the configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’”
Through the piece, he exhaustively recalls every event, person, and feeling he has during his seven-night voyage on the ship he rechristens “the Nadir.” His experience gets to the heart of what is so insulting about what a cruise offers — you are told what to eat, what will entertain you, what will relax you, all in the name of “luxury.” Instead of creating serenity, the repetition of activities can be quite maddening, no matter how much you may like unlimited lobster or the thrill of slot machines. A trip without agency feels too Wall-E-esque to be peaceful.
Even cruise enthusiasts recognize how limiting the onboard activities are. Miami resident Carolyn Smith has been on 32 cruises since 2002 and says being a captive audience has led others she knows to hate cruises. “While on a land-based vacation, you can branch out for meals and other events from your hotel or resort; at sea on a cruise ship, that is not an option,” she says. “I have friends who never cruised again for this exact reason. I have actually heard comments like, ‘I didn’t enjoy feeling like I was being herded like cattle!’”
Crime is also a problem on cruises
The creepy captivity of cruises is actually not the most potent case against them. Ross Klein, a Canadian academic, studies corruption surrounding cruise corporations and logs all the misfortune that happens on and off board.
Although he is blacklisted from many cruise lines for publishing information from his studies in books and on his website CruiseJunkie.com, Klein says his website has no agenda other than to report the facts. In fact, as a former cruise enthusiast, he doesn’t find his site inflammatory at all. “My page is not anti-cruising; it’s just information you won’t find at the cruise line website,” he says.
Visit the site (Klein denies its name was chosen to troll cruise-lovers), and you are confronted with the Comic Sans header “cruisejunkie dot com your resource for the other information about the cruise industry.” Below that are a handful of links such as “Persons Overboard, 1995 - 2018” and “Ships that have Sunk, 1979 - 2013,” which lead readers to charts with staggering numbers.
Since 2000, apparently 322 people have gone overboard or just went missing while on cruise voyages. Klein says about 20 percent of those who go overboard are rescued.
On the night of October 18, 2018, a crew member on Celebrity Reflections went overboard, but no one searched for them until the next morning. In May 2018, a 50-year-old Carnival Paradise passenger went missing. After searching for 55 hours, the Coast Guard called off the search; the man has still not been found. In January 2015, a Mexican newspaper reported that a Disney cruise ship rescued a passenger who had fallen overboard from a Royal Caribbean cruise. Royal Caribbean had not even noticed a passenger missing.
In 2011, a cruise waiter on Costa Atlantica threw himself overboard and was found face down in the water, dead. Apparently, he was being investigated for sexual assault at the time of his death, which was suspected to be a suicide. And sexual assault is a problem on cruise ships. As of September 30, there were 60 reported sexual assaults this year on cruise ships, according to the Department of Transportation. NBC noted a 2013 congressional report found that minors were victims in one-third of assaults.
Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer, echoed that statistic on his site Cruise Law News, writing that most reported cases are not investigated. According to his site, one-third of the 100 victims he has represented in the past 15 years were minors. He writes that one of his clients was drugged and raped by a cruise line bartender. The employee was fired but then hired again to Princess Cruises. Walker contacted Princess Cruises’ in-house legal team and informed them they had hired a rapist, and the man was fired once again.
Cruises shake down local economies — and their own workers
Klein is also the author of the book Cruise Ship Squeeze, which details how cruises take advantage of local economies. As opposed to working with the places they port, many cruises invest in terminals that only benefit their own economic interests.
According to Klein’s book, cruises threaten to boycott destinations if they attempt to raise their port charges, which can be as little as $1 per person. In 2004, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Associations’ 12 members threatened to boycott Antigua and Barbuda because the countries raised their port charges to $2.50 per person. The threat worked, and the ports backed off.
Another way cruises turn a large profit is by investing in port terminals. For example, in Belize, Royal Caribbean invested $18 million for co-ownership of the Fort Street Tourism Village. The port charge is $5 per person, $4 of which goes to Tourism Village, meaning Royal Caribbean recouped its money in six to seven years.
When a ship docks for a few hours, cruise lines give passengers suggestions of what to do with their time before returning to the boat. But instead of offering sincere recommendations, cruise lines employ a certain pay-to-play model in which vendors on the island can pay to be recommended.
Crew members are known to be overworked, which, according to Klein, is because cruise ships are not beholden to US labor laws. According to Cruise Law News, crew members could work 10 to 12 hours a day for up to 10 months of the year. “If you’re a cleaner on the Grandeur of the Seas, there are 35 public bathrooms,” he says. “You’re making about $560 a month and you may have an assistant, you may not.”
According to CruiseCritic.com, a laundry attendant makes $700 month, a cabin steward makes between $650 and $1,150 per month, including tips, and a kitchen cleaner may make as little as $600 per month. Wages for customer-facing jobs are often dependent on gratuities. Crew members in housekeeping or food and beverage may only be promised $2 a day, and tips often make up 95 percent of their income. CruiseCritic.com also notes that these numbers may change based on where the crew member is from.
By registering their companies in foreign countries, cruise lines are able to dodge not only corporate income tax but also reasonable labor laws. Royal Caribbean is incorporated in Liberia, where the minimum wage is $4 to $6 per day; Carnival in Panama, where the minimum wage ranges from $1.22 to $2.36 per hour; and Norwegian in Bermuda, where there is currently no minimum wage (although one will be implemented starting in May 2019).
“Carnival will earn $3 billion and they’ll pay no corporate income tax at all,” Klein says. “That’s $3 billion net profit. Why would they want to pay their workers a little extra money and make only $2.9 or $2.8 billion?”
Klein’s website also aggregates how much each cruise line spends on lobbying; from 1997 to 2015, Carnival has spent $4.7 million, Royal Caribbean has spent $10 million. Last year, three cruise lines donated a combined $23,500 to an Alaskan senator who then ensured a tax exemption for ships stopping in Alaska.
Cruises dump fuel and human waste into the ocean
Along with the moral implications of low wages and high profits and how little ports benefit from cruise tourism, the cruise industry has a severe impact on the environment. These ships are essentially floating cities, and many of them produce as much pollution as one. In 2016, the Pacific Standard reported that “each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land.”
Traditionally, ships use diesel engines, gas turbines, or a combination of both. Diesel fuel is linked to pollution as it produces nitrogen oxide emissions, which have been linked to respiratory disease and lung cancer. Their high sulfur content is also harmful to the environment since sulfur, when mixed with water and air, forms sulfuric acid — the main component of acid rain. Acid rain can cause deforestation, destroy aquatic life, and corrode building materials. But recently, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) announced that all vessels must switch to cleaner fuel with a lower sulfur content by 2020.
However, instead of paying for more expensive but less sulfuric fuel, such as liquefied natural gas, ships are installing “emission cheat” systems, called scrubbers. A scrubber allows a ship to wash cheap fuel and meet the IMO requirements, then discharge the pollutants from the cheap fuel into the ocean.
This will just add to the fact that a 3,000-person cruise ship generates 210,000 gallons of sewage weekly. All cruise ship sewage goes through what is called “sewage treatment,” where solid and liquid waste is separated and sterilized, then the solid is incinerated and the liquid is released back into the ocean.
Apparently, it’s just like clean water. But in 2016, Princess Cruises was fined $40 million for polluting the ocean by dumping 4,227 gallons of “oily waste” off the coast of Britain. According to Klein’s website, just this September, two cruise lines were charged with “unauthorized discharge of untreated graywater,” or a stream of sewage that comes from everywhere but the toilet.
The two most popular cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, both received a D score from environmental advocacy group Friends of Earth, which tabulated the score based on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and transparency.
Cruises are unique in their negatives but also their positives. What else ferries you to and from picture-perfect destinations in a vessel dedicated to pampering its inhabitants? But what else can incubate a deadly virus to so many people so quickly?
Experts say the cruise industry will bounce back from the coronavirus news as many cruise fans may well just elect to ignore all the aforementioned dangers and repercussions.
Besides, Princess Cruises has already put out a “Help Wanted” ad for a “best-in-class cleaning and disinfection service provider.” Meaning the ship on which almost 700 people contracted coronavirus will resume voyages, carrying hot tubs, buffets, and thousands of passengers. But hopefully, with help, without the virus.
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