As a boy, I used to peer through the porthole of my father’s fishing boat and gaze longingly at the big bright cruise ships as they sailed by in the night. To me, they meant something great, something mysterious.
“Portals to the world” – I used to think. While at dock, these steel behemoths poured passengers down gangways and into my small Alaskan town. Tourists filled the streets with their accents, fashions and faces from around the globe. For a brief moment each day, the city of 30,000 was transformed into an international crossroads.
My fascination with transport was apparent from a young age. While cars weren’t really my thing, I could usually tell you which cruise line each ship belonged to before even seeing the name on the bow. I also remember when all of the ships from my childhood vanished.
The Pacific Princess – the original “love boat” – was sold off and stripped of her livery. A newer ship now bears the name. The icon is gone. The era of exclusive, luxury cruising is slowly fading. What’s replaced it is a cruise culture of deep discounts and the idea that a cruise can be an everyman’s holiday.
Staterooms and all-you-can-eat meals are on offer for most voyages. Realising volume and not quality is the key, cruise lines have managed to build ships that barely fit through the Panama Canal. They’ve also a reputation for attracting passengers that barely fit up the gangway.
The past year has been a particularly bad one for cruising around the globe. When the Costa Concordia rolled over off the coast of Italy, people lost their lives. Last month, the Carnival Triumph lost all power and, while no one was injured, passengers were left to their own devices in order to survive. Reports of leaking sewage and ketchup sandwiches for five days made for some angry cruisers. Media frenzies followed. The idea of thousands of people paying to be stranded in their own filth is an odd sort of tale but it makes for great television.
All of this seems the antithesis to my childhood dreams of world-class cruising. The need for cruise lines to beef up the bottom line and do so fast has meant each new ship is bigger than the last. When was the last time you truly said that a nice holiday should involve being slammed into close quarters with 4,200 strangers?
But, you get what you pay for. And I think that is the biggest point here. The fallout from these disaster cruises has been a bit comical. While some people claim to have been stripped of their dignity, I would argue they need to take a good hard look at exactly where they lost that dignity.
If midnight chocolate buffets, all-you-can-eat pizza parties and mai-tais are what make you tick, then I think society needs to look at dignity as a whole. Maybe we should remind ourselves that boarding a big ship used to mean you were heading for a new world with better opportunity. And no matter how bad the food and the services were, you still got your dignity in the end.
Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle.