Just Sailing By: The Unattended Injustices Of The Cruise Industry

A cruise ship might sum up most of our issues in tourism.

cruise ship
Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash

On a cruise ship, nothing seems impossible. World-class shows and entertainment happening in every corner, buffets serving cuisine you’ve never tried nor can you pronounce. Clean, crisp staterooms at the end of every long day, air-conditioned. And always, the sea, stretching beyond where the eye can reach. Lost in the tranquil waves, mirroring the pink summer glow of the sun, you feel invincible and too small all at once.

In her 1983 novel Praisesong for the Widow, Black American writer Paule Marshall confronts the many injustices of cruise tourism. New Yorker Avey’s voyage begins in excitement and awe; to her the ship is “dazzling” and the “precision and power of her lines” sweeps her up in a dream. She compares the ship to an entire city: “the ship’s turbines…produced enough heat and light to run a city the size of Albany!”

The simile of a city is apt for a cruise ship. Physically, a ship can drift from place to place; it is never attached to a single location. It is self-sustaining to a degree, relying only on its own staff, kitchens, facilities, and plumbing systems to keep itself functioning. Legally, it floats around various national law by virtue of being at sea.

Cruise industry
Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash

Robert E. Wood calls this the deterritorialized nature of the cruise ship industry. By doing business unbound by legal or geographical territory, it can do anything unchecked. For example, some cruise companies register their ships strategically in order to be exempt from large taxes, a practice known as “flag of convenience.” It’s said that around 90% of commercial vessels calling on American ports sail under foreign flags, in countries such as the Bahamas, Panama, and Liberia.

The flag of convenience offers large cruise companies the chance to exploit cheap labor. These ships are operated under the regulations of foreign countries, so they only need to follow their laws. The crew may be forced to work inhumane hours and prohibited from forming unions. Besides, most of a ship’s time is spent in international waters, so a lot of what happens on board is unregulated by national law and “only loosely”  by international regulations. In the early 2000s, only 30% of cruise ship labor came from advanced economies, and most of them worked in high-paying officer and guest-relations roles, while other laborers worked in housekeeping and catering.

It is not only laborers that suffer under the industry. Cruise ships have by now expanded mass-scale worldwide, and with them, tourist destinations around the world have struggled to accommodate to various extents. Often, destination ports compete with each other so that they can be included in as many itineraries as possible. Small coastal towns and natural havens are forced to modernize their facilities, as well as build new cruise terminals that change their very landscapes and senses of identity.

Venice is a classic example. One of Europe’s largest cruise ports, the small Italian city welcomes 1.7 million tourists just from cruise ships alone. Of this, 1.5 million embark and disembark their ships in Venice, acting as a “homeport.” Compared to destination ports, homeports require adequate infrastructure in order to operate smoothly, such as transportation systems, good access via train or air, and cruise terminal facilities.

Photo by Christian Lambert on Unsplash

Local discontent in Venice rose to the surface in 2014 when locals protested the ships’ negative impact on their environment. A precarious city built on water that already suffered from rising sea levels, citizens were afraid of the pollutants from cruise ships speeding up the damage on Venice’s historic buildings. Only a couple of months later, Italian authorities bent down to the cruise ships’ economic lure. The decision was overturned and Venice remains a major cruise port to this day.

It’s easy to imagine a ship being dependent on their ports—after all, a journey cannot happen without its hosts. However, the reality is clearly the opposite. Small seaside towns, with little money and few local residents, and in the case of many countries, a poor currency, rely on global businesses like cruise ships to keep themselves running. The ships sail over, pillaging what it can find, and leave, ever looking for the next best thing. If one or two destinations disappear from the map, a ship may hardly notice.

A cruise ship is a self-sustaining ecosystem that meanders on the free-for-all oceans. Held accountable only by the flimsiest of laws, these ships cruise along in whichever way the wind blows—where, incidentally, there’s money to be made. Until the 1990s, the Inside Passage of Alaska was suffering heavily from unfiltered sewage and wastewater from cruise ships. When the American government took action by requiring filtering systems onboard, cruise companies complied, but only did so on vessels sailing for Alaska. As for other ships being built, things remained the same and costs kept low.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

In Marshall’s novel, Avey started out on her voyage joyfully, stunned and passive at the ship’s many inspirations. As she continues her voyage, however, she is increasingly disturbed by the hyper-sensory images of wealth offered to the guests aboard, in sum the “imperial” and “glacial” presence of the massive ship in the middle of the warm Caribbean. Marshall reveals, throughout her novel, the many reflections of colonial times on modern forms of tourism.

Marshall’s book, however, is not a blatant rejection of cruise tourism. In the end, with the deterioration of the initial romance, Avey seeks out her own sense of belonging and reconnects with her African roots among the people of Grenada. Anthony Carrigan, in his analysis of Praisesong for the Widow, suggests that Avey’s psychological journey onboard was necessary for her later heightened awareness.

The cruise vacation, as with anything else, is what we make of it. For Avey, the ship was not ultimately a vessel of suffering, but an opportunity for her to rebuild respect for the local peoples she visited and ultimately, for herself.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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