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Outrage: ‘Floating “fun” palaces disgorge their bored cargoes into cities while belching noxious fumes into sea and sky’

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The growing cruise industry is responsible for colossal human, cultural and environmental damage

Take a look at cruise liner websites and what you’ll see is a focus on the destinations – antique ports, idyllic islands, broad beaches – rather than the ships themselves. If they have managed to survive the tourist onslaught, these coastal destinations have a distinct sense of place – or at least the memory of a place. The ships, meanwhile, have the look of stacked, hulking, floating blocks of mid-range executive apartments, with swimming pools, rows of sun-loungers and the odd helicopter pad on top. The ships are placeless.

If you consider the worst aspects of resort mass tourism – the disconnection from locality, the customer-is-king-as-long-as-they-keep-paying mentality, the packaging up of natural resources in a pastiche of cultural ‘experience’ – surely it finds its epitome in a cruise ship.

Taking to the high seas – as a wealthy first-world-er, anyway – has an undeniable romance. Dreams of escaping the shackles of dreary northern winters perhaps, and of spending one’s well-earned retirement (and the kids’ inheritance!), stack up alongside the brochures. After all, there’s such a ready-made community on these vessels, isn’t there? You can join forces with like-minded fellow ocean-roamers and need never stay in one port more than a few days – or hours, if you’re lucky. In the mind’s eye is the tang of salt air, the freshness of endless new skies, the irresistible forward push of full sails …

‘The scale of cruise ships is incongruous. People and the city are dwarfed’

Except these behemoths are powered by maritime fuel, the most polluting of all diesels. Even the low-sulphur version is 100 times worse than road diesel. According to independent German pollution analyst Axel Friedrich, ‘a single large cruise ship will emit over five tonnes of NOX emissions, and 450kg of ultra-fine particles a day’ (The Guardian, 21 May 2016). In ports, the giants of the oceans keep their engines idling. Then there are the many van and lorry trips required to service these floating ‘fun’ palaces while they’re docked (supplies must be brought on board, and waste taken off, and often). Which isn’t great for air quality in the surrounding areas.

The cruise industry is a big business. In 2016, some 25 million people went on cruise ships. In 2015, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry generated $119.9 billion (£83 billion) in total output worldwide, supporting 939,232 full-time equivalent jobs. The largest ships carry more than 5,000 passengers. Stand in Venice, among the honeyed stone and the hawkers in that liminal watery sinking space, and you’re likely to see the sun bouncing off the gleaming windows of a slow-moving sea skyscraper as it churns past. The scale is incongruous. People and the city are dwarfed.

But cruise ships themselves are floating towns, even cities – aren’t they? Except they don’t have any of the layers of a real town, building history and place year upon year, decade upon decade, century upon century; fostering changes in trade and use, growing and nurturing new generations. The liners flood real cities with their temporary inhabitants for mere hours, then suck them back like a retreating tide. The ships have manufactured busyness and purpose. They have morgues but no cemeteries. They are embedded in nothing.

Cruise ships also present a stratified society; the essential ‘us’ and ‘them’. Guest and worker. Top deck and bottom bunk. Low wages mark this sector, and who are we to deny the opportunities of global economic forces, crystallised by a migrant worker who might toil for months at sea? We shouldn’t compare what they are earning by Western standards, should we? It is so much more than they would get back home. Except, somehow, this exchange feels wrong. It makes us all poorer.

Similar mercantile exchanges exist across the globe, of course: for example construction workers, domestic servants. What makes cruise ships different is that it is all done for the pleasure of one group of people. Joining a cruise liner is not about essential business – though sometimes it must seem that way to the chosen destinations on the itineraries. The monetary gain of being on the tourist map is easy to quantify and hard to resist. As Michael Webb wrote in his review of If Venice Dies: ‘In a recent resolution, UNESCO warned that Venice would be placed on its list of endangered sites if the city did not ban cruise ships by February 2017. Predictably, the Italian government pressurised the organisation to withdraw or postpone its decision’.

Of course ports and islands benefit financially from the liners. But what of the human, cultural and environmental cost? As the cruise sector grows, so does the desire to find more untainted and exciting areas to descend upon. It seems the seeking of pleasure and leisure must be an unalloyed, endless right. We want. So we shall.

Lead Image: Cruise ships dwarf the ancient buildings of Venice, polluting both the atmosphere and the incomparable vista, and drowning the city in mass tourism. Source: Getty Images

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2017 issue on Water – click here to purchase a copy