Years ago, when I was a contributing writer at a travel magazine, I was invited to an ideas meeting with a group of top editors. After making small talk and catching them up on my latest adventures, one of them turned to me and asked if I had any thoughts on cruises. Cruises? I’m afraid I went on a bit of a screed. I made the point—indelicately, in hindsight—that cruise ships are anathema to the kind of travel that the editor in question, myself, and (so I thought at the time) the magazine was about—free-wheeling, interested in getting under the skin of a culture or a place, allowing room for joyous around-the-next-corner serendipity.
As I wrapped up, I noticed that the group was smiling wryly. It turns out that this particular meeting had been called largely to create the line-up for the annual cruising special issue, always underwritten by the cruising industry, some of the biggest advertisers at that particular magazine and among most travel publishers. I was gently told to come to the following month’s meeting, where my food and adventure travel ideas would be a better fit.
There were a few things that were enlightening about that exchange, but one above all else: the cruise industry is a very, very powerful business. Before COVID-19 shut down the travel industry, some 32 million people were expected to board a cruise some time in 2020, contributing to an industry that generates north of $150 billion each year. With the kind of profits those numbers mean behind them, cruise companies have a lot of advertising sway; and they use it. It’s why, as you may have noticed, there isn’t as much page space dedicated to critical examination of the industry itself, considering that year after year there is some kind of catastrophe, but simultaneously plenty of ‘reviews’ of trips taken not only for free but for advertiser quid pro quo.
We’ve known about the sanitation and hygiene issues for ages—witness various routine on-board outbreaks, from the seasonal flu and measles to noroviruses. Even the origin of the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quarantina, referring to the 40 days and nights that ships were barred from entering Venice after their arrival, lest they bring plague to its citizens. In more contemporary times, the Center for Disease Control reports an average of about 10 gastroenteritis outbreaks aboard major cruise ships every year, which make thousands of people ill. No one needs a reminder of the horrors endured by those passengers trapped on the ships in ports all around the world as COVID-19 began its inexorable spread.
And then there are the environmental issues. The cruise industry’s carbon footprint is vastly disproportionate to its size. Although only a fraction of global travelers board cruises each year, the industry dumps billions of gallons of bilgewater, ballast water, greywater and more into fragile marine environments annually. In the past two years, a handful of the largest cruise operator companies have paid tens of millions in fines for criminal penalties for environmental violations. (One even pleaded guilty in 2016 to felony charges for dumping untreated oil waste straight into the ocean.)
That the pandemic will change the way we travel—forever, in some areas—I have no doubt; but my suspicion is that before too long, the cruise industry will bounce back and continue on the course it’s always been on. The scale of the industry’s PR machine will inevitably power back on.
But it’s the effect that cruise ships have on local cultures that inspired me to really question them beyond my original instinctive, personal distaste. It’s been my experience that everywhere a big cruise ship calls into port, a culture is invariably weakened. The major cruise companies all purport to bring their guests to the local cultures of the places they visit; but the evidence seems to point to how the cruise industry actually denudes them. When cruise ships arrive quickly, authentic businesses and the characters of places begin to shift to catering to the thousands of day trippers (this apart from the reality that you can’t begin to understand a place from two or three onshore excursions lasting a few hours each).
Take Venice; sadly the apotheosis of this phenomenon. Witness the slow but inexorable way that countless osterias and trattorias there have gone from trading in uber-locality (fegato con cipolle—liver with onions) to the most entry-level overpriced permutations of Italian cuisine (pizza margherita), in response to the hundreds of thousands flooding its overtaxed streets who have time for a slice, not a sit-down.
The once exuberant and beguiling Carnevale happens just once a year; yet even the tightest alleyway in the labyrinthine city might be lined with stores selling masks (many of which are produced outside Italy), because that’s what the transient cruise market demands. The argument that cruising contributes to local economies feels pretty spurious to me, if for no other reason than locally-owned hotels benefit not at all, and locally-owned restaurants and artisans perforce benefit far less from people calling in for a few hours—as often as not already provisioned—than they would from people who choose to stay two or three nights in the city, exploring and engaging.
That Venice’s foundations have been made more fragile by the constant water displacement of the giant cruise liners passing through the Giudecca canal is no mere article of faith; it’s fact. And God forbid one of them lists one day; what a big cruise brand would probably call a nominal error of navigation could have devastating effects on the city. Emissions are similarly hard to justify; Barcelona recently topped a list of 50 European cities for the highest level of cruise ship-generated air pollution; more than 30 tons of sulphur oxide in 2017, which was five times as much as all the cars in the city, all year long.
So as travel slowly begins to bounce back, we need to ask ourselves: is cruising really the way we want to experience the world? Because a cruise ship is its own world. Its whole raison d’etre, not to mention its economy, is about comfort and ease. It’s about multiple entertainment venues, and multiple cuisines. It’s about name-brand sushi in the Caribbean, or ribeye in Mykonos, because why not? It’s about a physical environment that stays reliably standardised, no matter the actual coordinates. And as often as not, it’s about spending no more than 48 hours in any one place. Meanwhile, those of us on the ground are subjected to monoliths that blight the horizon, sitting out of all proportion to their surroundings in places no one is really sure they even belong. The Sydney Opera House is obscured from view, Dubrovnik is overrun, various Caribbean nations have become sadly dependent and even the Aegean blue hilltop chapels of the Cyclades are dwarfed by some of these behemoths.
The argument in favour of the cruise industry is, of course, that it’s a relatively affordable way to visit many countries. My point of view has been, and will be, branded as elitist. A charge to which I’ll respond in two ways: first, that the true elitism here consists in a handful of owners and shareholders profiting in tax havens (almost always not the places in which they anchor or employ) without true regard for culture, the environment or, frankly, their passengers.
The second—and in fact more important—point is that travel can be better than this. Take Venice again; staying three or four nights and immersing yourself in one of humanity’s great living wonders can be done, affordably (and infinitely more romantically, to my mind, than a cruise could ever be). Not everyone needs to stay at the Gritti Palace; there are myriad charming, more affordable options in less trafficked neighborhoods, still fairly untouched by the tourist route.
Getting truly lost in Venice for a full day is part of the magic—stumbling on churches, basilicas and museums (all free, by the way). Sipping a caffe at the bar early in the morning before wandering the Rialto market—this time actually buying something from one of the vendors; perhaps a little collection of cherries and apricots, slices of prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo, a hunk of Asiago and a bottle of Soave, for a DIY picnic. An alfresco meal overlooking the canal, in the Parco della Rimbranze or over to the beaches of the Lido; all are great tricks of Venice. When you eat at osterie with traditional and well-priced food that are just a bit further from the main piazzas, you still taste the extraordinary gastronomic riches of the lagoon.
And it wouldn’t be Venice without some kind of splurge, but that splurge need not be prohibitive. Have an aperitivo, perhaps standing at Harry’s or one of the other beautiful vantage points in town (see our locals’ guide). Indulge in the cicchetti of your choice with a bellini, negroni or a spritz. It’s a moment of the day still reserved somewhat for locals where you can watch the city at sunset as the cruise-ship day trippers go back to Mestre to reboard and commence their endless happy hour. In this new world of travel, perhaps that contrast most aptly illustrates why the cruising industry is out of line with a new horizon—the world we choose to live in, where we perhaps have smaller portions, but richer flavors.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.