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The Murky Waters of the Luxury Cruise Industry

We’ve all had the temptation for an escape or an adventure, perhaps to feel like a voyager sailing out to charter the swells and dips, the coasts and islands. A spring vacation or a post-retirement relaxation; not challenging nature but experiencing it in absolute luxury.

Did that sound like an advertisement? Well, it’s the picture perfect scenario sold to us by expensive ocean liners. Not a shabby pitch in the slightest because how else would you experience multiple “exotic” places and cultures at once, spending a bunch of money and partying all the way to the next destination. Cruising focuses more on being the escape - the destination that you want, and that is why they are a desired mode of travel.


The year 2020, provided us with a glimpse of the mismanagement on cruise ships. No longer are they the image of wealth and comfort, but a cauldron of diseases. The poster child of cruises as superspreaders ended up being the Grand Princess Hawaii cruise, owned by the biggest cruise vacation company - Carnival Corporation. The valuable lesson learnt is that containing the transmission of Covid19 on a cruise ship is as effective as fighting in a zombie apocalypse with rubber bullets. Though Carnival hired an ethics team to solve their various issues, it's apparent that big bucks don’t mean that the system will function efficiently.

Cruises are a heaven-send to places that are economically doing bad. Let’s take the example of the largest economy - the United States (where 48% of the all the world passengers come from), to understand the potential of the industry. In 2019, the total jobs created because of cruises was 436,600 and the total industry output was $55.5 billion. These numbers point to prosperity and establish it as an important part of the tourism sector. Although, it fails to show the rusty cogs that actually run this industry - cutting corners being the main culprit for the mess.

From the cruise line Silversea, hiding old food from health inspectors, to Japan Grace not changing the public hot tub water for a week, the ship’s crew are often asked to save money by flouting the safety guidelines. In 2017, a whopping 15 cruise ships had failed the inspection tests, with only a few passing the re-inspections. In the multiple storeyed, skyscraper rivaling length boats, it must be fairly easy to hide the bad spots. So then how horrific are the working conditions?


Well, having a job in a floating mall that pays you plus takes you around the world might seem like a dream but in reality might end up leaving you worse for the wear, especially if you’re a crew member. Though the crew are often blamed for the shabby conditions, it’s ignorant to not acknowledge that this arises less from laziness and more from overworking.

Being in the crew (servers and cleaners) means having to work for seven straight days, spending more than half of each day slogging. What’s more cruel? How underpaid you are and the lack of benefits. The huge pay gap between the crew and the officers, further creates a divide. Monthly in the US, captains earn more than $15,000 while workers can get paid as low as $800. This gap stands problematic when we further take into account the difference in country of origin of the staff. For example, Royal Caribbean is a cruise company that specifically recruits crew members from southeast asian countries. The officers, on the other hand, are mostly always from countries like the US and Europe, according to a study by the International Seafarers Research Centre.

Cruise companies easily get away with exploiting their workers, by registering themselves in countries that have loose labour laws. They aren’t even fearful of lawsuits from employees because of their off-the-records arbitration policy; it simply means that they threaten the workers with termination and no chance of re-hiring - tactics that end up silencing them. A series of interviews conducted by Business Insider revealed how racism and classism is rampant in this strict hierarchical structure that was described as akin to slavery.


While tourism is great for the economy, it can turn invasive and negatively affect the places being toured. Let’s be honest, we humans are not the best at keeping our surroundings clean, more so when we are unmonitored in the middle of the sea. These cruise ships thus act like snails travelling on the surface of the ocean; they leave behind a long trail of yucky stuff that is essentially concentrated pollution.

This industry is guilty of generating around 24% of the total waste dumped by marine vessels into the oceans. Like a cornucopia of pollution, there are a variety of absolute hellish pollutants that come out of these luxe steel floats. Black and grey water discharge that makes up a part of this waste is hardly treated before being dumped, unleashing 210,000 gallons (per week) of sewage that contains harmful chemicals and bacteria that disturb and destroy marine ecosystems. Bilge oil pollution for giant cruise ships is inevitable, more so when they have structural failures which are not repaired on time due to negligence. If oil doesn’t do the damage, then the insane amount of air pollution and noise pollution surely will. Noise sensitive whales and dolphins stand no chance in communicating with a jumbo ship emanating a frequency of 20,000 Hz, in their hunting grounds.

While the coral reefs will cease to exist due to increasing toxicity, marine life as a whole will come to a standstill in various parts of the oceans. Eventually the effects travel to land, when we will finally start feeling the effects of contaminated water, poisonous sea food, and a slow death for the unfortunate. Not to forget, no beach parties for the first world residents because of the toxic waste washing up on shore, effectively ruining the mood.

Tightening the leash on big cruise corporations to manage and treat their waste is the obvious solution; making regulations that leave no room for leniency is even more obvious. But alas, due to the nexus between governments and cruise corporations, the short term mutual benefit overrides the life altering impacts on the rest of the planet. Examples like the conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands, where they banned large cruise ships and regulate the amount of tourists visiting, seems like the only way to minimise the effects of the cruise industry’s ignorance. But the key issue it underlines is that unethical cruise corporations in first world countries will continue to just not care about anything but profits.

So for other countries like India, where there are big plans to expand the cruise tourism industry, a question of ethics over greed presents itself. Should we focus on rapidly developing to reap the profits while overlooking the wellbeing of our workers and the environment? Do we risk cutting costs just to show a boost in the GDP? Realistically, it’ll be either a dive or a dip in the murky waters.

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