Venice is a city of 55.000 inhabitants, which is swamped on some days by more than 40, 000 cruise ship passengers, and many of the residents aren’t impressed at their transient visitors, as many of these ships dwarf the architectural marvels of the ancient city, and spew toxic fumes in their wake.
And Venice is far from the only place affected in this way – the Orkney Islands play host to over a quarter of a million visitors a year, with a population of just over 25 000.
The Cruise ship industry has grown rapidly since the 1960s as prices have come down – Americans and the Chinese are the most avid cruisers, but 2 million Brits are also predicted to go cruising in 2018.
The largest ship is Harmony of the Seas – it is a quarter of a mile long, weighs 227,000 tonnes and carries up to 6780 guests with a crew of 21, 000, and there are scores of ships sailing the oceans which have a capacity of over 3000 passengers.
What can we make of cruise ships sociologically?
As with many current trends Zygmunt Bauman seems to be the best sociologist to go to in order to make sense of their growing popularity:
Bauman argues that what distinguishes social class today is relative mobility – the global super rich have jets and suites in many parts of the world and can afford to be instantly globally mobile. At the other end of the scale are the global poor – who are ‘doomed to be local’ in Bauman’s words, and are effectively stuck in the barrios with no way out.
So where do cruise ships fit in? Basically I see them as somewhere in the middle of this – they allow the relatively well-off in the West as well as in developing countries like China to get a taste of this mobility, so maybe, just maybe, it’s not so much that cruises are a ‘good holiday’* but they allow us to tap into that unconscious desire to join the ultra-rich super-mobile global elite?
*Given that the objective truth about cruises is that, technically speaking, they’re just a bit shit, why people ‘choose’ to go on them needs some deeper level of explanation.