Capitalism demands an optimal person-to-square-foot ratio, hence the shift to mega-cruises. And also to mega-companies, because a new ship costs several hundred million Euros, and pretty much only the three major cruise lines that dominate the market can afford that. The Costa fleet is part of Carnival Corporation, based in Miami, which competes with Royal Caribbean, also based in the U.S., and Hong Kong’s Genting. Between them, these three own more than 75% of all passenger berths. The trend toward mega-ships carrying more than four thousand passengers is fueled by an artificially created demand: the major shipping companies have money for advertising, and they can very persistently target any given market niche. Special offers for gays, poker players, young people, table tennis players, and increasingly for the health-conscious and for fans of cosmetic surgery. These days there are ships with landscaped parks and tennis courts, the beautiful world of the perfect vacation growing right on board. Cruises aren’t for boring old people anymore, and haven’t been at least since the invention of the Club Aida ship. Cruises happen year-round. The demand is rising fast because the cruises keep getting cheaper. High volume means low cost and there’s nowhere customers get more for their money than on a cruise ship – ground transfers, accommodation, food, entertainment, against an ever-changing backdrop. Should there be unrest somewhere in the world, which happens every day, the ships are flexible and can just change their course. They float at a safe distance off the coasts of poor countries, crammed to bursting with luxuries unattainable for the inhabitants of, let us say, certain African countries. Which can become a problem only if there’s an accident. A problem for the passengers, I mean. Many ports are not designed for the new mega-cruisers. Too bad for them.
Mealtime. “If you like meeting people from across the country and around the world, a cruise is a great way to do it. Meet other passengers over dinner, at the bar, or by the pool – the people you’ll see come from everywhere! Children can quickly make new friends, too, with all our on-board activities”: so it said in the brochure, which isn’t a brochure anymore, but an online ad. In one of the five gigantic dining halls, where the passengers are fed in two shifts, I sit at a round table with three affable Swiss people. The passengers are grouped by country, so that they can make friends more easily. The campsite effect.
Everyone has done themselves up nicely. Smart casual, the men saving their tie for the gala dinner. Delighted with all the luxury, the three-course menu, the quick service provided by people from developing countries. People talk, as they do everywhere in the world when they meet each other while travelling, about travelling. How happy they were with various places. The food is adapted to average tastes: not spicy, well prepared. Wine, which costs extra, helps the initial forced camaraderie along. After dinner, most people change clothes, why else would they have brought along all that luggage?, and set off into the night. In the theatre, acrobats from Shanghai; in the bar, an Italian is singing and a lone handicapped man is dancing and having fun; in another bar couples are dancing, another pleasure I find incomprehensible. But I have worked long and hard to stop doubting the justification for something just because I don’t personally understand it. Anything is possible, everyone has rights. And so it slowly dawns on me what the cruise passengers are looking for. I am overwhelmed for a moment with love for the race to which I belong. They have worked hard, spent their lives in circumstances that they did not choose, and now they want to have fun. They want the Titanic, they want to feel rich, wear beautiful shiny things, go dancing. They want to go to a theatre and watch Chinese people, feel international, and, not least, have something to do. Round the clock. Because they’re used to rigid daily routines back home.