Bloated Leisure Activity Under Critical Scrutiny

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires, by Kristoffer A. Garin. Viking, 366 pages, $24.95.

I’ve never taken a Caribbean cruise, and I probably never will. It’s David Foster Wallace’s fault. His 1995 essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”—an uproarious dissection of seven nights aboard Celebrity Cruise Inc.’s 47,255-ton Zenith (rechristened, in his account, the Nadir)—was enough to convince me that “fun ship” is an oxymoron.

“I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh,” Mr. Wallace muses. “I have been addressed as ‘Mon’ in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide.” And he faced an ugly truth at every port: “I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.”

On page after withering page, however, Mr. Wallace finds the “floating wedding cakes” worthy of scrutiny. So does journalist Kristoffer Garin, whose Devils on the Deep Blue Sea is both an overwhelming history and an underwhelming exposé of the cruise industry.

Such scrutiny is merited: The subject is big. Literally. Mr. Garin opens his book with a Melvillian description of an entity larger than five Goodyear blimps, too obese for the Panama Canal, home to 700 gallons of ice cream, 20,000 cans of beer and 2,500 toilets: Behold the Voyager of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, “a great white mechanical whale nosing its way back to Miami through the ocean dawn, its belly stuffed with the celebrants of American leisure.”

The subject is also big in the metaphorical sense: Cruising is a $13 billion industry, the fastest-growing sector of the leisure market, an activity undertaken by more than 10 million Americans each year. Mr. Wallace delivers a wry sociological analysis of what this industry peddles—“a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper’”—but Mr. Garin offers a blow-by-blow account of capitalists and corporations that, unless you’re riveted by yet another American-dream-theme story about “what happens when little guys become big guys,” will leave you feeling that his approach has, well, missed the boat.

Mr. Garin begins by recounting the cruise industry’s exotic lineage. Its “grandfather” is F. Leslie Fraser, a Jamaican plantation owner who, between hobnobbing with Errol Flynn and General Rafael Trujillo, launched the first Miami-based pleasure cruise line in the 1950’s. His concept begat the “modern cruise industry’s founding fathers”: a Norwegian, Knut Kloster, and an Israeli, Ted Arison. The son of wealthy shipowners, Arison was a WWII veteran who smuggled Jews into Palestine, fought in the war for Israeli independence, emigrated from America (because, says Mr. Garin, he “wanted to be a self-made man”) and was eulogized by The Jerusalem Post as the “world’s richest Jew.”

But before that, Arison was Kloster’s partner in Norwegian Caribbean Lines. Their venture was successful, so successful that financial disputes drove a wedge between them. In 1971, Arison launched his own company, which pioneered the marketing scheme that redefined tackiness as we know it: the “fun ship” concept, which meant selling the ship, not the port of call, and catering to the lower, not upper tier of the market. It meant the birth, in other words, of the Wal-Mart of the sea: Carnival Cruise Lines, which now has a market capitalization of $36 billion and control of over 50 percent of the market.

From the start-up sagas of the 60’s, to the Love Boat era launched in 1977—when the television premiere of a “glorious, unapologetic shlockfest” became the best advertising cruise lines couldn’t buy—to the “Me Decade,” when bigger, fatter ships (and customers) proved that size does matter, Devils on the Deep Blue Sea traces the rise of the current industry trinity: Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. But really it’s the story of Carnival, its rise from penny-pinching underdog to corporate behemoth (during the past decade, it rapaciously gobbled up rival cruise companies).

As if hungry for a good reason to feel queasy about cruising, Mr. Garin explores the industry’s dirty underbelly. Pollution scandals and public-health outbreaks on board “the Good Ship Kaopectate” (as Newsday put it) made for sensationalist media fodder in the 90’s—but by 2000, Mr. Garin admits, fewer than 8 percent of cruise lines were failing health inspections, and environmental violations had been dramatically curtailed.

Mr. Garin explains the flag-of-convenience system, by which cruise lines register their ships in countries like Liberia or Panama and “enjoy virtually every benefit and protection of operating as an American company … without being asked to shoulder any of the responsibilities commonly understood to accompany the privilege.” This system has two nasty side effects: a loss in hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars (if Wal-Mart were earning at Carnival’s margins it would’ve banked $65 billion in profits, more than Exxon-Mobil, Citigroup, General Electric and Bank of America combined), and sub-par labor laws for cruise workers.

There’s no mitigating the injustice of the former; on the latter, however, Mr. Garin’s data doesn’t deliver: “In the context of the global pool of unskilled labor, even the worst of cruise ship life stacks up fairly well against the factories of East and South Asia,” he concedes. “By the standards of today’s world, if a cruise ship is indeed a sweatshop—and most of them probably fit the bill—it’s a relatively benevolent one.”

There is a vantage point from which 21,000 pounds of suntanned, seaborne flesh is most unmitigatedly ugly—but it’s not an American one, and it’s not one to which Mr. Garin devotes enough grumbling.

He tells us, in passing, that Knut Kloster was a closet leftie who couldn’t shake the radical notion that—gasp!—Caribbean islands “were home to vibrant, contemporary cultures—not just fun-and-sun playgrounds for fat Americans to visit and photograph.” So Kloster schemed up ways to take the racist, colonialist sting out of cruising: Jamaican family-in-residence programs; “meet the people” island excursions; a plan to give Jamaican coffee-factory workers, whom tourists photographed as if they were exotic objects, cameras with which to photograph their wide-eyed observers right back.

The cruise industry, after all, came of age in the late 70’s, when phrases like “tourism is whorism” were on the lips of Caribbean leaders—like Jamaica’s Michael Manley—who were hardly propagators of pro-American sentiment. How the industry navigated and still navigates this sociopolitical seascape, how it gets away with folding rich and varied island cultures into a single, rum-soaked tanning bed—these are compelling subjects that Mr. Garin touches on only briefly.

Mostly he recaps the standard line: Cruises shamefully shortchange the islands, which spend lots (on ports) and get little (in paltry spending by wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am visitors). Mr. Garin recounts the Caribbean Community’s efforts, beginning in 1992, to band together and demand hikes in the per-head taxes paid to them by the cruise industry. No such luck. By simply dropping one island from the itinerary, the industry sent a blunt message: Your island could be next. Paltry profits, after all, are better than none.

When Mr. Garin quotes the prime minister of St. Lucia fuming that the Caribbean “would no longer accept mirrors and baubles for the use of its patrimony,” he suddenly makes talk of Ted Arison’s corporate takeovers seem small. A deeper, richer subject was at his fingertips, but Mr. Garin mimics the cruise lines he criticizes: He treats the islands as a sideshow, when they really should be the main attraction.

Baz Dreisinger is a journalist and professor of English at the City University of New York. Bloated Leisure Activity  Under Critical Scrutiny