The Cruise Ships and Cozumel

By Christine Preble

Editors NoteThis story was originally written for Anthropology News. I think our readers will find it interesting. I would love to see comments and discussion.

The cruise ship industry, specifically Carnival Cruise Lines, has been a magnet for recent media attention.  An onboard fire led to the Carnival Triumph’s loss of power, leaving over 3,143 passengers and a crew of 1,086 afloat for three days in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico (Otis 2013).  What was meant to be a four-day cruise, leaving Galveston, Texas on February 7, 2013 to Cozumel, Mexico, ended up an ordeal of logistics, safety, and sanitation for the ship, which did not dock until the late evening of Valentine’s Day in Mobile, Alabama.

The plethora of mainstream media reports, including round-the-clock CNN coverage, along with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram updates from tourists aboard, have documented the rancid conditions while the ship slowly inched toward land.  Images taken from passengers and posted on social media sites detail an impromptu “tent city” that took shape on the main pool deck so tourists could sleep outside, and not in their staterooms, which became stifling without air conditioning.  Tourists took to sleeping in hallways, in front of a bank of elevators or on the casino floor, and mattresses lined the outdoor desks.  Sanitary food storage ended as refrigeration ceased to function while toilets could no longer flush.  The lines for food lasted hours.  Human waste, placed in ship-issued, red “biohazard” plastic bags, had to be handled and disposed of by the crew.  The pictures and reports that are coming to light after the ship finally docked tell the story of a “floating toilet, a floating Petri dish, a floating hell” (Reuters 2013).  The rumor of large-scale litigation against Carnival is already swarming as this is yet another blow to Carnival’s image as “The Fun Ships,” and moreover to the cruise ship industry in terms of continual mishaps concerning onboard passenger safety and mechanical stability of these popular mega-ships.

The New York Times aptly comments on the industry’s public relations disaster, “The problems of the Triumph fit into a larger picture, too, one painted by a booming cruise industry that increasingly is priced for the middle class but that critics say has become too large too fast and needs stronger, more consistent oversight” .

This recent incident involving Carnival does speak to greater issues concerning the entire industry as it has grown quickly.  Yet this story proves more indicative of the state of the industry as a whole.   The Carnival Triumph fiasco exposes the industry’s tenuous grip on its own manufactured illusion of paradise, constructed for tourist consumption. More imperative than a call for bureaucratic “consistent oversight,” however, are the broader implications of this self-serving facade and their impact on local port-of-call communities. The industry has successfully incorporated ideals of all-inclusivity, hedonism, and lawlessness into everyday life onboard—untenable ideals that permeate the cruise ship industry and port-of-call communities with abandon.

One such community is Cozumel, an island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the most important cruise ship destination in Mexico, and one of the most important port-of-call communities in the world.  The island welcomes nearly three million cruise ship tourists annually as thousands of passengers disembark every day among its three piers.  These piers are concentrated in downtown San Miguel, off Rafael E. Melgar Avenue, a road from which few cruise ship tourists stray.  Each pier is a terminal, essentially a mall-like environment in the form of a large commercial building, housing a multitude of storefronts, restaurants, and kiosks.  Punta Langosta Pier has a sign welcoming passengers that exclaims, “Welcome to the only shopping mall in Cozumel!”  Starbucks, Hard Rock Café, and Pizza Hut are located steps from where cruise ship tourists disembark.  Señor Frogs and Carlos ‘n Charlies, infamous destinations for tourist debauchery, are located on the far side of the mall. International chains are the majority of retail and dining options in each cruise ship pier: Diamonds International, Del Sol apparel, Hooters, and Fat Tuesday’s are the locations to which each passenger is steered.

The cruise ship industry has constructed these piers to generate an immediate guest-host dynamic, yet in an ultimately sanitized and controlled way.  Such homogenization of experience is deliberate to create safe and recognizable expressions of paradise.  The cruise ship industry has instilled that familiar brands insure a safe experience, which means no hassles from locals, threats of insecurity, or illness while ashore.  These terminals also provide an environment of reckless abandon for cruise ship tourists, sentiments first generated onboard, extending the cruise ship’s hedonistic culture on land.

On board, passengers are encouraged to let loose, forget their worries, and embrace the pleasures of leisure: shopping, gambling, relaxing, dancing, and eating.  Such pleasures are individualized, giving one a sense of autonomy amongst the masses; every wo/man’s pleasure is for him/herself.  Groups of cruise ship passengers wearing balloon hats, waving two-foot long margarita glasses, and shouting obscenities while walking around the terminal are commonplace.

In 2012, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines engineered an advertising campaign entitled, “The Nation of Why Not?”  Their slogan reads, “With twenty-one floating ship-states, 251 ports, and 361,000,000 square kilometers of ocean terrain, Royal Caribbean is practically its own independent country”.  This campaign exemplifies an industry climate wherein a pretense of entitlement and lack of constraint amongst its passengers is freely propagated.

Each port-of-call must compete with tourist dollars from internationally owned services that are in bed with the cruise ship industry.  Locally owned and operated retail, dining, and tour operators are in a constant state of competition.  Some struggle while others find niche markets and thrive.   On an island of only about 100,000 permanent residents, the cruise ship industry has segmented cruise ship tourism into physical environments where they remain in control of tourists’ money and experience.

Being a cruise ship passenger has morphed into a hedonistic mental state where the tourist becomes proprietor of a neo-piracy crusade of lawlessness, debauchery, and/or plain laziness, at the expense of the local port-of-call.

Christine Preble is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University at Albany – SUNY in Albany, New York.  Her dissertation is entitled, “Consumption and Commodification: Cruise Ship Tourism in Cozumel, Mexico.”  She has been a cruise ship tourist on thirteen cruises and has researched the industry since 2006.