The world was forever changed by a sequence of events starting in 1492 as the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, prepared a crew for a voyage which would land him in a ‘new’ world. Columbus’ fleet were the first of many ships that would continue to arrive on Caribbean shores defining the history of the islands. Today, nearly 250 cruise ships, some carrying upwards of 6,000 have itineraries in the Caribbean. The fast growing industry continues to shape the island experience, but in a way that’s much more ethically ambiguous.
Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve gone on one cruise per year, all on cruise lines based in Genoa, hometown of Columbus himself. After a decade of cruising, I am no closer to determining in any objective way if cruises are inherently good or bad. I haven’t found a single person living and working around a cruise port who has openly admitted any negative feelings about the cruise industry to me. It’s how they make a living and their economy has become dependent on the constant droves of tourists. The cruisers seem to be satisfied with the arrangement as well. So why then does this relationship, on its face symbiotic, feel in some deep way unsetting and toxic? My own exploration into that question is what keeps me coming back year after year.
While most of my work focuses on connection and intimacy, this work is about the vast gaps and disconnects that I feel and observe as a cruiser both on the ship and at port. Rather than bridging the gaps, I embrace them, and allow them to be the main subject matter of the work. The aim of this work is not to condemn cruise goers or the industry as a whole, but to be clear, I do not identify with the cruiser. I am immensely intrigued, by the psychology and profile of the cruiser, but I’m not that person. While I’m on a cruise, however, I’m seen as a cruiser by the locals and cruise staff, and I do not make any effort change that perception, becuase I want to be treated as a cruiser and document my interactions through that lens.
I think my feelings around the socioeconomic dynamics of the cruise industry can be distilled down to a discomfort with the exploitation of economic disparity. This disparity starts on the ships where it’s easy to spot the relationship between quality of job and country of origin. Higher level jobs such as entertainment crew, are filled by European staff, while lower level jobs such as servers and cabin stewards are generally from more impoverished countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. These lower level employees are willing to endure difficult working conditions, long hours, and long stints away from their families becuase they have fewer options in their home countries to make a good living and provide for their families.
At port, a similar dynamic is at play between the cruiser and the local. There is an economic opportunity that is very difficult to ignore. The results, from my perspective, can be perpetuation of cultural stereotypes fueled by a commerce-centric cultural exchange. The cruiser experiences a palatable and often fun version of Caribbean history ranging from games depicting Columbus’s travels across the Atlantic, water slides down modern representation of Mayan pyramids and interactions with ‘pirates.’ The cruisers tend to approach interactions with locals like you might a car dealer. They need their help, but proceed with a certain guardedness and unease. This tension echoes into my own interactions and depictions of all the characters of this story. I approach my role in this strange cultural dance similarly to a nature photographer— I observe from afar, sometimes out of sight, with curiosity and awe.