Feature

The golden age of cruising

Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the biggest and most opulent passenger ship afloat, recently joined the world’s growing fleet of cruise ships. Why are millions of people now spending their holidays at sea?

How popular is cruising?
About 10 million people worldwide took cruises last year—up from 1.4 million in 1980. Passengers spent a total of $12 billion for their berths, making cruising the fastest-growing form of leisure travel. More than 200 cruise ships now ply the seas, and the 22 major cruise lines are rapidly adding new ships to their fleets, including nine new behemoths in the coming year. These ships—ranging in size from 180 passengers to floating cities carrying more than 3,000—stop at more than 1,800 ports and destinations, including Caribbean islands, European cities, Alaska, and the South Pacific. No longer do cruises appeal only to a select few demographic groups—the “newly wed, overfed, or nearly dead,” as the old adage goes. It’s estimated that 15 percent of North Americans have taken to the sea on a cruise.

Why the boom?
In decades past, a cruise ship was primarily a leisurely means to cross an ocean. Today, the cruise is the destination. People have come to see cruises as the no-hassle holiday: Once on board, your only decision for a week is whether to eat four meals a day or five. Passengers are plied with food and alcohol around the clock, right up to the midnight buffet, as they visit a variety of ports. Depending on their interests, passengers can cruise to the doorstep of Mayan ruins, in Central America; loll on the beaches of a variety of Caribbean islands; see orcas off the coast of Alaska; or sail up the Yangtse river, in China. Wherever they go, passengers know they need not worry about local travel arrangements or foreign languages. The largest ships, such as the 21-story-tall Queen Mary 2, offer such diversions as multiple swimming pools, basketball courts, driving ranges, rock-climbing walls, kiddie parties, ice rinks, and Vegas-type revues. As an additional lure, many cruise lines now have theme voyages: gay cruises, kosher cruises, nude cruises, murder mysteries at sea, and floating conventions devoted to subjects ranging from vintage wines to astronomy.

When did cruising start?
The luxurious ocean liners of the early 20th century were the precursors of today’s cruise ships. From the early 1900s to 1940, rival carriers like Cunard and White Star built huge, glittering steel flagships to cross the Atlantic, including White Star’s Titantic, Germany’s Imperator, and France’s Normandie. Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. competed to build the biggest and plushest ocean liner; they also battled to win the coveted Blue Riband, for the fastest transatlantic crossing. Then came World War II, and German U-boats brought an abrupt halt to transatlantic cruising. After the war, the Andrea Doria, the France, and the United States revived the mystique of the liners. But in the 1960s, the advent of the much faster Boeing 707 and other long-distance jets made ocean liners seem obsolete. By 1970, only four percent of travelers were crossing the Atlantic by boat.

How was cruising reborn?
Travel historians credit two men—Norwegian shipowner Knud Kloster and Miami travel entrepreneur Ted Arison. In the 1960s, Kloster was shuttling sun-starved Britons to Lisbon and Gibraltar on his 457-foot pleasure vessel Sunward, but was having trouble attracting enough passengers to make money. At the same time, Arison was developing a Miami-to-Jamaica cruise business, and decided that he needed a much bigger boat. Arison called Kloster and said, “You’ve got a ship, I’ve got passengers. We could put them together, and we’d have a cruise line.” Kloster agreed, and the two formed the Norwegian Caribbean Line. On Dec. 19, 1966, the Sunward left Miami on its maiden voyage to the Bahamas, with more than 500 passengers. Imitators quickly followed, buoyed by the carefree atmosphere of the swinging ’60s and ’70s. The whole industry got a major boost from the sitcom The Love Boat, which helped create cruising’s image as a casual, often naughty way to frolic away a week or two.

Is that image accurate?
Not all the time. For the past two years, cruise ships have been plagued by outbreaks of stomach flu and other viral illnesses. Between 1994 and 2001, there were fewer than 10 outbreaks of illnesses aboard cruise ships annually. That number rose to 24 in 2002, and 26 last year (still a small portion of the thousands of cruises). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the ships themselves are not at fault; passengers carry the viruses aboard, which then spread easily in close quarters, as hundreds of people pass cash back and forth, touch slot-machine handles, lean on table tops, and make direct personal contact. On some cruises, hundreds of passengers and crew have succumbed, spending most of their time at sea vomiting, groaning in their bunks, or camped out on the toilet. Kathy Wolack and her family were on one such “cruise from hell,” a Disney-themed trip aboard the Disney Magic. When she made it back to port, a wan Wolack said, “We saw the doctor more than we saw Mickey Mouse.”

The trouble with floating cities

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