Sea Travel and Leisure

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In 1867, the paddle steamer Quaker City embarked on the first American-origin cruise tour. Mark Twain, who later wrote of his trip in The Innocent's Abroad (1869), was one of several wealthy passengers on this round-trip journey from America to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, and Greece. At the time, merchant ships like Quaker City were occasionally outfitted for leisure voyages in addition to their regular commercial activities. From this modest beginning, cruising—or taking a vacation trip by ship—evolved into a vigorous and diversified segment of the tourism industry.

During the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, ocean liners such as the Deutschland, Lusitania, Acquitania, and Titanic, built in Europe and designed for speed, transported mail, cargo, and passengers across the Atlantic. Not only did immigrants form the bulk of these one-way passengers, but also the dominant flow of traffic was from Europe to America. Segregated into first class, tourist or second class, and steerage or third class, there would often be 100 passengers in first class, 200 in second, and 2,000 in third. Conditions for first-class passengers paralleled fine European hotels with exquisite interiors, exceptional foods, and attentive service. In contrast, immigrants slept in crowded, unsanitary conditions, ate poor food, and entertained one another. Although immigrants formed the foundation of their profitability, early ship companies like Cunard, Holland America, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), and the United States Line actively sought wealthy first- and second-class passengers to fill the empty space aboard their vessels on the return trip from America to Europe.

In this era before stabilizers, regardless of whether travel was first class or steerage, seasickness was common. As a result, ocean liners developed public image problems. Promoters of this type of travel realized a solution lay in creating diversions to shield affluent passengers from the realities of being at sea. With this pivotal realization, the era of luxury cruise travel was born. Functional Atlantic crossings metamorphosed into fashionable leisure pursuits of considerable social standing. Gambling, drinking, dining, dancing, seeing, and being seen were hallmarks of cruising during the heydays of the early to mid-1900s. Not only did society columns and newspapers publish the cruising itineraries and onboard activities of the elite, powerful, and famous, but the Prohibition period in America during the 1920s and early 1930s further solidified the image of cruising as an extravagant type of travel. By sailing out to sea three miles, a ship would be in international waters and hence beyond U.S. jurisdiction. Clever entrepreneurs took advantage of this loophole and "cruises to nowhere" became important sources of Prohibition gambling and alcohol consumption.

Yet, media focus on cruising as an elite, class-based lifestyle led to the perception that this type of tourism was only for the wealthy. This problem persisted for many years until clever marketing and technological advances—such as the introduction of stabilizers, the abolition of segregated travel, and the partnering of cruise companies with airline companies—slowly softened the rigid class hierarchy. For example, the introduction of air travel across the Atlantic in the early 1930s is generally linked with the demise of transatlantic liner travel. However, the role of airlines has evolved from that of a competitor to that of a partner. Airlines now play a fundamental role in transporting cruise passengers to their departure ports. The phenomenal success of the American television show The Love Boat, produced from 1977 to 1986, was also pivotal in reshaping the American public's image of cruising and transforming it into a specialized market with broad appeal and widespread household recognition. No longer did the Blue Ribband—the award given to the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic during the early to mid-1900s—reverberate with consumers. Floating resorts like The Love Boat and cruising for fun and entertainment did.

From 1990 to 2000 cruise tourists expanded in number from 3.5 million to over 8 million per year, with Americans accounting for 80 percent of cruise passengers worldwide. In this same period, the number of cruise ships plying international waters increased from 97 to 170, and the number of cruise ship berths almost doubled from 68,474 to 127,943. Nineteen new cruise vessels were delivered in 2002, to be followed by another twenty-one new vessels by 2004 (CLIA, 2000; McDowell). Although some ocean liners were built in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most cruise ships have been and continue to be built in Europe and Japan. With their history of government subsidies, Europe and Japan have been able to underbid most American shipbuilders.

Types of Cruising Experience

There are many different types of cruising, ranging from small-scale, intimate, expensive "yachtlike" experiences to cruise lines that specialize in mass-market trips affordable by the majority of Americans. Evaluated on ship facilities, decor, accommodation, entertainment, and cuisine, cruisers can select from a diversity of cruise experiences including contemporary, destination/niche, luxury, and premium.

Contemporary Cruise lines include Carnival, Costa, Disney, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean International. During the 1970s, cruise ships underwent a design revolution. Because speed was no longer a central issue, the streamlined profile of the ocean liner yielded to passenger demands for more space and greater diversity of activities. Wide, square vessels built to make use of economies of scale replaced tapered hulls and sleek profiles. For example, the largest ship to sail the seas at the beginning of the 2000s is more than twenty stories high, longer than three football fields; and at twice the tonnage (142,000 GRT) of the ocean liner Titanic, it is capable of carrying almost 4,000 passengers and 1,200 crew. (GRT—gross registered tonnage—refers to the volume of public space available to passengers). This megaship is so large it cannot sail through the Panama Canal, and yet because of onboard satellite technology it does not require an anchor. Passenger diversions include an ice skating rink, a rock climbing wall, a full-sized basketball court, the world's largest roulette wheel, and a shopping mall.

Destination/niche. Cruise lines in this category include Club Med Cruises, Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Royal Olympic Cruises, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, and Windstar Cruises. Confined to smaller ships such as oversized yachts, barges, riverboats, and masted sailing ships, these companies offer intimate experiences themed around education, soft adventure, or a voyage to particular destinations. In the case of Delta Queen Steamboat Company, for example, passengers can experience what it was like to sail onpaddle steamers that plied the Mississippi River during the nineteenth century. Windstar Cruises and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises offer passengers the opportunity to sail on masted sailing ships.

Luxury. Cruise lines in this category include Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Radisson Seven Seas, Seabourn Cruise Line, and Silversea Cruises. Ranging in size from small, luxury yachts like the 4,250-ton, 116-passenger Sea Goddess 1 to the 50,000-ton, 960-passenger Crystal Symphony, the emphasis in this category is on an exceptionally lavish vacation experience, as characterized by attentive staff, flawless service, high staff-to-passengers ratios, exceptional artwork, elaborate dining, well-appointed public areas, and larger-than-average state rooms fused with unusual itineraries. This group includes classic ocean liners such as Queen Elizabeth II (QEII). Launched in 1969 and regularly refitted and refurbished to reflect changing tastes, this ship continues to make transatlantic voyages and around-the-world cruises.

Premium. Cruise lines in this category include Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, and Princess Cruises. In between luxury and contemporary, several cruise lines have sought to capitalize on consumers' preferences for an upscale experience at a realistic price. Well below the per diem of luxury cruises, premium cruises are nonetheless more expensive than contemporary experiences. By offering higher staff-to-passenger ratios, more refined dining, and greater emphasis on attentive service combined with interesting destinations and shore excursions, the ships in this 50,000- to 75,000-ton range target cruisers who want upscale alternatives to the mass-market experience of contemporary cruising.

Ship Size

Ship size is measured in a number of different ways, including number of passengers, number of cabins, staff ratio, space ratio, and GRT. Although there are no definitive rules, generally ships can be divided into five groups.

  • • Small: Under 10,000 GRT, with under 200 passengers
  • • Small to medium: 10,001 to 20,000 GRT, carrying 200 to 500 passengers
  • • Medium: 20,001 to 50,000 GRT, carrying 500 to 1,200 passengers
  • • Large: 50,001 to 90,000 GRT, carrying 1,200 to 2,000 passengers
  • • Megaship: 90,001 to 150,000 GRT, carrying 2,000 to 4,000 passengers

With small portholes and windows, circular promenade decks, and varied sizes and shapes of cabins, some cruisers prefer older, classic ships because of their traditional lines and nostalgic feel. Others prefer newer vessels because of their large, light-filled public areas, logical pedestrian flow, and variety of activities. Some cruisers prefer smaller ships; others prefer larger. Space ratio, determined by dividing GRT by passenger capacity, plays a role in the perception of ship size. For example, if a vessel has a GRT of 100,000 and a passenger capacity of 3, 000 the space ratio would be 33. The higher the space ratio, the greater the sense of spaciousness. Averaging twenty-five to thirty, some ships have space ratios as high as sixty, others as low as ten. The size of the ship (GRT) does not necessarily correlate with space ratio; a small luxury cruise line may have a high space ratio because few passengers are carried, whereas a megaship that carries many passengers may have a low space ratio despite a high GRT. In general, higher per diems correlate with higher space ratios.

Ship Facilities

Facilities aboard ship vary greatly. In essence, they can be divided into three categories: public, cabin, and private crew space. Public spaces include reception areas (central spaces patterned after hotel lobbies that include front, hotel, information, and shore excursion desks), dining facilities, entertainment spaces (showroom, movie theater, casino, children's play area, health club, shopping area), and medical facilities. Cabin space for passengers equates with "miniature" hotel guest rooms. Most cabins are less than 200 square feet, whereas the average hotel room is 350 to 450 square feet. Cabins are priced according to location on the ship (lower decks equate with lower price), size of cabin (greater square footage equates with higher price), and access to windows and verandas (interior cabins have no windows; suites have sliding glass doors and verandas). A typical cabin will sleep two and will provide a vanity, bedside tables, a closet, a TV, and a small bathroom. Suites have all the features of a cabin plus a sizable living area, a separate bedroom, and a large bathroom with a tub and shower. Private crew space includes the bridge (control center for the vessel), food preparation area, crew cabins, and mechanical and engine rooms.

The Cruise Experience

Although there are myriad variations on the cruise experience, in essence it can be broken into three segments: planning and purchasing a cruise, the shipboard experience, and traveling to and from the ship.

Planning and purchasing a cruise. The main sources of information for planning and purchasing a cruise are friends and relatives, travel agencies, cruise lines, and the Internet. Because only 15 percent of the North American population has taken a cruise and planning and purchasing is a complex task, especially for first-time cruisers, travel agencies and cruise lines play a central role in the decision-making process. Considered an "all-inclusive" vacation, up-front purchase price includes cabin accommodations, meals, selected beverages, onboard entertainment and activities, children's programs, and access to exercise facilities.

Shipboard experience. Arriving on board—or embarking —most passengers begin by finding their cabins, unpacking luggage, checking on seating assignments for dinner, and exploring the ship. Mock lifeboat drill is compulsory for all passengers and crew and must take place within twenty-four hours of departure. Departure is a lively time for passengers and a feverish time for crew. The first dinner at sea is one of the most important events of the entire experience. At the first dinner aboard ship, passengers meet their dinner companions and wait staff, and, most important, get to taste the food. Passengers select their dinner seating preferences and the number of individuals with whom they would like to be seated when they purchase their cruise. Most cruise lines use two "seatings" to accommodate all passengers aboard. Early in the evening, "First seating" is often used by older people and families with young children. "Second seating" is later and is used by individuals with teenage children and those who enjoy the late-night entertainment—such as a stage show, gambling, dancing, and shopping—that follows dinner.

Subsequent cruise days can be broken into days at sea and days in port. Days at sea provide passengers with the opportunity to engage in or ignore the various activities on the ship, from sleeping to reading, gambling to taking classes, having a massage to playing bridge, attending a religious service to having an onboard wedding. The last night at sea is punctuated by packing, preparing documents for disembarkation, and leaving gratuities for various crew members who contributed to the vacation experience. Days at port provide passengers with the opportunity to sample the variety of destinations included in the cruise. During a weeklong cruise, for example, passengers may have two days at sea and four ports of call. Time spent in port ranges anywhere from three to fourteen hours. Many passengers select shore excursions as a way to explore destinations. Through these excursions—including basic walking tours, snorkeling trips, kayaking, golf, beach outings, helicopter tours, and shopping expeditions—cruise lines offer passengers a wide selection of activities at an additional charge.

Traveling to and from the ship. Although some cruisers extend the cruise experience with pre- and post-cruise packages at the port of departure, most cruisers travel to the departure port on the day of the cruise. Arriving by car, bus, and plane from various origins throughout the United States and beyond, passengers assemble in specially designed dockside facilities. Similar to checking in at a hotel, it is here that passengers show necessary documentation and fill in a variety of forms, including those indicating how they will pay for onboard expenses such as shore excursions, gratuities, alcohol, shopping, gambling, and personal incidentals. Most cruise lines use keyless entry systems that double as onboard credit cards, security checks, and room keys. Passengers then make their way up the gangway to the ship. Most cruises set sail between four and eleven P.M. Departing from the ship follows a similar format. Ships dock between six and eight A.M. The crew has six to twelve hours to ready the ship before the cycle starts again.

Who Cruises, Why, and Where They Cruise

Sixty-three percent of Americans travel (business and pleasure). Of that percentage 42 percent travel for pleasure, yet only 2.6 percent of Americans have taken a cruise. Visiting friends and relatives and resort vacations dominate travel itineraries. Furthermore, only 15 percent of Americans who could afford a vacation and who travel for pleasure have taken a cruise (CLIA, 2000, 2003; NFO Plog).

Cruisers average fifty-six years of age, have above-average incomes ($64,000), and travel more in general. Ten percent travel with children, and 1 percent travel alone. More than one-third are retired. Typically married (74 percent), they have college educations (49 percent) and still work (56 percent). On a typical cruise, 40 percent will be first-time cruisers. Those who cruise once come back again, once every three years; the average number of cruises is five. Those who take luxury cruises average ten. Cruisers spend almost twice as much per person per week ($1,319) as noncruise vacationers ($721) and tend to be more satisfied with their experience (43 percent) than other forms of pleasure travel (28 percent) (NFO Plog). The reasons for cruising are almost as varied as the cruising experience itself. They include pampering, getting away from it all, enjoying a safe, hassle-free, relaxing experience with a wide range of activities, having a chance to make friends, partaking of a learning experience, spending time with family, and receiving good value for the money.

Most cruises (67 percent) occur around North America. Alaska, the Caribbean islands and Mexican coast, the Mississippi River, and the northeastern United States form the backbone of the cruising itineraries. Europe is the second most popular choice for American cruisers, with South America, the South Pacific, Asia, and Africa distant thirds. However, the search for new markets coupled with consumer demand for more "exotic" ports of call has led to an increase in the demand for more distant itineraries. Attracting cruise ships to a port can be lucrative. For example, 600,000 cruise passengers visited Alaska during the annual season from May to September 1999. Three hundred thousand of these passengers visited the port of Anchorage. Direct expenditures by the cruise industry were $103 million; expenditures by passengers added a further $28 million. In addition, the industry paid $2 million in local, state, and federal taxes and fees for services in the port of Anchorage (Pounds).

See also: Prohibition and Temperance; Sailing and Yachting, Tourism, Vacations


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Careen Yarnal