Book in Focus
A Cultural Analysis of Mobile Communities on Board Cruise Ships"/>

26th January 2022

Book in Focus
A Cultural Analysis of Mobile Communities on Board Cruise Ships

Aboard and Abroad

By Colin Symes


Cruise ships are something of an anomaly in the contemporary tourist industry. Just as jet airliners were about to render them extinct, they underwent a renaissance, in large measure catalysed by a remarkable television series, Love Boat, which provided a supposedly veristic account of what it was like to be a passenger on such ships—one that exaggerated the opportunities to escape, albeit if only for a brief period, from the angst of quotidian existence and experience a menu of unmitigated hedonism. It was enough to rescue the cruise industry from its death throes and led to an unprecedented demand for cruises, which saw the construction of many new ships, which, in addition to being more gargantuan than their predecessors, contained many more facilities and attractions. That was in the 1970s and 1980s, since when the cruise industry has grown in both magnitude and popularity, and in diversity, such that there is hardly a body of water, be it river or ocean, upon which it is not possible to cruise. In addition, though most elements of this remarkable tourist phenomenon have been studied, that of the most important, the passenger, has been relatively under-studied, something this book seeks to redress.

One of its underlying ideas is that journeys, be they on cruise ships, trains or planes, begin before they commence and continue long after they conclude. These days, putative cruisers (now that Love Boat is television history) tend to have their interest mobilised (and the word is used deliberately not just to foreshadow a tetrad of terms used in the book to designate the distinctive phases of journeying, but also the “mobility turn” in the humanities and social sciences that underpins the book’s theoretical trajectory) by the travel brochures devoted to cruising. A whole chapter is devoted to analysing their contents, maps and illustrations, in which it is argued that the omissions, especially with respect to the latter, are as telling as the inclusions. Cruise ships are “pictured” as paradises on earth, where heavenly bodies walk the decks, below azure skies and traverse seas of the utmost tranquillity. This is also manifest in the names of cruise ships, whose onomastics are analysed in Chapter 2, where it is noted that they are underwritten with utopian nuances, designed to invoke euphoric emotions. It is a far cry from their aged manifests and the tempestuous sea-sickening oceans encountered on cruises, which, like children and non-Europeans, are an invisible presence in the pulchritudinous pages of cruise brochures. Indeed, some cruise lines make a virtue of the fact that they prohibit children from their ships or impose conditions on their presence, of enough complexity as to imply their presence is unwelcome. These are spelled out in the least attractive and least-read parts of the brochure, its Terms and Conditions sections, where tellingly there are no illustrations and the print, while not microscopic, is not as eye-catching as its “picture book” parts. However, their contents ought not to be downplayed, since a wanton violation of their clauses, can result in unfortunate consequences such as losing a down payment on a future cruise!

The next chapter chronicles the next phase of the cruising, when the brochure’s allures become a reality, and its reader becomes a passenger on a cruise ship, a phase described, since it involves an attenuation of one’s movements (albeit not as great as that occurring on a train or plane), as one of “immobilisation”. It also has a textual focus in that it examines the cruise experience through the medium of travel writing, initially from the past, when writers of the ilk of William Thackeray and Mark Twain were among the first to chronicle and analyse the new travel genre, before turning its attention to more contemporary writers, such as Evelyn Waugh and Paul Theroux, who, like many of their predecessors, were commissioned by cruise lines to undertake such writing. Although it was feared that such commissions would inevitably compromise the standards of the writing profession, this was an over-exaggerated one as the writers involved had no compunction in drawing attention to the less attractive side of cruises. Thackeray experienced them as a saga of protracted seasickness, poor beer and muddy food that detracted from the sundry promises of their prospectuses. Twain suggested they were enclaves of Methuselahs whose intellectual capacities were rendered infantile by the long spells of idleness, which is not that different to the way Theroux saw them over a century later, as retirement homes at sea. Nonetheless, there were compensations: Thackeray’s negative impressions were offset by the joys of entering a port and the capacity of the sea, despite its nauseous effects, to quell city cares, something that Twain also noted. Nor is such writing solely written from the viewpoint of the passenger. That of Geraldine Saunders, who inspired the Love Boat series, was written from the perspective of being a Cruise Director and provides a candid account of cruise life in the 1970s, when a more libertine culture flourished on cruise ships and passengers, by all accounts, left their inhibitions on the docks. Her writing, along with other such works, in the absence of more disciplined sociological and anthropological studies of cruise life, constitutes a form of proto-ethnography, offering manifold insights into the existential condition of being immobilised on a cruise ship.

The book’s second half, informed by these insights, undertakes a more disciplined examination of passenger existence on cruise ships, conducted in vivo rather than in vitro, using a form of auto-ethnography. Its starting point is not a cruise ship at all, but a container ship! It was part of a planetary circumnavigation without flying by the author and his wife from Sydney to Philadelphia on the CMA CMG Utrillo. If passengers on cruise ships were understudied entities, that was even truer of those on container ships. As such, the Utrillo afforded the opportunity for their plight to be examined, possibly for the first time, and led to the already mentioned theoretical framework for calibrating journeys, and another based on Erving Goffman’s idea of a “total institution”, by which the social dynamics of vehicular environments, it is hypothesised, operate. In the case of the Utrillo, the processes of mobilisation were different from those associated with a normal cruise. There were no brochures involved. A travel agent specialising in freighter travel had to be sought, medicals and vaccinations undertaken, and embarkation occurred in a part of the city best designated as “edgelands”. Once on board, passengers faced spaces which were ascetic, at least when compared with the aesthetic ones found on cruise liners, ones which, in severe weather, were subject to truncation, hence, the invoking of Goffman’s concept that passengers, like the crew, did not enjoy autonomy over their space and time. Indeed, much of the chapter chronicles what the four passengers on board did with their time, of which they had a surfeit, especially when compared with their terrestrial lives. This was so much the case that, when it came to disembarkation, or what is called “demobilisation” in the journey tetrad, the author and his wife, experienced adjustment syndrome, which was registered in not just acquiring their land legs again, but also going shopping, eating out, negotiating a big city and planning the next part of their circumnavigation. It also led to the final part of the journey’s tetrad, its remobilisation, in various forms of its recollection to friends and relatives, of which the most significant manifestation in this instance was its metamorphosis into an academic paper and eventually a chapter in this book!

The Utrillo experience also provided the catalyst for examining life aboard two cruise ships, the MV Sea Princess and the MV Astor, on their voyages from the UK to Australia and Europe to Australia respectively. Utilising the same auto-ethnographic approach applied on the Utrillo, wherein the roles of researcher and passenger intersected with one another, the author immersed himself in as much of the cruise experience as was feasible, documenting its human and material manifestations, both on board, and off board, when the ships were in port, undertaking excursions. What emerged was that, contrary to the view of the cruise as a domain of the laissez-faire par excellence, it is in reality a domain where controls and regulation operate, in the manner of a panopticon, at an imperceptible level, without passengers being conscious of the matter. Indeed, to a degree, this has always been true. For example, in the past, travel agents would discourage curmudgeonly passengers from undertaking cruises lest they subvert their atmospherics! Today, much of the control takes a technological form, in the shape of the plastic card issued to passengers when they embark, which serves a series of functions: an identity card, a key to one’s state room and a credit card. The card’s surveillance potential is particularly evident when ships are in port, as they are used to monitor passenger movements, such that, if passengers are not registered as being back on board by the appointed time, the ship will leave without them. Other controls take a more overt expression, such as those situated in the ship’s “linguistic landscape”, dealing with such matters as not overloading lifts or entering theatres before performances have finished. Nor are the enjoinders always repressive. Some are reminders that cruises are mercantile enterprises in extremis, designed to encourage passengers to use their cards to the maximum, especially to book future cruises.

The idea that passenger conduct is carefully scripted is extended into the next chapter, where it is argued that cruises are pervaded by a considerable amount of theatricality. This is most evident in the various costume dramas that are played out over the duration of a cruise, in the fact that the crew dress differently from passengers and in the fact that those who choose to eat in a ship’s restaurant are required to dress formally at the risk of being refused entry, whereas those who elect to eat their meals in the buffet can do so in casual dress. The dress prescription also extends into the off-board environment, especially in dangerous ports, where passengers, to prevent them becoming the victims of attacks, are advised to dress-down, and not to advertise their cruise ship provenance.

The book’s penultimate chapter begins by examining the cruise as a spatio-temporal framework, where cruises are typically located, at what times of the year and their durations. It then turns its attention to the temporal framework of the cruise itself, which, it is suggested, is not dissimilar, in terms of its organisation and the activities on offer, from that of a school timetable. The chronometrics of the cruise are such that there is hardly an hour of the day that it is not possible to attend a lecture, craft or exercise class—though they are not compulsory, and they do cease at night, when passengers have opportunities to undertake something more recreational, such as attending a show or musical. The programming of such activities helps suffuse the ennui many passengers fear from being at sea for too many days, which is one reason cruise lines endeavour to minimise their frequency.


Colin Symes is an independent researcher, and has taught at a number of Australia universities, mostly recently at Macquarie. He has written many journal articles, across a range of fields, and has published work in such journals as Space and Culture, Linguistic Landscape and Critical Studies in Education. He is also the author and editor of a number of books, including Setting the Record Straight and The Mobility Turn and Education (with Kal Gulson).


A Cultural Analysis of Mobile Communities on Board Cruise Ships: Aboard and Abroad is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

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