Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Book: Devils on the Deep Blue Sea

Books of The Times | 'Devils on the Deep Blue Sea' Taking a Cruise? Great, but Don't Read This Book By JANET MASLIN Published: June 21, 2005 According to one survey about the supposed romance of the ocean cruise, 25 percent of passengers would jump overboard to save a favorite hat. Only 13 percent would do the same to save a spouse. This is just the faintest whiff of evidence, among all the data provided by Kristoffer A. Garin's new investigative book, that the cruise ship industry is significantly at odds with its public image. Aleks Garin Kristoffer A. Garin. DEVILS ON THE DEEP BLUE SEA The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns that Built America's Cruise-Ship Empires By Kristoffer A. Garin Illustrated. 366 pages. Viking. $24.95. Forum: Book News and Reviews "Devils on the Deep Blue Sea" is the book's title, and it succinctly captures the author's point of view. While Mr. Garin maintains that "ideologues of whatever persuasion will be disappointed to find cruise shipping ill-suited for propaganda purposes," his book doesn't waste much space on accentuating the positive. Instead it describes a "rapacious," $13 billion industry, half of it effectively in the hands of one company (Carnival Cruise Lines) that has relentlessly devoured its competition. Given the humble origins of Carnival's founder, the Israeli-born Ted Arison, who had already gone bust with one shipping enterprise before founding Carnival in the mid-1960's, this book is indeed a story of "what happens when little guys become big guys." How big? Put it in perspective. Even though it leaves the colossal new Queen Mary II out of this study, the book's statistics are staggering. The immense Voyager of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (the cruise world's other giant, which, together with Carnival, controls 90 percent of the industry), carries 300 tons' worth of passengers - and they will gain an additional 15 tons or so during their cruise. It can disgorge 8,000 people, replace them with 8,000 others and head back out to sea, all in the course of eight hours. Such vessels have turned a formerly exotic type of travel into one that "now feels as safe and comprehensible - and nearly as accessible - as the nearest strip mall." Mr. Garin compiles a detailed, generally lively account of how it got that way. He also treats the cruise business as a microcosm of what happens when an industry is essentially free of government regulations and tariffs. If Wal-Mart were making money at Carnival's profit margins, he argues, it would have earned $65 billion in 2003. In fact, playing by its own comparatively modest rules, Wal-Mart earned only $8 billion during that period - and, unlike the cruise companies for all practical purposes, paid taxes on it too. Mr. Garin presents a timeline to explain how the cruise business reached such a profitable juncture. He goes back to the days when wooden ships carried immigrants from Europe to America and the trip was not generally regarded as a pleasant experience. Then, in the latter half of the 19th century, iron steamships greatly enhanced the speed and profitability of such shipping. But it took two forms of Congressional regulation - the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, limiting immigration, and the arrival of Prohibition when offshore drinking remained legal - to create the notion of recreational sea travel on a large scale. Two technological changes - the advent of air travel and the birth of air-conditioning - completed the change of focus: what had once been a North Atlantic transportation business could now purvey leisure-time trips in the tropics. And those third world tropics were promoted for their fairy-tale innocence by cruise innovators. "The natives sing while they work or play ... a happy lot, carefree and gay," as one early cruise brochure put it. This book gives itself a great deal of territory to cover. So it ranges widely, if somewhat unevenly, from passenger experiences to minutely detailed corporate takeover schemes; the material is so varied that an organizational structure does not come easily to the author. And he tends to repeat himself in describing the remarkable brazenness of Carnival (a k a "Carnivore") with regard to other industry players. Nevertheless, Mr. Garin provides memorably chilling insights into behind-the-scenes trickery that goes into creating the illusion of fun in the sun. Among the more striking details: the business made a major leap forward when one executive realized that small cabins would be more cost-effective than roomy ones. Tiny spaces would force passengers out into public areas, where they would contribute to the crowded, festive atmosphere and be lured into spending money. The figurative cash register is everywhere; the "web of bribes" on many ships is extraordinary. Cabin attendants must pay laundry workers if they want clean sheets; waiters must pay cooks if they want to serve hot food, etc. The cruise companies' treatment of their workers - including vestiges of colonialism when a ship with Dutch officers, for instance, employs Indonesians in lower-echelon positions - is also examined here. So is their effort to control passengers' real exposure to Caribbean countries. And so are the tax issues raised by ocean liners that make their profits from Americans but are registered to more business-friendly countries like Panama or Liberia. (Mr. Arison, of Carnival, renounced American citizenship and returned to Israel in his later years.) While this information makes Mr. Garin's book an offshoot of "The Outlaw Sea" by William Langewiesche, published last year, there is still enough cruise-specific minutiae to deserve a book of its own. As Mr. Garin points out, the industry's free pass expired in the late 1990's, when the cruise companies' practices became the subject of much investigative reporting. Up until then, "managing the press had traditionally been a matter of making sure the right people got free tickets on a new ship's inaugural cruise or disseminating fact sheets about the latest disco, specialty lounge or athletic facility." So he himself has drawn on a considerable amount of previously reported information. But he has compiled and amplified it in ways that will make "Devils on the Deep Blue Sea" required reading in many a deck chair.

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