Video: The Ethics of Cruising (From My Big, Big Chair on the Top Deck)

Okay, I’m on a massive cruise ship at sea with 3,000 mostly wealthy, mostly white tourists blitzing the great ports of the Mediterranean — and having lots of fun. No, I’m not suddenly abandoning my independent travel principles and becoming a huge proponent of cruising. But I am impressed by the economy, efficiency, and popularity of this kind of travel…and, to be honest, I enjoy cruising.

I’ve found it interesting reading your comments — pro and con — both here and on Facebook. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy filming to respond directly. Here are a few general thoughts:

I am the first to agree that cruising is not for everyone. And why should it be? For some, it’s the anti-travel. For others, it’s the perfect vacation. On our ship, I met only people who seemed to be having a great time…most of them veterans of many cruises.

I’ve also met lots of budget-conscious, independent-minded travelers who’ve told me that a cruise (which includes all of their transportation, lodgings, and food for one discounted price) is, for them, a wonderful value.

My goal is not necessarily to promote cruising, but to acknowledge its huge presence in the travel world, and to outline its pros and its cons. Again, cruising isn’t for everyone. But lots of people are going to go on a cruise…whether I tell them to or not. My Mediterranean Cruise Ports and Northern European Cruise Ports guidebooks (and our upcoming public television special) are designed to help those who do cruise, to cruise smartly.

Some commenters have raised some important ethical issues. Here are a few of my thoughts on those (and I’d love to hear yours):

What about the environmental issues around cruising? Sure, a ship consumes a lot of energy and creates a lot of pollution. But how does that compare to 3,000 people traveling independently by car, bus, or boat?

What about the impact on local economies and communities? Cruising can trample towns with sightseers who leave almost no money (since they eat, sleep, and buy their tours on board). On the other hand, most of those communities seem to view cruise ships as a big economic boost (which explains why so many cities are investing in cruise ship-size piers and terminals).

Many point out that the industry is basically rich (on a global scale, anyone cruising is wealthy), white tourists being served by a black and brown crew from poor countries. I’ve talked to many people who work on cruise ships, who have told me that the income they earn on a cruise ship (and send home to their families) is far more than any employment prospects they have back home. And, not to be cynical, but isn’t that the reality of our world anyway — with the richest nations able to essentially ignore the fact that half the planet is trying to live on $2 a day? (Consider the $10 billion immediately given to help out Houston, while victims of a similar storm — which devastated entire Caribbean nations whose humble worlds were literally blown away — will hope for a tiny fraction of that and likely be ignored.)

Cruising might not be for everyone. But neither is my style of travel. And at least cruising gets people (who might otherwise stay home) out interacting with the world. And frankly, if I were to compare the people I met on our cruise ship to the people I’d meet on a typical train in Europe, those on the ship are more likely to be in need of the perspective broadening value of travel.

While I don’t really want to hear from people who’ve never been on a cruise ship saying that it’s a terrible way to go, I am interested in thinking a bit more about the ethics of cruising…and would welcome your comments.