The cruise that was not to be

Her name is Celestyal Experience (formerly Costa Romantica) and she is a cruise ship from Italy. She arrived at Karachi’s Gadani Port recently, along with rumours and conjecture. Ahmadullah Khan, her new owner, told the media that he had bought the ship for tourism purposes. While he did not say what these purposes would be, it was said that perhaps the ship would ply a tourist route, thus ensuring that the untouched portions of that bit of the Pakistani coastline could be seen (and trashed) by tourists.

To some, this may have seemed a welcome development; the rich world has cruise ships, after all; so too must a poor country. Luckily, sometimes mismanagement works in favour of the environment and so it has been in the case of the Celestyal Experience. To be fair, even when the ship was approaching Karachi and claims were being made about what it would be used for and how the experience of cruising would now be available to Pakistanis, officials at Karachi Port Authority were less enthused.

Those officials have made it clear that there was no room for the ship (and let us remember it’s a 14- storey behemoth, to be parked at Gadani Port). Such is the dire situation in terms of parking ships (I suppose the problem with parking cars in Pakistan extends to ships as well) that there was no possibility that a berth for it could be found at all.

As a result, the cruise ship is going to be dismantled and junked. Instead of being taken to the operative part of the port where, at least in the dreams of its owner, it would have ferried eager tourists along the coastline, it is headed to the shipbreaking yard. Bits and pieces of the ship (photos of the inside reveal items like eating tables, restaurant chairs and materials, paintings, pool tables, treadmills) will be sold off.

The actual metal is probably even more profitable and will earn the owner a handsome amount. I, for one, am delighted with how the story of the cruise ship that was has played out. Almost two years ago, when the coronavirus was on the horizon but whose actual horror and scale still lay in the future, it was cruise ships that served as petri dishes, where the virus could flourish and spread.

I still remember the early days of the pandemic, when the Diamond Princess was docked off the port of Yokohama, Japan, with thousands of passengers. One Twitter account I followed posted pictures of the food that was placed outside the rooms of passengers three times a day. This and the internet were the only form of contact with the outer world. This went on for weeks. Cruise ships all around the world found themselves in a similar situation. Eventually sick passengers were let out; some think that the fateful decision was responsible for the pandemic’s arrival in Japan.

Even after all the passengers on cruise ships around the world were permitted to disembark and go to isolation facilities on land, many crews, all from poor countries and trained to wait hand and foot on the usually white and Western passengers, remained stranded offshore for months. Sometimes, the tragedies caused by the original tragedy are sadder and crueller.

Then there is the small problem of pollution and environmental degradation. On a single day, a cruise ship can emit the same amount of particulate matter as one million cars. According to another estimate, a cruise ship can emit the same amount of sulphur dioxide as 3.5 million cars. Those reading this article in Lahore will understand how terrible this would be. The last thing Pakistan needs are more ways to destroy its already endangered air and seas. Add to these the fact that these ships fill up the ocean with bilge and ballast water. Nor is that the only form of waste; there is also the wastewater from the actual operation of the ship.

People on cruise ships eat a lot (it’s a myth that luxury cruises present the best cuisine; they simply serve a lot of cuisine). Buffets are laid out with cheap food, tons of mayonnaise salads, cheap cheese, fried food of all sorts, and anything else that can be mass produced at high cost. What people eat they excrete; the excreta of thousands of passengers is led out into the ocean. So too are other forms of solid waste — bottles, napkins, diapers, packaging materials, papers and so on. In simple terms, the ocean is rendered filthy even by a single cruise ship plying up and down the waterways.

People are attracted to cruise ships because of the myths built around them, that they are grand and that they are luxurious, modern (and hence unsinkable) versions of the Titanic. This is not true. The modern cruise ship, such as the ones run by lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises, cater largely to a lower-middle-class clientele from the white and Western world. For many not used to luxuries, ‘more’ might mean magnificent, and so the larger the ship, the more frequent the buffet offerings and the more servile the wait staff that is provided.

This is what impresses those who look forward to lording it over the Filipinos, the Moroccans, the Syrians or others from the Global South. The scrapping of the Celestyal Experience is a blessing in disguise. Pakistanis do not need to participate in wasteful consumption habits modelled after the likes and dislikes of the poorly educated classes of the Western world. We, here in Pakistan, are quite adept at trashing the most beautiful bits of our country with our indigenous acts of wasteful consumption. We don’t need huge Western-style cruise ships to help us.

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