Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Cruise leaders spent some time at the Seatrade Cruise Global convention last week being mildly defensive about the subject of overtourism, although they were loath to actually use the term, which is understandable.

Mostly they said that if it exists, it isn't their fault. As MSC executive chairman Pierfrancesco Vago rightly pointed out, cruisers represented 1 million of the nearly 30 million visitors to Venice last year, a city from which large cruise large ships were banned.

But whatever it is called, the phenomenon of too many visitors in too small a space at the same time was, if not the elephant in the room at the State of the Industry debate, some kind of large animal.

One of the reasons cruise ships play an outsized role in that debate is that they have become physically so gargantuan. It wasn't always so. The big ships of yesteryear -  Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,000-passeger Norway, for example - were big, yes. But their proportions were what the public thinks of when they think of a ship.

When the Norway pulled away from the dock and proceeded down Government Cut in Miami, it took forever to pass by. It was a most impressive sight to see, and quite beautiful to watch.

Starting seven or eight years ago, ships began getting additional decks. That, combined with an uninterrupted line of outside balcony cabins, made the biggest ships look like towering layer cakes perched on a hull.

The dominant impression now isn't so much "Oh my God, that's beautiful," as it is "Oh my God, that's big."

It isn't the first time that the public's idea of a ship has lagged behind changing circumstances. Think of the shock the Civil War tall ship sailors must have felt laying eyes on the Monitor and Merrimac for the first time.

Maybe it would be helpful to acknowledge that passenger ships are no longer built to carry travelers between Europe and America at 29 knots, but instead to aggregate large numbers of people, so that they can be carried affordably on vacation.

Admit that the newest 16-deck wonder is not in keeping with the 1,000-year-old scale of Venice, and it would free us to think of these ships in a new way: As the resorts at sea they clearly are. 

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