Notes on a Cruise

P8170330 I am so not the kind of person who goes on cruises, with all respect to those who are.  A solo explorer by temperament, I hate being herded, hate being rushed, and hate having strangers trying to guess my desires.  I also hate not knowing where I am, and have pushed my Blackberry’s feeble GPS to the limit trying know which country I’m in or which island I’m looking at.  And don’t get me started about shopping.

But when I was asked by one of Australia’s leading bus operating companies to join their scheduling and operations staff on a short cruise out of Singapore to Phuket and Langkawi, I figured, hey, I’ll do it once.  The offer was: we’ll pay your fare, you just have to give two inspiring talks to our crew during the cruise.  Initially puzzled by the idea, I finally began to appreciate the wisdom of it.  I’m sure cruising vacationers reach a tipping point where they’ve lounged in so many chairs, sung so much karaoke, and bought so many silk shirts and drinking coconuts from the shipside stalls that they start thinking:  “If I don’t get some PowerPoint soon, I’ll go mad!”

It’s gone well, thanks in part to timely advice from HT readers.  At the moment I’m in a restaurant near the pier at Langkawi, looking out over the water, watching tall, thin, dramatic islands loom and vanish and loom again in the fog and driving rain.  So of course I’m thinking about transit.

If you are the cruising type, and are shopping for a cruise, remember to ask:  Where at each place will we stop?  Sydney, for example, has been having conversations about cruise terminals.  There’s one right at Circular Quay, the centroid of tourist Sydney, but there are also plans for one at White Bay, an industrial area where you’ll see the downtown Skyline and the intriguing Pyrmont and Balmain peninsulas, but won’t be able to walk to anything except a freeway.  So it will be much like the cruise experience at Phuket and Langkawi:  The cruise delivers you to a forlorn peninsular dock (Phuket’s is here, Langkawi’s here), each on the southern tip of the island, far beyond walking distance to anything at all, where your welcoming committee is a horde of taxi drivers all ready to tell you that the 5 km trip into town is really 20 km and will cost at least $50.  There will also be tourbuses, of course, but nothing that looks like public transit.

To a degree this makes sense.  Cruise ships need deep water right next to land, which means that the undersea slope is very steep.  You’re most likely to find this where the land above the water is steep too, and towns and cities rarely get started on steep slopes.  So it’s logical not to count on the cruise ship terminal being in the center of town, though some places, like Sydney’s Circular Quay, are lucky in this regard.

As for local transit to remote cruise ship terminals, the problem, of course, is peaking.  I remember dealing with this when doing a bus network study in Juneau, Alaska, a tiny town that takes up to five enormous cruise ships, each of which feels larger than the town itself.  It’s like having a large city just down the road that periodically appears and disappears.  Juneau’s public bus system doesn’t add any services when the cruise ships are there, and doesn’t try to serve the tourists on them.  I could imagine being on a ship, though, and wanting something cheaper and more authentic than the big buses that will deliver you in hordes, for a high fare, to the key tourist sites.

One could invent a much more logical transit system around cruise terminals, one that would exist only when the boats are there and probably run with local taxi vans.  It could work like demand-response van shuttles, offering to take you anywhere in a general area.  It would be more efficient, especially in terms of emissions and congestion, but of course it wouldn’t feed as many taxi drivers.  It would be ideal for unherdable solo explorers like me.  Not that there are many of us on a cruise.

22 Responses to Notes on a Cruise

  1. Jay August 18, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    Jarrett —
    You must read “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace. I think there’s a reason that you say you’re “not the kind of person who goes on cruises” — the cruise mindset seems directly opposed to the public-transit mindset.
    Cruise infrastructure, and its role in the economic development of coastal places, is an entirely separate issue. The story about the cruise ship disembarking at a private Haitian cove a week after the earthquake comes to mind.

  2. Jarrett at August 18, 2010 at 6:19 am #

    Jay.  I agree.  Wallace's essay on cruises is a classic.  I'm angry at him for committing suicide, though, which is probably why it slipped my mind.  Yes, it's highly recommended.

  3. EngineerScotty August 18, 2010 at 7:11 am #

    The essay is here, for those interested.

  4. Joseph August 18, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    In San Juan, we had a touristic public transit loop running from the port to all major destinations. Of course, cruises to San Juan are only a part of its tourism market. Naturally, I spent $0.00 on public transit rather than dish out $30 or more for a guided tour.

  5. Danny August 18, 2010 at 9:19 am #

    San Juan was probably one of the best I have seen in terms of infrastructure accommodating cruise passengers.
    I lived in Honduras for a while, and Roatan is a Honduran island that has an economy oriented entirely around tourism, of which cruises are about half of their tourism dollars.
    Several problems exist with providing better infrastructure for cruise passengers. The first is that cruise lines are building their own ports, with their own shopping, their own private beaches, and their own infrastructure. They want to keep tourist money in their own pockets, and the only way to do that is to discourage the passengers, whether by fear tactics or expensive taxis, from going elsewhere on the island.
    The second problem is that taxis generally form an extremely powerful electoral base, especially in small islands. Nobody proposes transit infrastructure because it means less money for taxi drivers.
    The third is that running public transit oriented towards cruise lines is difficult to do. You would have to have rail to accommodate the demand for passengers upon disembarkation, but they would sit idle on days where cruise ships aren’t in port, and sometimes, with seasonal ports, that infrastructure would sit idle for months at a time.

  6. Ant6n August 18, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    Not wanting to go off topic… but how _does_ a small city like Juneau, Alaska (pop.: 30K) provide for effective public transport?

  7. Wai Yip Tung August 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong is right at the heart of business and tourist district. Although people are not pleased that it is not able to receive behemoth like Queen Mary 2.

  8. Wai Yip Tung August 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Not a cruise person myself, I’m interested on it as a substitution of the now languished passenger ferry service. I often plot my imaginary travel plan without using air flight, mainly for its romance but also a concern on CO2 emission these days. For example I can cross the Atlantic on Queen Mary. The price tag is not a huge issue but it will fit closer to my image of traveling if it can be done without the cruise hedonism. I am hoping to use it as a vessel for transportation. Unfortunately most cruise are structured as n days tour rather than a point to point transportation. I have not yet made a single trip on a cruise ship so I don’t know if my plan is realistic.
    The other alternative is freight travel. Something I’m looking forward to do after my retirement.

  9. Steve Lax August 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

    The challenge of serving a cruise ship with public transit is in many ways not much different from serving any large special event (major college or pro fottball game, opera or concert getting out at a different time about 10:30 or 11 PM on some weekday or weekend evenings, etc.) In the United States this is further enmeshed in the regulations restricting public bus companies from competing with charter bus companies in providing “special” service to these events.
    I do know of some rail lines or stations that were built to accommodate these special event venues, often solely because of political and media pressure whereby the supporters do not understand the cost. A recent example is the NJ Transit rail spur to the new Meadowlands stadium (Giants/Jets football teams.)

  10. Peter E. August 18, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    what if you could charge the cruise ship so much that you could spend it on people who actually live there and let them run their crazy expensive shuttles wherever they want to….
    how could the locals refuse that? i mean why run a service that might not recoup its “costs” from “fares” (yes i know the complicated math)… i mean make it really really expensive for the cruise ship …. what do they have to lose

  11. J August 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    “I hate being herded, hate being rushed, and hate having strangers trying to guess my desires.”
    Your blanket idea about what a cruise is, is sort of like trying to sum up ALL public transit….bus, trains, cabs…into one idea.
    It’s like saying
    “I hate public transit because it is slow”
    Your local bus might be slow, but the bullet train is public transit too.
    There are dozens of cruise lines each offering very different experiences which are further split by the kinds of boats they sail. Theres a huge difference between Carnival and Princess, even though theyre owned by the same people. And inside Princess, for example, you’ll get a vastly different experience if you take the Royal Princess or if you take the Caribbean Princess.
    Sort of like how the LA Metro agency can offer you a very different kind of service on a local bus, on the red line and on the blue line.
    If you want a structured cruise, with fixed hours for activities and events, than that’s available. If you want a cruise where you do what you want, when you want, and the only fixed time is when your cruise is over, that’s available.
    Basically, Im disappointed that someone who goes into so much detail on how the public transit industry can be so different, depending how it’s managed would make such a blanket statement about the cruise industry.
    Especially insulting is this line: “It would be ideal for unherdable solo explorers like me. Not that there are many of us on a cruise.” In my experience, for every traveler on a cruise willing to purchase the prepackaged port bus tour, there are two willing to walk off the ship with a tiny black and white map and spend the next 10 hours exploring alone.
    One last thought:
    “One could invent a much more logical transit system around cruise terminals, one that would exist only when the boats are there and probably run with local taxi vans. It could work like demand-response van shuttles, offering to take you anywhere in a general area. ”
    Congratulations, you discovered the transit system of islands like Grenada, Martinique, Curacao etc. Public transit = vans that work like buses or taxis, depending on how much the rider wishes to pay.

  12. J August 18, 2010 at 10:46 pm #

    Peter E said:
    “how could the locals refuse that? i mean why run a service that might not recoup its “costs” from “fares” (yes i know the complicated math)… i mean make it really really expensive for the cruise ship …. what do they have to lose”
    Every port, that receives cruises charges a per person fee to the cruise line. Usually $10-$20 per head. Alaska last year passed a statewide fee. What do they have to lose? All the cruise lines drastically cut back their alaska itineraries because the new tax would raise fares higher than people are willing to spend.

  13. Jarrett at August 18, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    @ J . Didn't mean to offend, but it should have been clear that I was
    not expressing expertise on the topic of cruises, nor familiarity with
    a diversity of cruise ports. No such expertise is claimed or implied.

  14. Agustin August 19, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    In Vancouver there has been talk of a streetcar running from the cruise terminal, around downtown, and to Granville Island (a tourist destination). It was partially trialled during the Olympics and heralded as a great public transit addition for the city.
    In my mind, while it would be useful for locals looking to get around town, it would be even better for tourists doing so. It would hit the major tourist attractions in the city and expand the shopping zone for cruise passengers in a very user-friendly way.

  15. Jarrett at August 19, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Agustin.  Yes, but note that the inflexibility of trams makes them a very poor fit for the surges of demand that cruise ships generate.  Even the cute little Canada Line could be crushed by a cruise ship, at least for a few trips. 

  16. EngineerScotty August 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    Even the cute little Canada Line could be crushed by a cruise ship
    Pretty much anything would be crushed were the Queen Mary II to fall on top of it (ignoring that the QM2 wouldn’t call on a West Coast port)–I assume you mean “crushloaded”? 🙂 You could probably handle the huge passenger volume of an unloading cruise ship far better with 4-car trains running at 2 minute headways then you could with busses.
    Of course, a lot depends on where the passengers are all going. If they are going to a central location elsewhere–downtown, some transit center–than a fixed line makes sense. If, OTOH, there will be vehicles leaving the port and diverging all around the city, then sending busses directly to the terminal makes sense.
    One interesting option, in either case–are there any instances where cruise lines and transit authorities make arrangements so that visiting cruise passengers are given free passes on the local transit system in a port of call?

  17. Paul K. McGregor August 19, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

    If you look at the cruise ship terminals along the west coast from Vancouver to San Diego, they are pretty well linked to public transit services. Vancouver is right next to the Waterfront Station, Seattle is located next to the free Waterfront bus route that used to be the streetcar line, San Francisco is near the F Line as well as the cable cars, and San Diego is across the street from the Santa Fe Station and trolley station. I have one peeve with San Diego though. Route 7 is the route that goes by Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo and it used to terminate right next to the cruise ship terminal. When they completed their restructuring of routes, they decided to terminate route 7 a few blocks away. Los Angeles has limited transit service but its probably only good for the real adventerous types.
    I too like to explore and get lost on purpose and like to use public transit both out of professional interest as well as a way to explore neighborhoods and get a feel for a city. That’s one reason I like riding Muni around San Francisco.

  18. J August 19, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Jarrett, all that bothered me was the broad generalizations.
    You may think of cruises as a highly organized extended group tour. But thats really not the case.
    Take a european itinerary, for example. You pay $100 a night (less than you would at a european hotel) get a comfortable bed with twice a day service, unlimited high quality food (lobster and steak), evening entertainment and transport between cities. Unless you plan on traveling around europe by hitchhiking, you make up the price in train tickets alone, never mind the room and food. Cruise lines make their money off the extras, but theres no need to buy them.
    A cruise gives you as much independence as a ferry, or any other form of mass transit. You arrive at your port, leave the ship whenever you want, return if youd like throughout the day (to have a free lunch perhaps), and do what you wish. The only “control” is that if you’re not back by 8pm (for example) they will move on without you.
    As for mass transit being crushed by a ship….I disagree. Take the larger ships, for example, of 3,000. Some will have booked tours. Some will decide they will stay on the ship instead of visiting the port (usually the elderly and the well traveled who have been to the port many times). Others will disembark immediately, but not all will. Many like to sleep in. Why disembark at 7am when you can sleep late and get off at noon? Local transit (including cabs) might see 1,000 cruise passengers over 90 minutes, which they can easily handle.
    Of course, some ports see multiple ships arriving together, but these ports know what theyre doing.

  19. Joseph August 20, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    Many ports of call don’t have the maritime infrastructure to handle the ships themselves. They use tendering (public transit) to ferry people from the ship to shore. On my ship of 4000, tenders ran every 10 minutes with about 40-50 people on board (no standees of course) without problem.

  20. Erica August 21, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    At least in Mexico, when I cruised there, there were plenty of vans around the cruise port (Cozumel). And there are lots of people on cruises who don’t take the ship tours. They know that’s where the ship makes all its money. I typically book tours online prior to the cruise and save hundreds of dollars.
    BTW, as an experienced cruiser, I always leave one port without a tour–typically the last one of the cruise. By that time you’re exhausted, especially if (like me) you tend to do the exercise-filled tours like rafting and ziplining.

  21. Dexter Wong August 24, 2010 at 2:20 am #

    In Honolulu, the main cruise ship terminal (Pier 2) is served by seven bus lines, three to Ala Moana Center and four to Waikiki. But it’s also a long walk down the driveway of the pier to the street. There are also taxis and two competing tour bus companies eager to take people on scenic tours of Oahu. There is no special transit service that serves the pier on boat days (typically Saturday).
    — Dexter

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