Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Disharmony Of The Seas

On Monday, 13 June and on subsequent Mondays until late in October, Royal Caribbean's Harmony Of The Seas will form a colossal vision on early mornings in the bay of Palma before parking its massiveness in the port at eight o'clock. On board, at absolute capacity, can be 6,410 (or is it 6,780) passengers and 2,100 crew. The largest passenger ship in the world. Let the celebrations begin.

Impressive, that's the word. Impressive because of sheer size. Harmony Of The Seas is not alone in this regard. Watching these leviathans creep over the sea towards port, their movement imperceptible, their bulks do impress. There again, so do large aircraft when one sees them at relatively close hand. The instinct is to be impressed. Size matters.

Think about this for one moment. The largest single hotel complex in Mallorca in terms of total guest capacity is Alcudia's Bellevue. At a squeeze, and it would be, 6,000 people can be crammed into its 1,400 or so apartments of varying sizes. The upper limit might more typically be in the 5,000 range. Harmony Of The Seas plus crew dwarfs even Bellevue. Its human content exceeds even the most excessive of the island's land accommodation.

The ship, as with others in the contemporary fleet navigating the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the fjords and elsewhere, is representative of a new-age maritime Brutalist architecture. There is something almost Soviet about this design. Appropriate perhaps for the collectivist nature of its business. Pack 'em in, pack 'em high: fifteen decks in all on the Harmony.

Bellevue has a weirdly Soviet feel as well. Especially weird as it was built in the final years of the Franco regime. But its architecture is functional, utilitarian, Brutalist not so much because of the scale of the individual blocks but on account of the sense of "béton brut", the raw concrete Le Corbusier chose in bequeathing to the world the very term Brutalism.

Such land-based accommodation would not and could not be built now. Major new projects are of the Park Hyatt in Canyamel style. Its environmental ethics have been questioned, but at least the architecture has a reasonable (though by no means whole) sympathy for its wooded setting. Its human content might be only in the region of one tenth of Bellevue at full blast. 

Despite adding more floors, if the local authorities don't object, the trend in hotels is away from massiveness. At its best this trend is giving us the fabulously and lovingly re-crafted urban hotels, the boutiques of Palma and elsewhere. In full harmony with their environments. Harmony, that's another word.

Tourism in its mass version has always been dependent on the virtues of economies of scale. Greater the size, greater the volume, the lower the cost per unit. Volume is thus a virtue for the bottom line. Such economies still persist in Mallorca's sun-and-beach resorts - of course they do - but they are not on a scale of the behemoths of the oceans: more people on one ship than in any single hotel complex on the island.

What type of tourism is this? Is it the ultimate in terms of mass, one for which size, and very large size, is all that matters? We are impressed by the scale. But are we also appalled? Why are there such celebrations of these colossal apparitions lumbering closer and closer to port?

The cruise industry will baffle you with figures. Billions here, billions there. The employment, the sourcing of products and services, the general economic welfare that is generated. We get all that. But what of the direct impact? Two hundred euros per passenger. That was a spend figure cited last week for a Palma disembarking passenger. Way above a figure (acknowledged as an estimate) of sixty euros that the Balearic government came up with a few years ago. Better economic times may be returning, but by 140 euros? Direct individual spend is hugely variable. It depends on time in port and on the type of passenger: TUI Cruises have recently indulged in their own celebrations of all-inclusive cruise ships heading Mallorca's way.

The quest for cruising justification is necessary, given the disquiet expressed about it in certain quarters. It is the source of disharmony, with graffiti only a minor manifestation of this. And this disharmony arises not from the boutique-style ships, the clippers and the like but from the ominous floating housing estates. They are overwhelming in scale, and their human content can overwhelm as well.

This is before one gets to the environmental issue: air, noise, light pollution and marine. If land-based accommodation has been subject to ever tighter regulation, this seems to apply less to the temporary and transitory tourist container vessels. They come, in their huge numbers, and they go, leaving behind ... celebrations or disharmonies of the seas?

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