DEVILS ON THE DEEP BLUE SEA
The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America's Cruise-Ship Empires
By Kristoffer A. Garin
Viking -- 366pp -- $24.95
The Good An incisive, often unflattering portrayal of the cruise-ship industry.
The Bad There are startling shifts of tone, from breezy to hyper-analytical.
The Bottom Line A wealth of detail and insight makes the volume well worth reading.
If you think of a Caribbean cruise as the ideal vacation, this is one book you'll want to tuck into your tote bag before heading off to your next island getaway. Then again, maybe you won't, because Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America's Cruise-Ship Empires is guaranteed to change the way you experience any cruise.
Forget the onboard Pilates classes, spa treatments, and all the other lavish amenities that have become part of the attraction of these floating retreats. Journalist Kristoffer A. Garin pulls back the curtain to reveal a $13 billion industry that, since its modern incarnation in the early 1970s, has managed to operate outside the laws that govern most other U.S. businesses. Even the author seems amazed by the extent to which the cruise lines remain unregulated, untaxed, and simply unaccountable to anyone. They function "as privatized societies, ruled almost solely by their own corporate policies," he writes.
Not everything in this incisive history is new: The author has drawn upon some accounts by other writers. But he also conducted countless interviews with industry insiders -- and in the end provides a wealth of fresh detail that makes the book worth reading.
Much of Garin's portrait is unflattering, particularly where U.S. cruise lines are concerned. He describes the industry's poor environmental record, revealing the degree to which the major cruise ships have willfully dumped massive amounts of waste offshore. When they have been caught, often as not, it has been in the act of covering up the evidence. Moreover, by flying the flags of such laissez-faire overseers as Liberia or Panama -- poor countries that are in the game only for the registry fees -- the American companies are able to avoid paying any U.S. taxes, which helps explain their outsize profit margins. Garin notes that if Carnival Corp. (CCL) and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) were subjected to the same 35% tax rates as the rest of Corporate America, the two would have generated $518 million in additional tax revenues in 2003 alone -- equal to half that year's Environmental Protection Agency budget for Superfund cleanups. Garin details how Carnival founder Ted Arison's aversion to taxes was so great that, upon retirement, he renounced U.S. citizenship and returned to Israel to avoid paying estate taxes. (Arison's death just a few months shy of the 10-year "denaturalization" period left his estate liable.)
More troubling, perhaps, is the degree to which these moguls of the high seas have been able to operate largely by their own labor and safety codes. While the staff on the top decks, no coincidence, look just like the largely American and European passengers, Garin reveals that the legions of workers toiling below deck are invariably from such impoverished countries as Indonesia or the Philippines. These employees log 10, 12, or even 14-hour days, washing laundry or peeling potatoes for as little as $550 a month. And yet for many of them, Garin admits, the prospect of three square meals, a semiprivate room, and the chance to wire hundreds of dollars back home each month is a step up from anything they've known.
That the modern-day cruise companies grew to their current proportions is as much happenstance as shrewd planning. Garin provides readers with an engaging history, tracing the industry's roots back to the early 1900s. Then, steamships plowed the Atlantic filled with both wealthy patrons inhabiting lavish suites and thousands of European immigrants who, wedged into tight quarters below, really paid the costs of the trip. Garin's account winds its way through to the early 1970s, when entrepreneurs such as Arison bought rustbucket vessels and began marketing short jaunts through the Caribbean. At that point, the industry's survival was hardly guaranteed: Garin recounts how on one trip, fuel suppliers in Puerto Rico refused to extend credit to Carnival. Crew members had to raid the ship's slot machines and cash registers to scrape together enough cash to buy fuel for the return to Miami.
The cruise companies muddled along until the late 1970s, when they received one of the greatest gifts in all of business history: The ABC television series The Love Boat. Overnight, cruises became all the rage -- a fashionable and affordable escape for the middle class. Once an exotic form of travel, cruises became "as safe and comprehensible -- and nearly as accessible -- as the nearest strip mall," Garin observes.
The narrative does hit a few shoals. Garin can't seem to decide whether he's producing a breezy summer read on the colorful personalities behind the cruise giants or a serious B-school textbook. Too much attention gets paid to the internal politics at some of the cruise lines, along with the details of different takeover battles. All the same, Devils provides a bon voyage that's both diverting and insightful.
By Dean Foust