The ‘old normal’ is alive and well in Venice
Returning cruiseliners hint that post-pandemic life will be much the same
Last Thursday, fifteen months into the pandemic, something happened that was suggestively, eerily, absurdly normal. A cruise liner, MSC Orchestra, floated into Venice.
Catastrophic events like Covid-19 always summon prophecies. Throughout this crisis we have been told that the nature of work has fundamentally shifted, that there have been remarkable breakthroughs in medical technology, and that we are on the cusp of a revolution in green energy. Tourism was another industry in the process of being “reinvented” too — otherwise it was finished.
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Tech guru Peter Thiel argued for years that the world was trapped in a “Great Stagnation”. But in late 2020 he said that Covid marked the beginning of a new era: the 21st century had begun.
And yet there is the MSC Orchestra, all 92,000 tons of it, rolling into the lagoon city, a buoyant riposte to the notion that the world has changed.
Few objects are more evocative of the double-edged progress of the globalised late 20th century than cruise liners, or “really big white ships” as David Foster Wallace once called them. Historically, pleasure cruising had been a pursuit for rich aristocrats. But from the 1960s onwards the practice was democratised, suddenly cheap enough for ordinary people to live in a drifting bubble of luxury. We were all allowed in the same boat at last.
But for those who toiled below the decks of these floating societies the experience was exhausting and uncertain. On many ships, thousands of employees worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week, for three or four dollars an hour, depending entirely on tips to earn a living wage. Employment laws that might protect them didn’t apply at sea. Meanwhile the companies that own the ships paid almost no tax.
If the ‘End of History’ meant anything it was all there aboard these megaliners: millions of people in the West could live out a fantasy of affordable excess and gluttony, millions in more globally marginal areas were prepared to make their gin and tonics for a paltry wage.
In Venice politics has long been consumed by arguments over cruise liners. Servicing the ships employed thousands, and replenished the city with flows of tourist money. Yet the same tourists, who seethed dumbly through the squares and alleys, were making the city unlovable and unliveable. Slowly, the liners were destroying the fragile lagoon on which the city was founded. The situation, like globalisation itself, appeared both permanent and unsustainable.
Venice, for all it’s romance, tends to make thoughtful people anxious. “So we’ll go no more a roving/ So late into the night” wrote a melancholic Lord Byron after the Venetian carnival of 1817. As the site of a once-mighty empire reduced to a cockpit of limp and lifeless decadence, the city perturbed the Victorians. John Ruskin and Charles Dickens saw in it a prefiguration of what might happen to Britain’s Empire. The decay and degradation of Venice was an “awful” warning to England, Ruskin thought.
Today, the return of the cruise liners to Venice suggests a different warning. Perhaps the world has not changed at all during the pandemic. Aboard the MSC Orchestra the restaurants, theatres, and miniature cinemas will endure, the passengers will pointlessly wash their hands more than they did in 2019, and the underpaid crew will be forced into hourly nasal swabbings.
The pleasures and the pains of globalisation, like the crumbling palazzos of Venice, will shake and wobble, but they won’t disappear. Post-pandemic life, as Michel Houellebecq said a few months ago, will be exactly the same, “just a little bit worse.”
I vividly recall my horror when I saw one of these monstrosities cruising along the Giudecca from my gues-house room. The sheer scale of it, dwarfing the old buildings of the city was bad enough, but the flood of tourists crowding the narrow alleyways was another matter altogether. The damage to the infrastructure that these monsters create is only another reason for banning them.
I think the final paragraph is right on the money – “life will be exactly the same but worse”. More expensive, riddled with pointless leftover behaviours ( stepping into the road to avoid walking past a stranger) and the constant fear that a new variant will bring back the lockdowns.
On a side note I’d like to take the opportunity to say goodbye to all the regular commentators here: Fraser, Sanford, Kathleen, Annette, and so many others. It’s nice to find kindred spirits on a predominantly left wing medium and I’ll miss you all when I can no longer comment
A lot of people of various ideological stripes seem to severely underestimate how materialistic 95% of humanity is – out of necessity too I might add – which is why there will never be pressure to change it from within. Only a slowly mounting external collapse tends to change anything on a large scale in history, we overestimate our role in this, perhaps because in democracies it is the conforting myth we tell ourselves.
In a Lovejoy episode they are re-creating a fake Venice. As China has re-created many western cities & sights for their own tourists , ask them to re-create Venice and put it somewhere else in the Adriatic for tourists to visit. The real Venice could be a heritage sight which only allows a few visiters at a time.
Where did they go???
I’m not planning on signing up, so lose access to comments on Wednesday… They may still be here but I won’t.
Mike, I realise that many of the commenters do not plan to sign up but I am not sure why. However, the numbers are such that I realise there are reasons other than cost. What sort of reasons are there?
They are all part of organized crime & don’t want to be traced? Anyway goodbye as well
Nothing organized about it 🙂
As will I – the voice of Portland. I am signed up for so much on Substack, etc that to pay just to comment is not in my budget but I did enjoy you all. You saved my sanity very often.
Ditto. I always enjoy the comments. Usually more than the articles themselves. And I’ve become quite fond of the regulars even when I find some of them often irritating.
However, does this paywall mean we can’t read the comments either? I’m confused. If so, I’ll probably stop reading Unherd. I understand that its business needs to be commercially viable, and it is pleasant not to be bombarded with adverts, but it’s a small luxury I can do without right now.
So, goodbye, all. And thank you.
Actually I don’t know: I hope we’ll still be able to read comments, but either way I’ll be losing “my voice”, so thought I’d say goodbye. Just being sentimental I guess…
I still miss them!
I think life will be significanlty worse now that governments, big pharma, the media and Big Tech have learned all they can get away with when they put us in a state of fear.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/e2da64b6-4921-3ce5-b05f-beec93cf3b7f I remember reading this Adam Curtis blog about the business of cruise ships. Quite an interesting backstory. As he notes the cruise industry was as much an attempt to save the great ocean liners who lost their customers to the modish transatlantic jets in the postwar era.
Personally the whole concept of cruises and package holidays gives me hives. If I am travelling I much prefer the spontaneity of changing the route on the way, exploring and finding out for myself what’s worth seeing or not.
I endured one cruise (laid on by the company I worked for) and that was enough. Never again! There was something claustrophic about the whole experience.
I went on a river cruise in China because I was nervous about travelling there; I thought I’d get lost, arrested, miss planes etc. As a teacher I was used to organising trips and shepherding the children; I was in charge. I was so apprehensive about being herded!
It was wonderful! There were less than 200 people on the boat; we only had to unpack and repack once; we slept as we travelled from one place to the next so every day was used for visits and on the occasional day when we did travel during the day, there were lectures, music and other cultural presentations.
My partner and I enjoyed it so much that we went to Russia the following year!
I’d hate an ocean cruise though – too big a ship and too many days on board.
Venice has another tourist problem which is that many of them don’t spend the night (you can easily day trip it from Milan for example) and most spend little money in Venice. Solution to this and the big ship problem; a bigger visitor tax, a sort of entry ticket. DisneyWorld charges hundreds and this is much better.
As to post pandemic life, if it’s worse it will be because of politicians. So yea, the same reason. Medicine made a big leap with mRNA though.
But maybe if the cafes in st Marks square didn’t charge 50 dollars for a cup of coffee people would spend more.
May I be a pedant and point out that the ship in the photo is leaving Venice, rather than arriving?
More to the point, I feel for the Venetians, who last year were promised that the practice of these monster liners docking in Venice was a thing of the past.
“More to the point, I feel for the Venetians, who last year were promised that the practice of these monster liners docking in Venice was a thing of the past.”
That’s what I thought too. But I recently read an article explaining that the new law regarding cruise ships provides that the ships will be banned from Venice’s lagoon only after a workable alternative for docking and transporting their passengers to Venice is agreed upon. That will likely take years.
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