Flags of Convenience

The Queen Mary 2 departing from Hong Kong, 2O18.

1. Introduction

    The weight of the Queen Mary 2 and its manifest displaces over seventy-five thousand tons of water as it travels through the channel in Victoria Harbour. It seems strange to visit Hong Kong during its transition with so many British tourists. The ship is in port overnight - a rare occurance in the modern cruise industry - and passengers walk down the enclosed gangways to board hours-long bus tours of the city sights.
     Finally, it pulls away from the dock. The port lets out a faint siren as its robotic gangways fold into themselves. The bow thrusters and propellers rumble under the control of the Captain and his officers on the bridge, and the live band on the ship’s aft decks is playing a familiar song. Four decks below them, the deckhands are putting away the mooring lines that fiercely gripped the ship to the dock.
    But the city is silent. The departure is nothing like the oil paintings depicted; there are no crowds on the dock with handkerchiefs, or tugboats escorting the ship to sea. This scene is romanticized by the old passenger lines like Cunard and Holland America Line, commemorated in the old photographs and paintings littering the hallways of their modern sixteen-story behemoths.
    Many of these companies are now owned by Carnival Corporation, the largest operator of cruise ships in the world. Each brand is marketed at a different price point to a different age group (guests who sail on a 119-night Cunard “World Voyage” expect different services from the partiers on a 3-night booze-cruise out of Miami). The crew is interchangeable, the ships are mostly indistinguishable, and the business is more lucrative than ever before.
    The reason these companies are so successful is because of a series of loopholes in the American legal system that allow them to operate at lower costs. For instance, Carnival Corporation is headquartered in Miami, but it’s incorporated under the laws of Panama, where many of its ships are conveniently registered. This allows them to pay a corporate tax rate of just 1.1%, and hire an international crew to staff their fleet of a hundred ships, paid well below American minimum wage and beyond normal American working hours. These practices are followed by every major cruise line.

Painting the funnel the of the RMS Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2, 8O years apart.

2. A Short History of Open Registries

    As long as ships have existed, they have represented the wealth and power of nations. Used as tools of discovery, trade, and war, they have acted as the overreaching hands of countries across bodies of water. The flags hanging off their sterns indicated the interests of the ship’s owners, the laws it followed, and the country it represented.
    The exceptions to this rule for various reasons date back thousands of years. Greek sea-traders would operate on behalf of Roman merchants. English shipowners re-registered their ships with the Spanish flag in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to gain access to trading in the West Indies. American ships flew Portuguese flags during the War of 1812 to avoid conflicts with the British. And during World War II, the American Government re-registered ships with the neutral Panamanian flag to continue aiding European allies.
    The US-Panama relationship is mostly responsible for the modern flagging system. Its roots stem from a handful of significant events in the early twentieth century:

    • The La Follette Seaman’s Act of 1915, requiring crew on US-flagged ships to work shifts of eight hours or less. It was the first in a series of laws meant to strengthen the merchant marine, which could be called upon in times of war. Increased inspections and higher standards for crew ultimately raised domestic shipping prices and damaged the competitiveness of US companies on the global market, which was just coming into view in 1915.
    • A 1916 amendment to the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty signed by the US and Panama in 1903. The amendment allowed the US to operate in Panama’s interests overseas, including registering ships under the Panamanian flag. (The original treaty of 1903 allowed the United States Government to construct and control the Panama Canal in exchange for recognizing and supporting Panama as an independent republic)
    • The Treaty of Versailles, 1919, Article 153, which formally recognized the registries of landlocked countries. Previously, this had not been accepted because such countries could not physically provide safe harbor for a ship.
    • An amendment to the Volstead Act of 1920 (Prohibition), an act which forbade the transport and consumption of alcohol on US-flagged ships stationed anywhere in the world. In defiance, the US Shipping Board granted access to the United America Line to transfer two of its ships to the Panamanian Flag to continue their operations.
    • The US Neutrality Acts spanning the 1930s. Commercial shipping with allies had been partially to blame for the involvement of the United States in World War I, and as Europe grew tense once again, the US Government passed a number of laws prohibiting commercial trade with any European nations, so as not to accidentally pick sides. Consequently, the US Government secretly continued to aid its allies in Europe by transferring some of its own ships to the Panamanian Registry.
Soldiers returning to America on the RMS Queen Mary, 1945.

    The war directly affected the size of domestic shipping vessels: They were now produced smaller so as to minimize loss in the event of a submarine attack. Unfortunately, this left the entire market with small and unsustainable ships after the war, and the American shipping industry almost collapsed against the booming post-war truck industry. The invention of the shipping container in 1957, possibly the greatest advancement ever in cargo-shipping, would require a new fleet of large ships to be profitable. So as the US shipping industry slowly grew in size, other open registries were created with the help of the US Government as a dumping ground for the older ships. Strong ties to the countries of Panama and Liberia meant that the United States could still call on ships registered there during heightened escalations with Russia, with those registries behaving like a foreign merchant marine.
    Meanwhile, labor laws in Great Britain and the rise of trans-Atlantic flight resulted in a quick end to the ocean liner industry. Throughout the 1960s, ocean liners were laid up and scrapped, sold, and abandoned. The companies that fought to survive rerouted their ships to the Caribbean for leisure cruises, but these were ships made for traversing great seas with deep drafts and fast speeds. Their engines weren’t efficient at slower speeds, and they hadn’t been designed for comfort. The design of cruise ships has slowly evolved to provide individual balconies, shallow drafts to fit into smaller ports, and more outdoor pools and sun decks.
Promenade Decks on Holland America ships, about 11O years apart.

As the shape of the ships changed, so did the origin of the ship’s company. No longer bound by unionized domestic crew, the cruise lines could take advantage of the loose laws of foreign registries to hire a less expensive workforce. And so now, the majority of deckhands, cabin stewards, and other lower-paying positions of any given cruise ship are from the Philippines.

Crew members on break, 2O16-2O18.

Four photographs from Labadee

Labadee’s crew area. Disabled jet skis lie below the staircase leading in and out of the complex.

Anthem of the Seas docked in Labadee. A lifeboat is being lowered for training.

A Haitian taxi-boat driver, bringing crew members to their separate area. This is the only way to leave the fenced resort.

Sunrise over Labadee, seen from the deck of a visiting ship.

Travesty of the Seas

    A dozen large ships rest in Fort Lauderdale’s port on a busy Sunday, with shuttle buses taking crew members to the airport and shopping malls as tens of thousands of Americans board cruise ships bound for the Caribbean. Combined with Miami’s lengthy row of terminals an hour to the south, and Orlando’s Port Canaveral to the north, southern Florida plays host to about fourteen million cruise ship passengers each year.
    This is where I began my journey on ships. Looking back, the full weight of bringing thousands of American tourists on one-week vacations to the Caribbean, a site of mass-murder and slavery under the guise of European exploration, went slightly over my head. I was a recent music-conservatory graduate and felt some pressure to use my new degree in a professional setting. I was less concerned with the history of the places I was visiting, because everyone else just went to the beach.
   I joined the Oasis of the Seas in late February 2014. At the time, it shared the distinction of being the world’s largest cruise ship with the Allure of the Seas (now there are four of these behemoths, with a fifth ship on its way)On a busy week, each ship carries over 6,300 passengers and 2,200 crew members. Oasis would sail to the eastern Caribbean itinerary (the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten) on Saturday and Allure would sail to the western Caribbean itinerary (Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico) on Sunday. The next week, they would switch itineraries. The two ships were so wide that these were the only ports they could fit in, and most had to be rebuilt or expanded by dredging to accommodate their sheer mass.
  Take Jamaica, for instance. In a 2011 article titled “The Trouble with Falmouth,” Cruise Critic details financial problems plaguing the construction of Jamaica’s newest port. In an effort to bring their largest ships to Jamaica, Royal Caribbean helped the Jamaican government obtain $200 million in financing from Denmark to build a dock in Falmouth. The town of Falmouth sits squarely between the  ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, a distance of fifty miles, but obstacles at each of these ports prevented the dredging and expansion required for the Oasis-class ships. In designing Falmouth’s cruise terminal, Royal Caribbean worked with Orlando-based IDEA Inc. to reflect the Georgian-era buildings in town, in a way that can only be compared to a theme park. In these buildings you’ll find the following: Margaritaville, a Dairy Queen, the Appleton Estate Rum Factory, House of Diamonds, a Shade Shack, and an outdoor food stall selling beef patties to crew members.

Nassau’s Atlantis mega-resort as seen from the cruise terminal.
Celebrity Reflection leaving Miami.

    The reality of the Falmouth situation is that it’s a mess. A gated entry with heavy security separates the port from the town, and passengers complain bitterly about the experience of Falmouth itself: dozens of locals line the streets aggressively selling cheap trinkets and offering weed or hard drugs. During their vacation to Jamaica, many passengers (and crew members) don’t make it past the Margaritaville pool.
    House of Diamonds hosts the only wifi close to the ship, and so its air-conditioned second floor is filled with crew members and passengers trying to connect their phones to its slow service. Often you’ll see a line of crew members squatting against a wall outside, calling home or checking their bank balances.

Artist’s depiction of Falmouth’s  cruise terminal.

   In the Bahamas, Nassau faces similar issues. The fleets of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines are registered there, and it sees two and a half million cruise passengers each year. Nassau’s cruise terminal holds up to five ships at a time, and was dredged to support even the largest Oasis-class vessels; most days there are at least a few ships in Nassau’s cruise port. But despite being one of the most-visited ports in the world by cruise traffic, Nassau’s reputation as a center of crime has created an atmosphere of animosity with tourists. Many cruise guests, especially repeat travelers, choose to stay onboard the ship in Nassau, and the local economy has suffered.
    Royal Caribbean recently issued a letter to guests, warning them not to bring valuables ashore; meanwhile, the Bahamian government claims crime has been dropping and that Royal Caribbean’s warnings are unfounded. The Bahamian Minister of Tourism was able to convince Royal Caribbean to rescind the letters, but the general feeling among most tourists is that the cities of the Bahamas - Nassau and Freeport - are dangerous and crime-ridden. Many tourists in Nassau will head straight for the private resorts like Atlantis or Blue Lagoon Island, rather than interact with locals or experience the culture of Nassau’s fish fry.

Private Property

    Within the necklace of islands in the Bahamas lies an outcrop known as Coco Cay. Its north side is a destitute slab of rock plunging into the ocean, split down the middle to form a channel into a sheltered inlet. A half-dozen decrepit Tender boats spend hours ferrying tourists from cruise ships to this inlet.
    The Cay’s east and south sides form a long stretch of pristine beach, utterly obliterated by thousands of beach chairs, umbrellas, paper plates, hammocks, and water slides. Jet skis and parasailing boats create an inescapable frequency of noise. Look east and you’ll see similar islands, their coasts dotted with identical vacationers from the other cruise lines (MSC, Norwegian, Disney, Carnival, Holland America, and Princess also lease islands from the Bahamian government). On the narrow western expanse of the Cay, far from the overcrowded beaches and obscenely inauthentic Caribbean shopping experience, lies the remains of a small British fort from the eighteenth century. It is ignored by the vast majority of passengers, who head straight for the beaches close to the island’s entrance.
    As cruise passengers grow increasingly wary of criminal activity in the larger island-city ports, the cruise lines are responding by buying leases on sections of land, or entire islands like Coco Cay. Royal Caribbean plans to pump two hundred million dollars into Coco Cay in the coming years, adding more amenities and constructing a pier to allow its largest ships to dock there. The private destinations of Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s resort in Haiti) and Amber Cove (Carnival’s resort in the Dominican Republic) are fenced off from their respective communities; only workers can enter. The cruise lines prefer this because they don’t have to pay exorbitant docking fees or subject their passengers to any potential criminal activity, and the passengers prefer this because it’s merely an extension of the ship’s activities - the historical context can be ignored in favor of relaxation. Labadee was named after the French plantation baron Marquis de La’Badie, but there is no evidence of this surrounding the barbecues, zip-lines, and beach chairs.

The pier at Amber Cove, Carnival’s private resort in the Dominican Republic.

Black Beard’s “grave” on Coco Cay.

The semi-abandoned tourist town of Costa Maya includes a fake Mayan pyramid.

    Still, these private locales are not without incidents of their own. In 2016, boats of Haitians created a blockade which prevented Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas from docking at Labadee. One protestor held a sign that said USA AWAY. After a few hours of negotiations between the Haitian Coast Guard and the protestors, the 3,600-passenger vessel turned around and left. Two days later, the 3,300-passenger Navigator of the Seas cancelled its call at Labadee as well. The cruise lines bring a lot of money to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but it mostly goes to the governments and not to the people. Strict contracts prevent the majority of local people from selling goods to tourists.
    As these incidents continue, it’s important to note the growing trend in substituting fake ports-of-call for real ones. When St. Maarten receives up to twenty-five thousand cruise ship passengers in a single day, its local economy is strengthened. Diverting these passengers to a private island creates a circular economy for the cruise lines, with minimal risk of incidents. It also damages the fragile ecosystem of commerce these small islands