Marketing the past as a commodity
My husband Eric and I just returned from a trip to Norway, where we did some sightseeing in two coastal cities, Stavanger and Oslo. It’s a beautiful country, with rolling hills, forests, and deep blue fjords. Oslo dates to the year 1050, Stavanger to 1125.
Viking Cruises, a $1.5 billion company, was founded by a Norwegian, and its logo is a Viking ship, evoking seafaring ancestors. Not only Viking, but other cruise ships were ubiquitous in the harbors of the two cities. Massive even by modern standards, the fifteen story floating hotels always scored the most scenic sections of the harbor, butting up against historic sites in both locations.
Cruise ships at historic sites in Oslo and Stavanger, Norway.
In Oslo, the docked cruise ships blocked the view of the harbor from the 800-year-old Akershus Fortress on the hill above the city. From the harbor itself, as we found during a boat tour, the fortress was completely obscured. In Stavanger, the ships obstructed the views from the 18th century wooden houses constructed on the site of the “gamle,” or “ancient,” part of the city. Views and access to history were reserved for those who could pay . . . a lot.
Prices for a cruise range in the thousands. Marketing conveys to passengers that they are adventurous explorers who will discover foreign peoples and cultures. On Viking, the all-inclusive menu includes “one complimentary shore excursion in every port of call” and “Enrichment lectures and Destination performances” sandwiched between free Wi-Fi and access to the Nordic Spa and state-of-the-art fitness center. History and culture have become just another commodity to be consumed along with the buffet dinners and 24-hour specialty coffees and teas.
Cruise ships often stay in port only one night, so those who want to disembark have only a few hours to take guided tours that inevitably end near stores selling souvenirs that play on cultural stereotypes and offer cultural icons reduced to refrigerator magnets. Presumably, this represents the economic benefits to the host cities, along with some docking fees.
While passengers are consuming the local history, many of the ships themselves embody some of the worst of modern humanity’s consumption excess. Port communities and animal life endure air, light, and noise pollution. Cruise ships are legally permitted to dump food waste and treated sewage into the ocean, amounting to a billion gallons a year (see article). One cruise ship produces roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as 12,000 cars. The “bunker fuel” cruise ships use puts out black carbon, sulfates, and other chemical pollutants. Black carbon is the second leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide (read more).
There are some cruise lines that are taking steps to become more eco-friendly, such as installing solar panels and exhaust scrubbers, using water more efficiently, recycling, converting waste to energy, and other measures.
As we consume our history, whether it’s on cruise ships or flying or driving to historic sites, we should be mindful of the tradeoffs and seek out—and be willing to pay for—cleaner options. Or there just might not be a future generation to discover how we live today.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.