Living for over 15 years in the Caribbean, I had come to despise cruise ships. When five ships dock on your island, all hell breaks loose. It takes an hour to drive from school to the market, and another half hour to get to the gym. And the streets are flooded with people who are oblivious. They want a cheap diamond, or a good rum drink. If my kid is late being picked up from school, what do they care.
Of course, little islands are very much affected by the money a cruise ship brings. Ports are rebuilt to accommodate, and businesses and artisans spring up around them to serve the needs of the tourists. But this benefits the locals too. It is an economic engine for taxis, buses, tour guides and the economy thrives.
The reason I write this is that I have just taken a tour of the Baltic Sea, went from Copenhagen, Denmark to Oslo, Norway, with a two-day stop in St. Petersburg. It was a Princess cruise that lasted 11 days. I had never been to Russia, or Estonia, and that excited me. And my husband needs a hip replacement, so walking long distances was out of the question.
Knowing first-hand how the cruise-boat tourist affects the local population, I tried my best to be better at it, to lose the cruise-ship mentality so commonly spoken about by locals everywhere these ships dock. I sat in the front of the bus and asked all sorts of questions of the guide. When we walked to a scenic place where local people had shops and bathrooms, I spoke with them as though they mattered far more than the clean toilet. I dressed up a little, out of respect, and met eyes, out of humanity.
Even when it came to the amber shops in Russia, where I was in a herd of US dollars, I did my best to smile and chat up the workers. Tourism is ugly when it is only about money, on both sides. I cannot imagine working at a shop where my being meant nothing more than to police and shepherd someone to a cash register. For the last 15 years, St. Peterburg has been a port of call to cruise ships from all over the world. It has revitalized the gorgeous city and given something more than stereotypes of Russia to thousands who would have never ventured near it.
I walked up ancient streets to squares filled with hundreds, all there for a day or two. I asked the tour guide if locals used the places, after the ships leave the port. Yes, she said to me. It is suddenly quiet and we all come out of our shops and businesses to enjoy what the tourists have unknowingly left us. I remember walking down the cobblestone Main Street in St. Thomas after the ships sailed, and feeling the joy of island life when nobody is selling anything.
Food comas aside, the experience I had on the Regal Princess was quite spectacular. And when I was in an Oslo park, viewing Angry Boy, I met a jogger resting and asked if he came there to the Vigeland Park often and he said it was his regular route, winter and summer. A friend of mine whose son lives there said that Norwegian park was her granddaughter's playground. "K's apartment is two blocks away." It made me so happy to share the place with them. Oceans and seas apart, I somehow felt closer to her.
There might be an infinity of benefits for all when a person disembarks from a ship near a city that history has favored with something. It might be beautiful beaches and colonial architecture. It might be Nicholas and Alexander and Rasputin. It is scary, though, when thousands of clueless people descend upon a city. There are pickpockets. There are haters. It is a microcosm. In St. Thomas, 10,000 guests off cruise ships represents 20 percent of the island's entire population. And sometimes the barkers there could not tell one from the other. How many times my white face was asked: "Back to the ship? Back to the ship?"
And then there is the Stockholm chef in a 700-year-old stone kitchen who does his best to make Swedish meatballs in a light, creamy brown sauce and serve eight of them to you with an honest smile. Do you also eat these meatballs?, I asked him. Why yes, he answered, quite often, veal, pork, even elk, depending on the season. "And with lots of mashed potatoes and tart, sweet lingonberries." While they melted in my mouth and were dense and filling, somehow they tasted even better after that.