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Le tourisme de croisière : territorialisation, construction des lieux et enjeux de développement

Activities of Cruise-Ship Employees in Cozumel, Mexico

Les activités des employés de bateaux de croisière à Cozumel (Mexique)
Anne Marie Van Broeck et Guy Dierckx


Malgré l'importance croissante du tourisme de croisière dans le monde, on sait très peu sur la vie des employés des navires de croisière, et comment ils utilisent leur temps libre dans les ports d'escale. Cet article présente les résultats d'une recherche exploratoire à petite échelle sur les activités de l'équipage et le staff de croisière sur l'île de Cozumel, au Mexique, un important port d'escale pour les voyages dans les Caraïbes. Réalisée en 2009, la recherche qualitative pour ce document comprenait l'observation participante, plusieurs conversations informelles et des entretiens semi-structurés avec vingt employés des navires de croisière et avec six propriétaires et employés des entreprises locales. Nos résultats confirment les conclusions d'autres auteurs mais apportent aussi de nouvelles informations sur les facteurs qui déterminent les choix individuelles concernant les activités, les lieux et ceux qui les accompagnent. La disponibilité de temps et d'argent, liées à la position de chaque travailleur dans la hiérarchie de l'emploi, sont importants, mais les choix sont également influencés par leur culture. Des investigations plus détaillées sont nécessaires en ce qui concerne l'offre et la demande pour compléter ces résultats préliminaires.

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1Cruise tourism is a fast growing and important branch of tourism. Thousands of tourists travel around the globe while staying at a sailing hotel, dining in a floating restaurant. To make this possible, each cruise vessel also carries on board people who work in a great variety of jobs. Besides those related to the ship operation and maintenance (that is, the captain and the officers, technicians and seamen), there are the jobs at the resort hotel (such as reception, housekeeping, kitchen and restaurant, entertainment, recreation, shops). Partly because they are strongly customer-oriented, cruise ships are very labor-intensive. For every three—sometimes even two—passengers, there is one employee on board. (Seidl et al., 2006; Swain, 2006; Wood, 2000). For instance, a cruise ship like Carnival Conquest has a capacity of 2,974 passengers and a total crew of 1,150 members (Carnival, 2009).

2The terminology in the existing academic literature on these cruise-ship workers is not very consistent, and sometimes leads to confusion. Often the whole ship's personnel is referred to as the crew. Yet, some authors (for instance: Lee-Ross, 2006; Wood, 2000) differentiate between officers, staff and crew, the latter category accounting for only one part of the cruise personnel. This is the criterion used in this text. Of these three categories, the crew ranks lowest. It is comprised of the waiters, cabin stewards, able seamen and maintenance workers who usually come from Eastern-European, Central American or Southeast-Asian countries. The staff ranks middle in the ladder, and is composed of the supervisors, the head waiters and the entertainment department workers—mainly from Eastern or Western Europe. Finally, officers occupy the highest echelons, including the hotel managers, the cruise directors and pursers. As with most of the staff, they come from affluent countries—mostly from Australia, the US, Canada and the United Kingdom (Wood, 2000; Weaver, 2005; Gibson, 2008).

3According to the data provided by Seafarers International Research Centre, cruise-ship employees belong to ninety-nine different nationalities. Frequently, forty or more nationalities can be found in one ship. However, two-thirds of all cruise-ship employees come from just ten countries, the Filipino workers being the majority among them (approximately twenty-nine percent), followed by residents from Italy, Great Britain, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Germany, Ukraine, Colombia and Greece (Wu, 2005).

4The evident ethnic stratification of the cruise labor force has lead Weaver to speak of a « ''racialized'' labor hierarchy » (2005: 14) and Wood to describe what he calls the « ethnically-correlated categories of officers, staff, and crew » (2000: 365), with different living conditions, rules, and vastly different pay.

5Academic interest in the cruise-ship labor force is very recent. A few studies published in the last few years have begun to shed some light on the employees' profile (Weaver, 2005; Wu, 2005; Raub & Streit, 2006) and their life on board, focusing especially on the multicultural workforce (Wood, 2000; Gibson, 2008). Yet, very little is known about their activities at the port of call. Some cursory information on this can be found in some studies, a few of them on on-shore spending by cruise-ship personnel (cf. Henry & Thyne, 2007; Weaver, 2005; Klein, 2002; Chesworth, 2006; Seidl et al., 2006).

6While a cruise ship is berthed, some cruise-ship workers may neither have the possibility nor the permission to leave the ship, and they remain on board and carry out maintenance tasks (Henry & Thyne, 2007; Gibson, 2008). Generally, cruise-ship employees may only be allowed to disembark once or twice a week (Weaver, 2005). Seidl et al., (2006) estimate that only approximately forty percent of the ship employees tend to disembark at each port of call. In a study by BREA (2007) in ten Mexican destinations, the percentage of cruise-ship employees who disembarked averaged about thirty-eight percent, ranging from a low of twenty percent to a high of fifty percent.

7Many cruise workers spend the day in port « in the same way as any other afternoon: resting onboard the ship (often in their cabin) and attempting to reduce sleep deprivation » (Klein, 2002: 117). They don't leave the ship.

8Also, time ashore is very scarce—between five and six hours (Weaver, 2005; UNWTO, 2008). According to the sparse information available, cruise-ship employees disembark to have a break from ship life, to have different food to that served in the ship (Henry & Thyne, 2007)—that is, « a real meal with quality, palatable food » (Klein, 2002: 118)—, or to grab a local beer (Henry & Thyne, 2007). They phone friends and family members overseas and remit money to them (Weaver, 2005; Klein, 2002; Chesworth, 2006). To avoid the high prices charged in onboard shops, they shop for some personal items—such as toiletries—and for food (Weaver 2005; Klein, 2002; Chesworth, 2006). They consult a doctor or dentist—for instance in Costa Rica, known for the excellent dental and medical services, according to Seidl et al., (2006). And, of course, they love to see different parts of the world (Henry & Thyne, 2006) and to participate in tours and activities, mostly of shorter duration than those taken by passengers (Seidl et al., 2006). Seidl et al., (2006) indicate that money-spending—and therefore the activities—is generally concentrated around the port of call.

9BREA's analysis (2007) of onshore spending in Mexico used eleven categories (shore excursions, food and beverages at restaurants and bars, clothing, local crafts and souvenirs, taxis/ground transportation, other purchases, watches and jewellery, retail purchases of liquor, entertainment/night clubs, telephone and Internet, and electronics). According to their findings, food and beverages at restaurants and bars was the most popular expenditure, shared by almost two-thirds of all cruise workers. The second most popular expenditure was on local transportation, by thirty-six percent of all cruise employees. Approximately sixteen percent of them also purchased clothing.

10Obviously, the activities and the expenditures depend partly on each individual's salary (Munro & Gill, 2006). Although the UNWTO publication touches only slightly on the topic of the cruise-ship workers and their activities, it mentions cultural factors influencing the tastes and consumption preferences, comparing the (mainly) Asian workers with the North-American passengers, and indicates that cruise-ship employees try not to mingle with passengers when they are in a port of call (UNWTO, 2008: 203).

1. Cruise Tourism in Cozumel

11Cruise tourism in Cozumel, Mexico's biggest island, dates back to 1968, when the first cruise ship docked in the island, with a capacity of about eight-hundred passengers and three-hundred crew members. Because by then the island did not yet have a landing pier, passengers used a tender to go ashore. During the following decade, one or two cruise ships disembarked every month (Chan Ventura, 2006).

12The year 1980 saw the inauguration of the first pier to receive cruise ships. Known today as Muelle Internacional, this pier offers space for two cruise ships and a ferry for the transportation of cargo and cars to and from the continent. It is located about five kilometers south of the center of the only town on the island, San Miguel de Cozumel (known in short as Cozumel), at the island's west coast, where the majority of the seventy-three thousand islanders lives (Vivas Valdés, 2008).

13As cruise activity increased in the mid 1980s, following international trends in the cruise industry, every week one or two ships used to disembark. By the early 1990’s, the number of cruises and arrivals on the island had strongly increased, and the number of persons on board rose to two thousand-two hundred passengers and one thousand crew members (Chan Ventura, 2006). To meet the demands of expanding cruise tourism and the growing capacity of the ships, a second cruise terminal, Puerta Maya, was built near the first one, out of town. Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines Corporation, and with capacity for three cruise ships, this terminal opened in 1997 (Chan Ventura 2006; Ocampo, 2003). Around the pier an artificial village with shops was built.

14In 2002, a third cruise terminal, Punta Langosta, was inaugurated, with a capacity for three cruise ships, this time offering the passengers and crew the possibility to disembark right at the center of town, through a small shopping center known by the same name.

Figure 1. Cozumel Island (Mexico)

Figure 1. Cozumel Island (Mexico)

Source: José Jonathan Ibarra Coronel (based on INEGI, 2010)

15In 2004, Cozumel attained its maximum number of cruise tourists—namely 2,8 million (APIQROO, 2009). However, in 2005 hurricane Wilma destroyed the whole cruise infrastructure, and it would take one year to restore one of the piers (and by 2009 all three piers were back in operation). In 2005, the island received already forty-one percent of all cruise passengers visiting Mexico, and thirty-nine percent of all the cruise ships calling at Mexican ports (Chan Ventura, 2006). In 2008, no less than one thousand and eight cruise ships disembarked in Cozumel, bringing 2 569 433 passengers. However, for all the readiness in post-hurricane reconstruction, these figures did not yet match the ones obtained in 2004 (Vivas Valdés, 2008). Today, Cozumel is not only Mexico's main port of call of cruise ships, but is also the most important one worldwide, and the one most frequently used on a cruise trajectory (UNWTO, 2008).

16Cruise tourism is today the island's most important economic activity, followed by the hotel industry. Roughly estimated, about seventy percent of the revenues coming from tourism stem from cruise tourism, and thirty percent from the hotels (Chan Ventura, 2006; Ocampo, 2003).

17Exact data on the number of cruise employees docking in Cozumel are scarce and, as has been indicated, not all cruise employees disembark and visit the island. BREA (2007) estimated that 1.081.000 employees were aboard the cruise ships, of which forty percent (or 432.400) disembarked and visited Cozumel in the cruise year 2005-2006.

18BREA conducted 1143 surveys with cruise personnel in Cozumel, asking about their expenditures during the months of March, April and May of 2006. Similar to the results obtained at the other destinations under study, most cruise personnel (forty-seven percent) claimed to spend money in Cozumel on food and beverage. Apart from this category, thirty-two percent claimed to spend money on taxis and ground transportation, fourteen percent on telephone and Internet, and twelve percent on clothing. The average expenditure was $ 48,77 USD, of which $ 21,21 USD (that is, forty-three percent of this amount) went on food and beverage. Other categories, in which an important part of the budget was spent, are watches and jewelry (fourteen percent), other purchases (ten percent), transportation (ten percent) and clothing (nine percent). Apart from these indirect references to the subject in this study, no published data exists on the activities of cruise employees in Cozumel.

2. Research Method

19The research on which this paper is mainly based was carried out during a stay in Cozumel between January 13 and March 17, 2009. Observations took place on the island and in town, and more specifically at different sites where cruise personnel spend time, at different moments of the day during several days. Aside from public areas, such as the central square, the seafront (malecón) and taxi stands, these sites include restaurants and bars frequented mostly by tourists, the cruise terminals with their surrounding commercial areas, businesses directed specifically to cruise personnel, and various local shops and businesses where cruise workers can be found. Selection of these places for our study was based on our own observations, or by references to them in conversations with cruise-ship employees and the local population. Several informal conversations were held with the local population, cruise workers and people working in the tourism industry or offering services to cruise personnel, followed by twenty on-site, semi-structured interviews to cruise employees and six to service providers.

20One of the main limitations of this research was the lack of time of most cruise-ship workers in Cozumel. It was a real challenge to find cruise employees willing to be interviewed during their scarce time. This problem has already been reported by Weaver (2005: 7): « The interviews that were conducted with the cruise-ship workers were particularly difficult. Time is very scarce for cruise-ship workers when they visit ports of call… Many workers therefore could only spare 15 to 30 minutes for an interview ».

21Lack of language skills, mainly of Asian personnel, also limited the possibility of having a thorough interview.

22People of ten countries were interviewed: five were Filipinos, four British, three Polish, two Indonesians, one Canadian, one German, one Peruvian, one Portuguese, one American and one South African. This somewhat parallels life on board, where the Filipinos are also strongly represented. Our sample also represents the other three most important nationalities on board: British, Indonesian and German, which, along with the Filipino, make up more than half of our informants.

23We interviewed seven crew and thirteen staff members, while officers were left aside. In our sample both staff and women are overrepresented, contrary to what happens in real life on board. Published data show that between approximately twenty and thirty percent of the personnel are female, while in our sample the proportion is fifty percent. These are clearly some limitations of this research, which should be taken in mind.

24Finally, to illustrate our findings, while writing this paper (January 2010) we consulted cruise-ship worker's published diaries (Stowers, 2008; Bruns, 2008) and travel blogs (Hedley, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2007d, 2009; Los Rox, 2009).

3. Cozumel for Cruise-Ship Employees

25During the last decade, Cozumel has evolved a lot, offering increasingly better facilities and services to the visiting cruise personnel. This is acknowledged by our interviewees, who consider the island a pleasant port of call due to the broad variety of services and activities it offers.

“You have free Internet here and that’s easy. You can also do lots of stuff here. In other ports you can’t do much. There is no crew bar, no pool… It’s nice that they have something for the crew to go to. The other ports don’t have it”, (Sabrina, Germany).

“Well, the nicest thing about Cozumel is that you can do whatever you want to. If you want to go to the beach, you can go to the beach, if you just want to go shopping, you can go… Anything you want to do, you can do it here. It’s not like… some places there is only one or two things you can do… You just have so many options, so that’s why I think everybody loves Cozumel”, (Bruno, Portugal).

26Several businesses in the vicinity of the terminals and some downtown cater primarily—sometimes even almost exclusively—to cruise-ship workers, such as the Oriental restaurants Chi and Fu Lin (near Puerto Maya), Tapsihan (near Punta Langosta), and Jia Yao (downtown), as well as some bars and meeting places for cruise workers (No Name Bar, Club Salsa, Macarena) and Internet cafés (The Crew Office). Tourists or locals are seldom found among the clients. While the Chi restaurant near Puerta Maya is almost exclusively directed to cruise personnel, the more recent downtown branch is composed mostly of tourists.

“Actually, I think, 100 percent of the clients here are crew members. We have some tourists, but they come by to buy beer, soda, because they don’t recognize Filipino food”, (Christine, manager Tapsihan).

“Today 90 percent of my clients is crew member. During the last year it is Peruvians and Indians. Filipinos, not any more, there used to be so many. We have some but not so many as they used to be”, (Victor, manager The Crew Office).

27Not only are they directed to cruise employees, some of these businesses (restaurants and bars) aim even at a particular segment of this group. For instance, at the Chi and Tapsihan restaurants, almost exclusively Asian cruise workers (most of which are crew) are found, and at Tapsihan it is mostly Filipinos who go to have lunch or take food back to the ship. Similarly, the clientele we observed in Club Salsa was composed mainly of workers of Asian, Caribbean and Afro-American descent. Contrastingly, the relatively higher prices for food and drinks at the No Name Bar leads to a selection of clients—mainly staff members from Europe, North America and Australia.

28At some of these cruise-personnel oriented businesses, often the owners, managers or an important part of the personnel are from the same region and/or cultural background as the clients they are trying to attract, or even share the experience of having been cruise personnel themselves. The No Name Bar was started by two former cruise employees. The owner and manager of the Chi restaurant is originally from Hong Kong, and the manager of Tapsihan is a woman from the Philippines, who enjoys working for compatriots.

“It’s so easy for me. Because they are from my country, we speak the same language and it is so easy to approach them, because you already know what they want, what kind of food they want, you know. In our country we’ve got different islands, so you already know that somebody likes the food spicy because he is from that place or I like the coconut because in my province, we eat a lot of coconut milk”, (Christine, manager Tapsihan).

29The products and services are clearly tailor-made to the preferences of their clientele. Menus are adapted to cultural tastes, and in some places crew members are even welcome to order specialties not listed in the menu.

“Sometimes, the crew also asks to prepare something. They come here with fish or something to prepare. That’s no problem. My cook prepares it like they want. Like Indonesian food. I’ve been to Indonesia. And I asked the ingredients, so now the Indonesian food here tastes like real Indonesian food. I always ask my clients to write down what they want to eat, so I can look it up”, (Ramón, owner Chi restaurant).

30Compared to the Chi branch downtown (directed at tourists), the restaurant near Puerta Maya offers little coziness: a television shows mainly American sports channels, of interest of the clientele in this restaurant. Many of the Asian restaurants are clearly budget-restaurants, and maintain low prices.

31Also, at The Crew Office the price for Internet service is low in comparison not only to the ship, but also to other more tourist-oriented places. To surf one hour, one pays here only $ 1 USD, whereas the charges elsewhere might even be $ 3 USD an hour. Although it is not situated at a terminal or near the waterfront, most crew members find their way to this place downtown.

32No Name Bar was founded with the idea of creating a place where crew members could enjoy and relax, away from the passengers—as is made explicit in the menu card and a small notice at the door declaring « No Name Bar, by Crew for Crew » (Photo1). The decorations too suggest that this is a place for cruise employees: flags of different nations with names of the visitors written on them, name cards, badges, and pictures of cruise members. More than a place to eat, it is a place to meet friends from the ship, to sit on the terrace, enjoy a beer, a cocktail, have a drink... Wi-Fi is available, so one can meanwhile surf the Web.

33In the vicinity of Puerta Maya and Muelle Internacional, Club Salsa (Photo 2) offers a wide range of services to cruise crew. Besides restaurant and bar, it includes a discotheque, karaoke, calling center, Internet café, pool tables, sports fields (soccer—listed as "foot ball" in their billboard—and basket ball), laundry, massage and personal care. In the patio-bar, women are always present to offer their company to male customers, and in the rooms in a small annex building, the client can retire with the woman.

Photo 1. Entry to No Name Bar

Photo 1. Entry to No Name Bar

Source: G.Dierckx

Photo 2. Club Salsa

Photo 2. Club Salsa

Source: G.Dierckx

34In addition to the businesses that cater to them, cruise-ship workers can avail in Cozumel of several other businesses directed mainly to the local islanders or to tourists. Among these are the supermarkets Chedraui and Mega, retail businesses, restaurants and bars (for instance, Starbucks). In several of them, crew members can even obtain price reductions—as they do in other ports. The website provides information on places offering discounts to crew members, including local hotels, restaurants and bars (such as Señor Frog's, Carlos 'n Charlie's, and other hangouts for cruise members and other tourists), recreation places (e.g. bowling and billiard), beach resorts, national parks (e.g. Chankanaab), diving centers, health shops and spas (e.g. Cozumel Health, Crew Body Shop and Acqua Spa), dentists and vehicle rentals (a car or, more frequently in Cozumel, a scooter). Also, retail businesses (jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics, scuba diving equipment) and several calling and Internet services try to lure cruise-ship workers by offering reductions. Our informants never mentioned these reductions, yet according to the manager of Tapsihan:

“The tax-free shops are a good opportunity for them. Plus, some shops give like 10-15 percent discount to crew members. So if they want to buy a watch or something, they get discount”, (Christine, manager, Tapsihan).

35Many managers of cafés and restaurants have understood that the access to Internet is important, and offer their customers free wireless Internet on their own laptop while eating or drinking. So, for instance at the Starbucks, one often can find groups of crew members sitting with their laptops at the terrace, enjoying a cup of coffee, a milkshake, the good weather and free Internet.

36Generally, cruise personnel prefer to stay away from the places frequented by tourists (such as bars and restaurants, in which the island abounds) and tourist crowds in general. We also noticed that, likewise, in some of these places, crew members are not as warmly welcome as tourists are.

37On Figure 2, the spatial concentration of places visited by cruise-ship employees is shown in red. Most of these places are located within a short radius from the cruise terminals, confirming the observations of Seidl et al., (2006). The area, where, according to our observations, cruise tourists spend most of their time in town, is shown in green.

Figure 2. Cozumel, area most frequently visited by cruise-ship employees (in red) and area most frequently visited by tourists (in green)

Figure 2. Cozumel, area most frequently visited by cruise-ship employees (in red) and area most frequently visited by tourists (in green)

Source: Navil Vargas Sánchez (based on information gathered by the authors, and INEGI, 2010)

4. Activities of Cruise Employees in Cozumel

4.1. Enjoying food specialties

38When cruise-ship workers disembark, one of their main activities—if not the most important one—is having something 'good' and 'familiar' to eat. Asian cruise employees can often be found in a restaurant serving oriental food, such as Chi, Tapsihan, Fu Lin and Jia Yao. They often mention they don't enjoy the food from the galley, and that oriental dishes are rather rare on board.

“I go to a Filipino restaurant like the rest of the Filipino crew usually do… and eat the native delicacy that you don’t normally eat in the mess”, (Rosaline, Philippines).

39However, a Western informant reports exactly the opposite (although it might depend on the vessel):

“In the crew mess, it’s all Filipino food. Always rice and fish heads… It’s horrible”, (Sabrina, Germany).

40Once in Cozumel, Europeans, North Americans and other Western cruise employees (often staff) look for Western food. Almost every Western cruise worker has passed by and eaten at the No Name Bar, where besides hamburgers with French fries, some Mexican specialties (such as fajitas and quesadillas) can be ordered. They can sometimes be seen also at tourist-oriented restaurants—including the Asian Chi restaurant downtown—or, occasionally, at local restaurants offering Mexican food.

“I go to the No Name Bar usually… But there is a good Chinese restaurant too, I’ve been there [Chi restaurant downtown]”, (Sabrina, Germany).

“We usually go to eat Italian or something like that. Places like Pancho’s, Guido’s…”, (Christel, South Africa)

“Sometimes you can go to a local place to eat something. There is that local place that’s called Cocina Económica where they’ve got the best guacamole ever!”, (Weronica, Poland).

41Cruise employees clearly frequent different places offering different food options.

“The Asians are one group and the Europeans too. I think it’s because the taste of the food. In Asia, they have almost the similar taste together. And in Europe… I need bread. And when you go to a Chinese restaurant, we don’t have bread. We’ve got a lot of rice, but we don’t have bread. And that’s the reason why, you know that those two different cultures go to other places”, (Ramon, owner Chi restaurant).

42Another decisive aspect in choosing a restaurant is its location. Most crew members prefer restaurants close to the cruise terminals.

“Mostly we eat here [at Tapsihan], because it’s good and very close to the ship…”, (Mary, Philippines).

4.2. Socializing and drinking

43Getting together with friends—often also colleagues—is an important activity for crew and staff members. They meet mainly in bars and other places where the majority of the clientele are cruise workers. No Name Bar is the best example of these meeting places on the island for (mainly) staff members. The staff diaries (Stowers, 2008; Bruns, 2008) and travel blogs (Hedley, 2007c; Hedley, 2007d) repeatedly mention this place (twenty-three entries in Stowers') thereby testifying to the fact that No Name Bar is well known amongst the cruise employees.

44Asian, Caribbean and South American crew members visit other places of their choice. Many Asian crew members see the Oriental-style restaurant as a meeting place, where they stay to have a drink, sometimes even enjoy karaoke. Also, Club Salsa and Macarena are visited by them and by Caribbean and Afro-Americans.

45On some days, up to sixteen cruise-ships are docked in Cozumel, so the island offers the opportunity to meet friends and former colleagues working on different ships.

“That means you meet a lot of friends who end up working on different ships. Cozumel is the great "melting pot" for old acquaintances to get together and catch up”, (Los Rox, 2009).

46Although we did not record heavy drinking among the cruise workers during our observations, the owner of No Name Bar admits that this does happen, and the owner of The Crew Office confirms it. According to him, the activities of crew members on the island are:

“Internet, eating—they like to have lunch especially—, go to the beach and drinking of course; they never stop drinking! [laughing])”, (Victor, owner Internet café).

47Generally, we observed that cruise crew and staff avoid places where cruise tourists are drinking, such as Señor Frog’s and Carlos 'n Charlie's.

“We don’t go to Carlos 'n Charlie's or Margarithaville, because the guests there are, you know, only drunk and yelling and Aaaahh!!”, (Bruno, Portugal).

48Partying as such was not mentioned in our interviews. Yet, in the consulted diaries and travel blogs of crew and staff Cozumel has a reputation as a party place where having a drink (and getting drunk) even with tourists is a normal occurrence.

“During our years working on Cruise Ships, Cozumel was always the most entertaining port for the crew”, (Los Rox, 2009).

“Cozumel is our preferred port to party in”, (Hedley, 2007c).

“Today we're back in Cozumel, the port for parties and play”, (Hedley, 2007d).

“However, every crew member around the world who has ever been to Cozumel knows that this is an infamous port for enjoying the day and then partying at night”, (Stower, 2008).

4.3. Calling home

49Crew members usually work between six and ten months on board of a ship, without seeing their relatives and friends. Communication is therefore important, and for more than half of the informants it is the main activity during their stay in a port—and Cozumel is no exception. To chat via MSN or Skype, to check e-mails, to update their Facebook profile, are among their favorite activities, and ideal ways to keep family and friends informed.

“Go out for the Internet. Not so much beaches, because it gets a bit boring. But mostly Internet to stay in touch with everybody in your country. That’s a priority for me in Cozumel, there are lots of Internet cafés. Everybody has laptops and you just go, and there is wireless Internet. You buy a drink”, (Anna, Poland) .

“When I’m off, I usually go to any place where I can just eat and check my emails. So, it has to have wireless Internet, (Bruno, Portugal).

50Internet on board is not only comparatively very expensive, but the connections at sea are often bad and certain programs like Skype are blocked.

“What happens is, on board communication is very expensive. One phone call, one minute on the Internet—bad service by the way—is gonna cost you much much more than on land. Here in Mexico, the speed of Internet is slow, but you get more for less money”, (Roberto, Peru).

“And Internet, of course… On the ship you pay quite a lot for Internet, you pay twenty dollars for two or three hours, and here it is one dollar for one hour, so we go there a lot”, (Weronica, Poland).

4.4. Shopping for basics—and more

51Crew members take advantage of their scarce time ashore to shop for food, snacks and sodas, and toiletry and other products for personal hygiene (shampoo, deodorant, sanitary towels). More than seventy-five percent of our informants mentioned that they visit the supermarkets Mega and Chedraui, located rather close to Punta Langosta.

“I go to Chedraui or Mega. It’s easy, it’s in the center, next to the Filipino restaurant…so I buy there just some food and some stuff for myself”, (Rosaline, Philippines).

“We like to buy food and bring it back to the ship; we have a fridge in our cabin, so”, (James, Great Britain).

“Mostly, besides eating, it’s doing the shopping, for groceries, to Chedraui, because they need things for personal hygiene”, (Ramon, owner of Chi restaurant).

“I am going off course shopping a lot: Chedraui or Mega. I can’t stand anymore ship food. So I buy all the avocados and fruits and stuff and take it with me to the ship”, (Weronica, Poland).

52We never spotted crew members shopping for souvenirs, jewels or clothes, and in our interviews no one mentioned it as an activity. Since Cozumel has only a very limited offer of interesting garments shops, other ports were preferred for this activity.

“Well, some people do [shop for clothes], but you know, I wait for American ports. American shops are better to buy clothes. Here, not really, there are some shops but…they are not interesting”, (Anna, Poland).

53Shopping areas as the ones around Puerta Maya and Punta Langosta are in general not of the cruise workers' interest. They carry jewelry, souvenirs and clothing intended to allure tourists upon disembarking or embarking. However, during conversations with the manager of a surf gear shop and a vendor in a jewelry shop, both in Punta Langosta, we learned that crew members do shop for these items too. They even get a reduction of ten percent on their purchases.

4.5. Being a tourist during spare time

54Cozumel definitely provokes the feeling of being on holiday; the island has a very relaxing atmosphere.

“It's relaxing, the people are nice. And I don't know, if you step on this island, you just feel relaxed. I don't know, it just so much more chilled. When I compare it with Miami or Key West… they are completely different. More westernized. Here, it is like you feel on holiday”, (Jane, Great Britain).

55While in Cozumel, going to the beach is definitely part of the sojourn for many cruise employees. Or, some of them may buy a day-pass in a hotel near the cruise terminals (such as La Ceiba and Park Royal, near Puerta Maya), which offers the opportunity to enjoy a swimming pool or the beach as well as the hotel's bar, mostly in company of their friends.

“The resort is so nice—right on the beach, with a beautiful pool, pool side bars, a restaurant, snack stands. For $ 40 you have full use of the facilities and unlimited food and drinks, an amazing price for a full day! I only had a few hours there, so I had to quickly eat and drink my money’s worth. But I did. The food was so good (nice change from the mess). There is nothing like drinking strawberry daiquiris in the sunshine with lovely people”, (Hedley, 2007a).

56Although sunbathing might be a favorite pastime of most Europeans and North-Americans, many Asian crew members don't enjoy this.

“For us Filipinos, we aren’t so much excited with beaches, since we have a lot in my country. So we don’t usually go out to get tanned like the rest of the Europeans and Westerners do. We most of the time just go to a restaurant where we can have a good lunch while we can do our Internet”, (Rosaline, Philippines).

57Seven informants indicated that they had already done excursions to the other parts of the island including visits to Parque Chankanaab, swimming with the dolphins, horseback riding and snorkeling. Another excursion is a visit to the other side of the island, usually by a rented car or motor scooter. Two persons said they had even participated in a day's excursion to the Maya ruins in Tulum on the mainland. None of our informants mentioned to have gone diving, which is the tourists' favorite occupation in Cozumel. It could be due to lack of time, as someone did state.

58Only Western staff members enjoyed these activities, since they had both more free time and more money to spend. Crew members indeed generally mention lack of time as a reason for not taking part in excursions.

“Yeah, I did the zip line and I did the swimming with the dolphins. At Chankanaab… I also rent a car and went to the other side of the island”, (Bruno, Portugal).

“No, I don’t go on excursion... Because we only have two or three hours and then we have to go back to the ship”, (Jay, Philippines).

“We just walking around here…because we don’t have a lot of time, it’s a problem”, (Mary, Philippines).

59Other recreational activities mentioned by our informants were ball games at Cozumel's sports fields—not far from the cruise terminal downtown—or at Club Salsa—where basketball and soccer can be played—as well as bowling and mini-golf.

“The other crew members? Playing basket ball. Here, inside the town, at Margarithaville to the right and then, on your right side. In the sport center”, (Joseph, Philippines).

60'Experienced' cruise employees—those who have been already a few times to the island—know which activities to do, and the different places to go to. Those who know they will soon return to the island might postpone some activities because they will have other opportunities.

“Crew members are also tourists, except they’ve been here for a dozen of times, so they know the places”, (John, owner, No Name Bar).

“No, not yet. I plan to go to swim with the dolphins. I've only been here for three months, so for me, everything is pretty new here. I still got five months left, so I'm taking my time”, (Jane, Great Britain).

4.6. Medical services/Personal care

61Although some medical care can be obtained on board, our informants mentioned that when they need some extra care, they visit the Cozumel Medical Center (CMC). According to the receptionist, most patients in this private hospital are cruise workers who come for treatment for injuries, tooth ache and other dental care or a check up. The fact that all ten doctors are bilingual (Spanish/English) is definitely one of the main reasons why this hospital is often chosen.

“We have a very good service here…all the ships that depart from Miami, I think all of them, use Cozumel for…medical treatment. If I have to go to the dentist, I go in Cozumel… Everything goes to CMC, which is a private hospital”, (Bruno, Portugal).

62During our conversations and observations, we found that some cruise personnel indulged in massage, facial care, manicure and other beauty treatments in places, such as Calypso, Beauty Parlor or Aqua Spa. A haircut is however considered a risky venture, due to language differences.

4.7. Sex

63Mainly induced by our questions, some informants mentioned—without committing themselves—that some male crew members did visit places like Club Salsa, where prostitutes offer their services. Twenty-five percent of our informants—mostly men—knew about the existence of this or similar places. Two informants admitted to have visited such bars.

“Salsa? Oh yeah, I heard that there are many crew members there. I know that place yes, but we don’t go there”, (Joseph, Philippines).

“Once, I stayed here for three days and I went to a place…it said like…dancing girls… I just wanted to go to the peep show… And there was this girl, and she came to me, and she wanted to have sex and there was a room above. She said the price and everything… I wasn’t really understanding what she was saying because my Spanish is…not very rich in a sexual context [he laughs]..... This was funny but I didn’t do anything with her”, (Bruno, Portugal).

“Oh, but you have to be honest. Salsa, the place is disgusting, right? You go with all that power, all that energy there, and then you come there, and think…oooh no! And you only see Filipinos and some Indians. Just thinking, how many…you see the line, that’s disgusting, you think, no way!”, (Roberto, Peru)

64While crew members scarcely touched on this issue, our informants working with and for cruise workers claimed to know more about their visits to these places.

“Do you really want to know what the crew is doing on the island? Go to Salsa! You’ll see what they are doing there”, (John, owner, No Name Bar).

“These clubs are very open and…most of the girls, I heard, they are not Mexican. They are from different countries. They are from Brazil, Colombia…they said. But Salsa is not good. You have to go to Platino’s. That’s much better, they told me. There are younger girls and they are more pretty”, (Christine, manager, Tapsihan).

“They have all kinds of services. There is no place like Salsa on the island, so it’s good because they have everything. They won’t find anywhere else what they can find in Salsa… But if a local person wants to get in there and use their services, we can’t”, (Victor, manager, The Crew Office)

4.8. Contact with the local community

65None of our informants seemed to have contact with locals—beyond service personnel in shops, restaurants and bars. The fact that little contact exists between the local population and the crew can partly be explained by time limitations, since most cruise-ships stay for just a few hours at each port, leaving little opportunity for more than casual encounters. Language barriers are definitely another limitation. Most Cozumeleños don't speak English—or do it only very basically—and most of the crew don't know enough Spanish. This limits any possibility of getting to know each other.

“Well, you don’t have contact with normal natives. They always try to sell you something!”, (Sabrina, Germany).

“No I don’t know any local people. Maybe if we spend the night here we could be more social. But the time in port is too little, we usually go with friend from the ship”, (James, Great Britain).

“No, I don’t have friends here, because we just come here, and leave after a few hours”, (Joseph, Philippines).

Contact with locals is hard. Because I don't speak Spanish, so …”, (Jane, Great Britain).

66Some women did mention that they felt uncomfortable or irritated with the fact that local men whistle at them, and that local male vendors are very insistent, not only in luring them into the store.

“I don’t have contact with local people because they don’t speak English. The other ones who speak English [local sales men], they try to sell me something or they try to sell themselves like: 'Mexican massage' or 'Mexican boyfriend for free..!'”, (Izabela, Poland).

“You have got Mexicans were you can’t get rid off and they are just terrible… Girls they don’t give a damn, but guys are just terrible here. So you avoid them!”, (Weronica, Poland).

67However, some cruise employees do maintain contacts by e-mail with people working in the places they visit frequently and over time, since ships often dock at the same ports of call, some friendships may develop.

“Yeah, I have friends from different ships. I mean, not friends. I know their names because they come in every week or every two weeks. This bar has a page on Facebook, so I talk with them like that”, (Fabiola, waitress, No Name Bar).

“Yes, so many, there are people I know for ten years and I see them every year and when they leave again with the ship to go somewhere else I e-mail them”, (Victor, manager, The Crew Office).

68Some cruise employees also visit friends, former cruise employees who—temporarily, between contracts, or after having sailed to various ports—have decided to stay and live on the island, which affords them the possibility to stay near the cruise world.

5. Discussion

69Confronting our findings with the sparse information available on the activities of cruise employees in a port of call, we found several similarities and differences with former studies. Several businesses directed to satisfy the needs of cruise-ship workers, are located around the cruise terminals. This goes in the same line as indicated by Seidl et al., (2006) on the concentration of money spent around the port of call.

70Activities mentioned in the literature could also be found in Cozumel, such as having some food and drinks, shopping for snacks or food and toiletries, medical care, communication with the home front. Internet has gained more importance than calling nowadays, and the rather cheap or even free Internet offered in Cozumel has a surplus value. We did not undertake a study into money spending, as did the study of BREA (2007), but their data on the important spending on food and beverages has been confirmed. Transportation also takes a substantial amount of the budget spent by cruise employees who go downtown from Puerta Maya or from Muelle Internacional. Spending on clothing, jewelry and souvenirs was not confirmed. In fact, in relation to clothing, these data were even refuted. Also, in the study of BREA, only four percent of the crew indicated to take part in excursions, while in our study almost one-third of the interviewees reported to have gone on one or more excursions. Differences in interpretation of 'excursion' or the overrepresentation of the staff in our sample could be the cause. Activities such as money transfers, as mentioned by Weaver (2005), were not confirmed in this study. Although crew members still transfer money, one of our informants mentioned he uses the automated money transfer system available on board (Jay, Filipino).

71In this study, some light was shed on activities not mentioned in the literature, particularly on the commercial sexual encounters.

72Our findings also reveal some of the factors that determine the cruise employees' choice of activities and places in a port of call such as Cozumel.

5.1. Away from work: not as a tourist, nor among tourists

73First, being off the ship—being off work—does not necessary imply a cruise worker is a tourist or will be found among tourists. Free moments on the ship are rather scarce, since cruise employees’ work for long hours, for days in a row, and some free hours are a welcomed change. They want to relax, far away from work and the drag of daily life, from their everyday routine on the ship... It is a moment to rest before starting again.

“But also this thing, you need to go out, and change environment, just rest a little”, (Anna, Poland)

“You just relax before going back for another long hours of work”, (Weronica, Poland).

Cozumel days have begun to feel the way a Saturday feels back home in a regular work routine life. We look forward to it all week and when the day rolls around we just love every moment. (Hedley, 2007b)

74That they are generally not on a holiday in Cozumel is also indicated by the fact that ship-workers engage in several activities not typical of tourists (such as shopping for snacks and toiletries, or seeking medical care).

75Time off the ship is shared with friends or even the partner, with whom one has little time on board. Cruise-ship employees in general prefer to be away from the tourist crowd during their time off. The fact that they don't want to mingle with the passengers was also indicated by UNWTO (2008).

“I don't go to places where I know all the rest are gonna be. Like, guests are fine, but I'm with them on the boat all the time. And this is my time, and I don't really want to be with the guests. I avoid them. I don't go to Señor Frogs, I don't go to Margarithaville or Champagne and Charlie's…or whatever it is… They tell us all the time, yeah, we go there, you should come…but, I avoid them. I don't want to be with them on the island”, (Jane, Great Britain).

5.2. Job-related factors

76Not all cruise-ship workers engage in the same activities while on the island, nor do they visit the same businesses. In trying to understand these differences, we identified some differentiating factors. A first group of factors (free time and money) are related to the job one fulfils onboard and to its position in the hierarchy. These factors determine different behavior patterns at the ports of call.

77Crew workers don't seem to have more than a few hours to spend in Cozumel, since they are often expected to work or carry out some maintenance duties while the ship is docked. Staff members, on the other hand—musicians, casino personnel, entertainers—have comparatively more time to spend on the island. The five-to-six-hours free time cited by Weaver (2005) seems therefore only true for the staff's reality.

“Oh, we almost have eight hours (of spare time on Cozumel). From nine until five o’clock. Housekeeping, they only have three hours, because they are always busy. But the musicians, they are free the whole day. Only at night we work”, (Joseph, musician, Filipino).

“We only have two or three hours and then we have to go back to the ship”, (Jay, housekeeping, Filipino).

78Staff members generally earn more than crew members, and have more freedom of choice and a larger purchasing power. Crew members earn much less, which partly explains their preference for low-budget restaurants compared to the more expensive restaurants and bars favored by staff members.

79In view of the time and money constraints, the distance to downtown businesses from the cruise terminal where the ship docks, becomes for some an additional limitation affecting their choice. Commuting back and forth consumes both time—a precious and often limited resource—and money, since, in the absence of public transportation to places outside town, a taxi must be hired. A trip back and forth between Puerta Maya or Muelle Internacional and the center of town costs $ 16 USD. Therefore, many crew members prefer to visit the businesses close to the terminals.

5.3. Cultural factors

80As indicated above, some of the different behavior patterns that can be observed among cruise ship employees from different regional groups and nationalities are directly related to the individual's job and position in the ethnically-stratified labor hierarchy. However, our research also demonstrates that certain intervening cultural factors are equally—if not more—important in explaining the differences in activities, places and company sought by different kinds of employees.

81Western and Asian ship workers engage in different activities and visit different places. It is evident, for example, that Asians prefer their own cuisine, and therefore usually look for Oriental restaurants where they are served in their own languages, according to their own habits, customs and traditions. Westerners choose mainly Western food, although they are relatively open to other tastes, such as the local Mexican food or Asian food. Cultural differences are also observed in the attitudes towards beach activities, which are mostly undertaken by Western cruise employees, whereas, as we have already indicated, Asian cruise employees show little interest in going to the beach. It is not clear whether the little participation of Asians in excursions has to do with economic aspects, or could also be explained by cultural interests.

82Interesting to note is also the fact that owners and managers of businesses directed to cruise employees,—as well as their personnel—often have the same nationality or cultural background of their clients. They speak the language of their customers and try to answer to specific—often culturally-determined—needs, such as the preparation of typical dishes. Or they have been cruise workers themselves, and therefore know what their clientele is looking for.

83Culture also determines whom one spends time with. Gibson (2008, p. 50) observed that « social communities were often sub-divided according to rank or position, departmental or occupational membership and in some cases, nationality or culture ». We could observe that whereas Asian ship-workers are mostly befriended by people of the same cultural background and socialize by nationality, Western workers tend to relate to Western colleagues from different nationalities and from the department they work in. This is clear in the Philippine restaurant, for instance, where almost all customers are Filipinos, in contrast to the No Name Bar, where people of all Western nationalities can be found.

“Actually, it’s kind of the Western cultures stick together. Canadians, Americans, Europeans, South Africans, Australians… And within department as well, like Entertainment… Asians seem to be ‘clicky’ with their culture and we seem to be ‘clicky’ within department”, (Christel, South Africa).

84Besides nationality, language is also important in bringing people together. We noticed that Asian ship workers basically spoke their own language, while Westerners communicated easily in English, even if this was not their mother tongue. Their language skills are better, which gives them the possibility to communicate with people from other countries.

85We sensed that prejudices and stereotypes—some even with a racist undertone—are sometimes the basis for the segregation between Western and non-Western ship workers.

“Filipinos don’t know how to relate with other nationalities at all. The other ones mingle and make friends. You can’t make friends with Filipinos… Their culture is different. They are inconsiderate. They don’t hold the door open for you. They just don’t do that. While Europeans, if you see someone is coming behind you, you do it out of courtesy. They don’t have any courtesy!”, (Sabrina, Germany).

“The good thing probably is that they want to keep their culture. But they block themselves to the entire world. The Indians and Filipinos, so we say. Again, we go back to those barriers, I think, culture and language. Most of them, they don’t speak English very good and their traditions are completely different than ours. If there is nothing in their plate with rice or fish, they are not gonna order. But it is interesting as well, because I saw big communities of Asians, and they stay together, they help each other, I never saw them fighting like we. We do fight, because we think different… But in my case, I don’t hang out with them. I think, they drink too much, they are macho men, they life only between guys…”, (Roberto, Peru).

86Cultural differences between cruise employees and locals are not very important in determining the activities carried out on the island, although we mentioned the irritation and the uncomfortable feeling of some Western women with the behavior of Latin males, and the lack of knowledge of Spanish or English, which might make it difficult for many to engage in certain activities.

6. Final Remarks

87Worldwide, cruise tourism is very important for any port of call, in terms not only of the number of passengers it brings, but also of the number of cruise workers that disembark. Nevertheless, cruise-ship workers have for the most part been overlooked, and published research on their experiences—and in particular on their activities in a port of call—is extremely scarce. To help fill this void, this research intended to get a glimpse into the activities of cruise-ship workers in Cozumel.

88The research presented here had an explorative character, and its results are limited, due to the small number of informants and the clear overrepresentation of staff and women in our sample. Through these interviews, we have basically managed to scratch the surface, given also the limitations in terms of time and language skills. Also, since this is a single-case study, the results are site-specific and therefore, can not be generalized.

89Yet, as far as we know, this is the first time that the activities of cruise-ship workers are brought to the fore as a subject matter. Our results not only confirm what others have marginally found out, but have revealed some activities not even mentioned before. Notwithstanding its limitations, this research has removed a portion of the veil covering the behavior of cruise-ship employees for so long—both in a port of call in general and in Cozumel in particular. Even more importantly, it has revealed some of the factors that determine the cruise employees' choice of activities and places, and drawn attention to the existing differences stemming from economic, labor-related, and cultural factors.

90More in-depth investigation is without doubt recommendable to complement these preliminary findings, and to get a better insight into the activities of cruise personnel. It would help to disentangle the relative importance of those factors that are related to the job-hierarchy and those that relate to culture—or both since jobs are often differentiated in terms of ethnic origin. Finally, more research on the ethnic component of businesses on the island and their orientation to certain subgroups of cruise-ship employees could be very enriching.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Cozumel Island (Mexico)
Crédits Source: José Jonathan Ibarra Coronel (based on INEGI, 2010)
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Photo 1. Entry to No Name Bar
Crédits Source: G.Dierckx
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k
Titre Photo 2. Club Salsa
Crédits Source: G.Dierckx
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre Figure 2. Cozumel, area most frequently visited by cruise-ship employees (in red) and area most frequently visited by tourists (in green)
Crédits Source: Navil Vargas Sánchez (based on information gathered by the authors, and INEGI, 2010)
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
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Anne Marie Van Broeck et Guy Dierckx, « Activities of Cruise-Ship Employees in Cozumel, Mexico »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 18 | Avril 2011, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2011, consulté le 02 avril 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Marie Van Broeck

Catholic University Leuven, Belgium;

Guy Dierckx

Tourism Antwerp, Belgium; Project Developer,

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