The Norwegian Connection I
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Look around the twentieth century Western cruisescape and what do you see? Norwegians, right?! Norwegians everywhere! You may not have noticed them because these crafty mountain folk look a lot like any other Tom, Dick and Harry but ask them a question in English and that exotic vowel use and playful accent that makes every statement sound like a question are dead giveaways. You probably think I’m kidding, but I’m not. The world’s third-largest cruise corporation is called Norwegian Cruise Line, despite never having been founded in or based out of Norway. The men (and the money) in the early timeline of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line were predominantly Norwegian. The ‘Olsen’ in Fred. Olsen Cruise Line is straight out of the Norwegian fjords. Norway boasts one of the most internationally recognized domestic cruise lines, despite the stubbornly un-international name Hurtigruten.
A surprisingly large number of cruise lines – current as well as bygone – have Norwegian blood (or money) flowing in their corporate veins and Norwegian mariners at the helm of their ships. I do not have exact statistics on hand but I’d wager that Norwegian sailors (at least officers) are only rivalled numerically by Brits in the cruise industry. And we all ‘get’ the British prevalence at sea, right? – island nation, maritime empire, ‘Britannia rule the waves’ and so on. But where do the hardy farmers and fishermen of a far-flung mountain realm get off shaping and dominating the development of the modern cruise industry. Funny you should ask…
Once upon a fjord...
... there was a rugged, snowcapped land to the North – essentially just a mountain range poking out of the cold sea - sporting the longest (and craggiest) coastline of any European country. This was Norway – home to the descendants of the Vikings. Todays story is not going to take you all the way back to the Viking Age of the 10th and 11th century, but suffice to know the Norwegians were already building on close to a millennia of seafaring mastery by the time we pick up our story. It's still going to be a lengthy tale though - you may want to put the kettle on.
Anyway, even as history moved along from the Vikings, the dramatic topography remained so restrictive to urban growth and national infrastructure that most settlements never grew beyond village-size and many of them never connected to any national road or rail network (what little there was), but remained accessible by sea only. The mountainous terrain did not leave much room for agriculture either, prompting Norwegians from the beginning to adopt fishing not only as a survival occupation but as a generational lifestyle. Thusly, a great many Norwegians have always gone to sea for their livelihood and – by Darwinian conditioning – evolved into highly skilled mariners (because the harsh Norwegian Sea and treacherous coastlines are not very forgiving to dilettantes and Sunday Sailors). Many followed the ocean’s call beyond Norwegian borders and by 1875, Norway was the world's third largest shipping nation with 60.000 sailors.
The Great Dispersal
The loot and plunder of the Viking Ages had apparently been squandered, because by this time most Norwegians were poor as stave church mice and life in this rugged land was arduous, deprived and dreary. While many took off in search of better work opportunities, even more took their entire families and set off in search of a better life altogether. Thousands of Norwegians left their homeland behind, mainly in two massive waves of emigration – one from 1880-1893 and another from 1900-1910 – which sent many gravitating towards America as the land of dreams. By the early twentieth century US census showed a million Norwegians living in the US, while the entire population of Norway barely stood at 2.5 million. It is noteworthy that the Norwegian connection to seamanship was so strong that even when most Norwegians eventually settled in a landlocked region of America (i.e. in rural areas of the Midwest and the Great Plains), many still managed to find employment on ships. By the late 19th century two-thirds of sailors working the ships of Lake Michigan were of Norwegian descent.
A Nation Undefined
As Norwegians themselves quickly spread out across the globe, the world remained largely oblivious of the great land in the North. Norway was not an imperial powerhouse, not the strategic or military intersection of anything and not a bounty of rare and valuable resources (that was well before they clued on to the oil). It was barely even a country in its own right – having only won full independence from Danish rule in 1814, only to be immediately forced into an uneasy union with Sweden that would last the rest of the 19th century. Norway was likely a place that most people – even fairly well-educated ones – needed help tracing on a map. This lack of well-defined national, political and colonial identity and legacy actually stood Norwegian sailors in good stead on their journeys around the world - unlike sailors of British, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch nationality they were not seen as representatives of colonial aggression or commercial exploitation, but mostly just as highly skilled mariners with funny accents from 'somewhere up north'. And despite my relentless ribbing of Norwegians throughout this piece, they are actually a good-natured and agreeable lot, so it's not hard to imagine them being welcomed and accepted whereever they went.
The Coronation Cruise
Now, if you want to get technical about it (and of course you do! Why else are you here?) the very first Norwegian-operated leisure cruise was in 1851, when coastal shipping company Nordenfjeldske Dampskibsselskab (Nordenfjeldske Steamship Co.) dispatched their paddle steamer D/S Nidelven on a leisure cruise from Trondheim to London with multiple embarkation points along the Norwegian coast. You can argue whether that qualifies as a cruise or just a passage and at any rate it wasn't a commercial success and wasn't repeated, so let's just file that one as an 'idea ahead of its time'.
The real kick-off to the Norwegian cruise adventure happened in 1873 when newly crowned Swedish/Norwegian King Oscar II decided to take a celebratory ‘cruise’ on the occasion of his coronation in Trondheim along the Norwegian coastline all the way to the North Cape and invited a delegation of foreign press along for the ride. Among them was French/American travel writer (and also zoologist and anthropologist) Paul du Chaillu who was greatly impressed by the scenery and experience and wrote about his 'fjord cruising' adventure in the travel book ‘The Land of the Midnight Sun’, not only creating one of the first successful viral destination marketing pieces but also coining a perennial tourism slogan for Norway. This and (let’s be fair) the combined writings of the rest of the press delegation made heads turn toward Norway as an attractive travel destination for the first time ever.
Obviously cruising would be the way to experience this new destination, not just because that was the perspective Du Chaillu had written from in his book but because the underdeveloped infrastructure did not leave you much other choice. Commercial cruises had already been operating in Europe since the mid-1840’s, though mostly in the Mediterranean and not with any kind of regularity, but the concept was tried and tested well enough to transfer more or less seamlessly to Norway. But while the Med remained cruiseable throughout most of the year, this was likely the first time cruise operators had to grapple with a strictly seasonal cruise region, that essentially only offered 3 summer months’ worth of safe, reliable and enjoyable weather. But it did not take cruise operators long to realize that having a summer destination – especially one this close to the primary source market of Great Britain – was an ideal and profitable complement to the Mediterranean summer season which was often too oppressively hot to enjoy, especially in an age of Victorian multi-layered attire and no onboard air conditioning. Thus, Norway became the second big cruise region to be commercially explored in the early years of cruising and the business logic of switching cruise regions with the seasons became apparent, long before full-time cruise ships came about to practice it.
A New Appeal
Coincidentally, It also marked a distinct change in the type of experiential value you could market a cruise on. Until this point cruising had largely branded itself as the seafaring version of the ‘Grand Tour’ (read Lost Origin) - trading on a 200-year-old rite of passage for young, wealthy European men to roam the continent (especially the highlights of classical antiquity and renaissance) in a mix of education, gallivanting and social networking with the crème de la crème of European elites. Cruising positioned itself as the more affordable (in time as well as money) and more crowd-pleasing version of a Grand Tour for upper middle-class socialites seeking to emulate their betters, offering itineraries of ocean-adjacent highlights of European history in a tight, but affordable package. But Norway was decidedly not part of the Grand Tour curriculum. There were no Seven Wonders or architectural masterpieces to see, no cradles of classical civilization and no hotspots of European high society to mingle in. Only breathtaking nature vistas and a quaint and interesting culture – but lo and behold, that was more than enough. Amongst many other contributions to the cruise phenomenon, Norway can be credited with adding scenery and wonder of nature to a destination attraction palette that - until that point - largely consisted of the relics and legacy of 'classical' history and culture.
Commercial leisure cruising in Norway started with British tour operator Thomas Cook launching the first Norwegian coastal cruise out of Bergen in July of 1875 (reportedly sending 21 guests on the Norwegian coastal steamer SS Præsident Christie of the Krohn Linje) and other tour operators and shipping companies soon followed suit (read Northbound). Norwegian locals all along the coastline saw these new travelers arrive - not the merchants and functionaries they were used to seeing but instead happy sightseers who brought money, work and momentary flashes of worldly color and diversion in an otherwise monotone and arduous existence. Most of the early cruise vessels were Norwegian charter ships with Norwegian crews, who would all too happily brag to every local sailor wannabe they met about how this was the ‘easiest gig afloat’ – sailing for a living but without the backbreaking hardship and constant peril of open ocean fishing or manual cargo handling. One can easily imagine the wide-eyed youths going “Whååt? Where dø we sign åp?” as they felt their wanderlust stir and contemplated a 'cushy' career path at sea. There is little doubt that the ever-cycling traffic of cruise guests in and out of Norwegian fjords served to keep the cruise phenomenon front and center in the public consciousness and to act as a constant lure for young, restless seafarers.
The Fred Olsen Story
One cruise line of Norwegian descent actually predates the arrival of cruise ships in Norway, namely the now UK-based Fred. Olsen cruise line. They started as a family enterprise in Hvitsten, Norway in 1850 with three Olsen-brothers, Fredrik Christian, Petter and Andreas Olsen - all three sea captains - combining forces (and ships) to start a cargo shipping company. That company went international and branched out into passenger shipping by the early twentieth century and eventually further out into leisure cruising – perhaps inspired by the continual cruise traffic in and out of their home country. Fred. Olsen Cruise Line is to this day an important part of the family-owned holding company Fred. Olsen & Co. (now on the fifth generation of Olsen-ownership) and still cruises the Norwegian Fjords in summertime.
The Olsen family story is very emblematic, not just of the wanderlust and entrepreneurship of those generations, but of a central tenet in the Norwegian national psyche; that of collaboration, interdependence and equality. True, these were brothers and a certain family cohesion and solidarity is to be expected, but even devoid of kinship Norwegians were far more likely to seek out collaboration and consensus than try to strike out on their own or get the best of others. The proverb ‘It takes a village’ may as well have been coined in Norway, because that is exactly what it took for small, isolated and poor communities to overcome their circumstances and it is an affinity that Norwegians carry with them to this day.
Hand in hand with that goes a special egalitarian outlook. The demographics of small Norwegian villages were rarely more diverse than Farmer / Sailor / Trader. There was no gentry or nobility, few insurmountable wealth gaps and little reason to observe hierarchies based on anything other than the value of your contribution to the community. This fostered a unique egalitarian mindset that is likewise now an ingrained trait in the Norwegian psyche. When seeking partners for collaboration Norwegians will judge you solely and soberly by your (perceived) practical usefulness, contribution and intentions and will work with anyone regardless of their social standing, clout or legacy. So not only are Norwegians more prone to engage in collaborative efforts, they are also more open-minded and pragmatic about who they work with. That is a very broad characterization, I know, but don't just take my word for it - pre-eminent Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede who did some groundbreaking work on charting cultural dimensions across the world totally agrees with me. So stick a pin in these observations because they will be back later.
Bergen Steamship Company
It didn’t take Norwegians long to get in on the cruise game. Obviously, these new visitors represented an interesting new business opportunity and why should Norwegians settle for just the meagre shoreside spendings of tourists, when they could easily get in on a business they knew better than most – navigating the Norwegian coastline. Enter Bergenske Dampskibsselskab (Bergen Steam Ship Co.) out of Bergen, one of many small regional coaster operators of the time receiving state subsidies for running mail services - they had been watching the Krohn Line grapple with the first British charter groups, at first to rather unimpressive returns but gradually with more and more success. By 1878 the Krohn Line brand is subsumed by Bergenske and Thomas Cook withdraws from the charter, leaving Bergenske to start pursuing cruise tourism potential locally and independently. Before long all four ships of the fleet, the Præsident Christie, the Michael Krohn, the John Schøning and the Jonas Lie are operating seasonal leisure jaunts around the popular Vestland Fjord area (i.e. the fjords of the West Coast) and as far as the North Cape, primarily with guests from the emerging British and German upper middle class segment.
These first outings were not even fully designated leisure cruises but just blocked first-class cabin segments on the regular intracoastal steamer network with travel guide escort and sometimes involving change of vessels en route or even overnights in hotels ashore. Never the less, they quickly became immensely popular, in large part due to alluring travel accounts by participants being published in popular travel periodicals back home and the continued circulation of Du Chaillu's travel book. The sailings departed Norwegian ports but German guests could book their liner passage to Norway through Bergenske's own liner network to Hamburg (maybe even on the same ticket) whereas British guests would initially have to make their way to Hamburg to catch a ride to Norway due to the scarcity of passenger connections across the North Sea. Passenger traffic would however start up across the North Sea before the end of the 1870's, in large part due to the demand from the leisure travel market, and would end up becoming a major feeder line for British cruise tourism in Norway.
Nordenfjeldske Steam Ship Company
By 1879 Bergenske starts a collaboration with aforementioned Trondheim-based Nordenfjeldske Steam Ship Co. to extend the reach of their leisure cruises all the way from the Western Fjords to the North Cape. In turn, Nordenfjeldske starts to take an interest in cruise traffic and by 1883 they have their ships Haakon Jarl II and Sverre Sigurdssøn operating regular leisure cruises to North Cape out of Trondheim, followed by newbuild Olav Kyrre two years later inaugurating a tourist service to Svalbard – a rugged, ice-clad archipelago some 750 km / 466 mi due north of Norway and the Northernmost point of… well, anything really. And with that, the entire coastline from the Northernmost to the Southernmost point was opened to cruise tourism and there was barely any 'landsbygd' (rural area) too remote or obscure enough to avoid cruise traffic, provided the scenery was spectacular enough. Bergenske and Nordenfjeldske, whether in cahoots or in competition, would very much become the binary axis around which the Norwegian-based cruise operations turned for decades onwards. Yes, there were other local companies getting in on the cruise business but no one drove and impacted the cruise business in Norway for as long or as consistently as these two. So if I am giving them a lot of focus, it's because they earned it.
Throughout the 1880’s and 1890's cruise traffic steadily increases in the fjords, mostly British guests but now to a greater extent also German, French and other nationalities with a growing travel-happy upper middle class. Up until the mid-1880's the ships consist almost exclusively of Norwegian coastal steamers, under partial or full charter by either foreign operators or their Norwegian owners but in the summer of 1884 the SS Ceylon (which you can read all about in both Following Fogg and Poly at Sea) becomes the first foreign-flagged, designated cruise ship to call in Norwegian fjords. Full-time designated cruise ships will remain a rarity up until the 20th century, but by the 1890's more and more foreign-flagged ocean liners on cruise duty from outside Norway (particularly from Great Britain and Germany) started to appear alongside the Norwegian steamers. This took some volume away from the Norwegian ships, causing a consolidation onto specific designated itineraries, schedules and fixed departure ports (primarily Bergen now), much to the relief of travelling Norwegian merchants, business men and functionaries who were getting seriously fed up with never being able to get a decent cabin on the steamer network in the summer season.
The Norwegian ships were small and basic to begin with – few were larger than 1.000 gross tons, longer than 60 m / 200 ft or held more than 150-200 guests. Amenities and facilities were usually just the bare necessities without much pomp or glamour. Design-wise they were really cargo liners, as outside their relatively short summer seasons, they mainly served in a cargo carrying capacity. With the introduction of tourist traffic, the ships developed an annual cycle of refits, going into dock in the late spring for a thorough cleaning, painting (the hulls were painted white) and fitting with awnings, deck chairs, canvas sheets and other trappings of comfort and style so they could get in presentable shape for the glamourous tourist season, only to shed it all again after the summer. The makeover would even include the removal of superfluous cargo handling equipment from the deck and the transformation of cargo holds into temporary cabins. One can only hope they scrubbed those walls thoroughly because for the remainder of the year, that space was primarily used to haul fish. These white-hulled ships would then emerge transformed and spread out into the fjords again as full or partial cruise ships, heralding the tourist season in much the same way as migratory birds herald the summer.
While they may have offered First Class accommodation nominally, in reality they did not measure up to the luxurious ocean liners on seasonal breaks that British and German shipping companies would now dispatch to Norway. But then size was not always an asset in narrow fjords, shallow inlets and tiny fishing villages with limited docking facilities and resources, and neither was luxury in an age when tourism was becoming more and more accessible to the middle class. The clientele was there – the Brits had already proven this with early experiments in mainstream cruising developing out of the UK (read Northbound or Poly at Sea) – and true to their unique egalitarian outlook, Norwegian operators did not care if their clientele was noble, wealthy or famous – as long as there was sound business in it. And that philosophy paid off for them - despite growing international competition, the Norwegian cruise business continued to grow.
But compared to their British and German counterparts, the Norwegian companies faced an extra hurdle; they could not sell leisure products to their home market. Most Norwegians did not have the budget nor the inclination to seek out leisure cruises in their own ‘backyard’. Sales and marketing had to be targeted to overseas markets, mainly England and Germany where the pursuit of leisure tourism was gaining its biggest foothold. This meant points of sale, supply lines and marketing in two different overseas markets / languages – a very daunting task (read: expense) for one small regional shipping company. But in a sensible (and characteristically Norwegian) fashion, they collaborated their way around the issue. The joint venture between Bergenske and Nordenfjeldske started in 1879 resulted in a shared sales/marketing apparatus overseas that sold both companies under the same umbrella and by 1890 churned out around 40.000 foreign-language sales brochures a year.
The Express Route
This collaborative spirit among regional shipping companies no doubt helped facilitate the early establishment of another uniquely Norwegian cruise operation – that unique mix of intracoastal supply ferry / expedition cruise line that is Hurtigruten (‘Express Route’ in English). Hurtigruten was established in 1893 when the Swedish-Norwegian government contracted regional shipping companies, initially Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab, to pioneer a regular and swift transit line between Southern and Northern Norway and connecting the many minor towns in-between – a journey that had previously only been possible by leap-frogging between different regional carriers. Despite the enourmous distance and the countless navigational perils, the initial run was an unqualified success and Vesteraalens was soon after joined by the already intertwined Bergenske and Nordenfjeldske Dampskibsselskab and eventually even more regional operators, obtaining concessions and joining the unified service to extend the route northwards and southwards and creating a fleet of 11 ships linking 34 ports on a consolidated and regular timetable. And once again it speaks to the Norwegian talent for collaboration that this many commercial rivals could come together peacefully and effectively to create a network that boosted the commercial and economic development of the entire region and tied Norway together as a nation (well before it even was one on paper).
The Hurtigruten initiative was initially not intended for tourism but just as what had happened some 50 years earlier with the British Royal Mail Service, once you put together a scheduled and coordinated travel network that opens up new frontiers, entrepreneurial travel agents and adventurous tourists will be among the first to make use of it. Tourists and travel groups would seek out this experience too, at least until cruise business in Norway consolidated into more of a niche market with designated seasonal 'cruise ships'. Hurtigruten would continue as what it was conceived as; an intracoastal mail/cargo/passenger-carrying service and would not officially start to pivot towards leisure cruising until the 1930’s when the Norwegian tourism authorities, petitioned by the participating shipping companies, started to actively promote more tourist traffic on the service to counter the increasing outflow of tourists to foreign-flagged ships.
The Golden Age
Let’s not get bogged down in year-for-year recounting of specifics – there’s enough material here to write an entire book (series) – but suffice to say the early twentieth century was a regular Golden Age of cruising in Norway. Traffic increased and ships grew bigger and more sophisticated. Norwegians learnt how to make their intracoastal steamers more comfortable and tourist-friendly, the British learnt how to successfully convert ocean liners to full time cruise ships and Germans went all the way and outright designed and constructed the world’s first purpose-built luxury cruise ships (read the White Princess). The brief summer months in Norway turned into a hectic bustle of glammed up coastal steamers, majestic ocean liners and elegant white cruise yachts, cris-crossing eachothers wakes going in and out of fjords.
Boosting Local Economies
Even the general population ashore learned to recognize and appreciate cruise ships - not just as silhouettes on the fjord, but as harbingers of summer, peace, profit, opportunity and diversion. While shoreside spendings may have been the smallest cut of the overall cruise pie, it still made a big difference to poor families in far-flung villages who found ways of tapping into it. Family homesteads soon learned the value of keeping an extra Stolkjærre or Kariol (traditional horse-drawn carts) in the barn, even if only used to drive tourists around for the summer, or the value of turning your porch or garden into a pop-up café for roaming sightseers, or the value of selling local handicraft and knick-knacks produced during the winter months. Docking facilities were improved upon, road networks were expanded and improved and hotels started popping up - all in an effort to facilitate the growing tourist business. Cruise tourism helped boost local economies, maybe not massively but at least consistently, in a way that just did not happen in other regions at the time. Elsewhere in Europe cruise ships tended to gravitate towards major landmark destinations and capital cities, where their economic impact was not felt as greatly, but in Norway where any tiny village was a potential cruise destination, tourism revenue flowed directly to those most in need of it. So in its own small way cruise tourism contributed to building up Norway and in turn gained a mostly positive image with Norwegians (the fact that this image is now turning increasingly bleak due to the massively increased size, frequency and impact of todays cruise ships will have to remain a subject for a different time).
A Nation is Born
Norway finally gained its full independence from Sweden in 1905 and came into its own as an independent country. On paper cruise traffic may not have had much to do with this process, but I would argue that for a young nation, looking for something to base its national identity on, the constant stream of travelers coming to admire the Norwegian countryside certainly helped reinforce one of the corner stones of Norwegian national identity; their undying love of and pride in the nature of their homeland. With nationhood came proper transoceanic passenger shipping lines because any independent nation worth its salt obviously needed its own merchant marine. This came about through a nationwide amalgamation of smaller, local shipping agencies into large-scale shipping empires, capable of entering the transatlantic passenger business, driven by the introduction of new joint-ownership structures and subsidized by the government. When the Kristianiafjord of the newly formed flag carrier Norwegian-American Line set sail on her maiden voyage from Bergen to New York in June of 1907, it not only marked Norway's entry into the transatlantic passenger business, but the beginning of an actual oceangoing passenger merchant fleet.
The Cost of War
In most historical narratives it would seem flippant to breeze by a World War in a brief paragraph, but since war is the very antithesis to what we are talking about, we shall do just that. Norway was neutral in World War I … at least on paper (I’m thinking there was a reason why the Brits keep referring to Norway as ‘the neutral ally’), but due to their widespread presence on the world’s war-torn oceans and the rather lax observance of neutrality status by German u-boat captains, Norway did end up losing 889 ships (close to half its entire merchant fleet) and 2.000 sailors to the conflict. During those years, cruise traffic mostly came to a halt as ocean travel in war time was dangerous and as both the primary cruise players of Germany and Britain were too busy pounding each other bloody.
The war ended in 1918 but the bounceback took a long time; the world's merchant fleets were depleted and leisure travel was no one's first priority, the Spanish Flu was ravaging the world in several successive waves and (just like Covid19) was keeping people away from ships and other confined spaces, and the expected post-war recovery boom was a surprising non-starter. For America the twenties may have been roaring, but for Europe they started out hushed and sluggish. The European merchant fleets that should have supplied the recovery stagnated ... except for the Norwegian one which doubled in size in the interwar years. Demonstrating a knack for maritime specialisation, the Norwegians had seized on a rapidly developing niche market; that of oil tankers. With the growing popularity of the diesel engine, the world was now finding itself in need of tankers, rather than colliers – especially since the unrestricted submarine warfare of WWI had culled the existing fleet substantially. Norwegian shipping companies happily stepped in to fill the gap and quickly developed considerable expertise in the operation of oil tankers. By the end of the interwar period Norway had gone from 0 to almost 20% of the world's combined tanker tonnage operation – a development which would coincidentally set them on a converging path with the international cruise industry only a couple of decades later.
Going into Luxury
Perhaps it was this windfall that allowed them to break new ground where others stood still. In 1921 Bergenske took the Norwegian cruise game to a new level. Perhaps realizing that the troubled twenties was not generating much mainstream demand, Bergenske stepped outside their comfort zone and purchased the former HAPAG luxury cruise yacht Meteor for the purpose of operating luxury cruises year-round, inside and outside Norway. The Germans had practically created the luxury cruise market pre-war but with their loss in WWI, they were no longer able to hold on to it. The market was still there, though - if anyone could afford to go cruising now, it was the fabulously wealthy, floating high above the stewing economic recession and political turmoil of Europe. Bergenske likely realized this and made a deliberate move to hijack the budding luxury cruise market away from its creator. Erstwhile partners and rivals Nordenfjeldske likely reached the same realization and – not wanting to get left behind – bought the former British royal yacht, Alexandra in 1925, refitted her for cruising and renamed her Prins Olav, thus tailgating Bergenske into the luxury cruise market. Acknowledging the luxury one-upmanship, they had just started, Bergenske countered with a stoic ‘Hold my Aquavit!’ and then proceeded to commission perhaps the most famous and iconic of luxury cruise yachts, the Stella Polaris in 1925. These were all luxury cruise yachts and you can read all about what made them so special in Age of Yachts but for the purposes of this discussion, it heralds the transition of Norwegian operators to full-time cruise operators and their entry into, if not actually 'takeover of' the luxury cruise market - a market they would since come to influence quite substantially.
At the Top of their Game
While these ships always remained faithful to Norwegian waters in the summer, they needed places to go for the rest of the year and they could soon be spotted in fashionable ports of the Mediterranean, colorful Caribbean destinations and exotic Pacific islands, even regularly doing world cruises over the winter season. It was mostly with foreign charterers, like Thomas Cook, Raymond & Whitcomb or Messageries Maritimes, though. The Norwegian companies were not quite confident enough to take on the full overseas product responsibility but preferred to stick to what they knew best; running a tight ship. Small and boutique though they were, these ships provided their Norwegian owners much valuable experience in overseas cruise operations and in serving an upscale, international clientele. The excellently run and luxuriously appointed ships turned heads in ports and maritime circles around the world and seeded the notion that if Norwegians went into cruise business, they were worth paying attention to.
From the moment Norwegian sailors and operators first laid eyes on commercial cruise guests in 1875 and quietly pondered; 'I wønder whåt thay are åp tu?' and until they practically dominated the upper echelons of the cruising world was barely 50 years - not superfast but bear in mind there is a World War, a pandemic and a few local recessions in there too. Starting out as complete novices to leisure travel, Norwegians had simply and patiently learned by doing and built on each successive achievement, deftly working around the limitations of being a highly seasonal region (and one without a home market) and stoically going up against international competitors many times their size and legacy. The simple and rugged mariners of the high North had become self-made purveyors of the finest luxury experience afloat. Anyone on the leading edge of the Norwegian cruise business, pausing to contemplate this achievement, would have been completely justified in exclaiming; 'It doesn't get much better than this!' And unfortunately they would have been right. It didn't! This was where it all stalled.
The Interwar Period
Recession or no recession, mainstream cruise traffic did eventually start to return to the Norwegian fjords in the interwar years and when it did, it came roaring back. The reason was immigration... or rather lack thereof. The mid-1920's clampdown on US immigration by the American government caused a surge of larger (but older) ocean liners to suddenly frequent the fjords in summertime. As the immigration rush across the Atlantic slowed, the shipping industry responded by relegating the oldest and least prestigious ships (typically the pre-WWI liners) to cruise duty and the ones that were not dispatched overseas to pursue the rapidly growing booze cruise market of the US (read Booze Cruises), would now find themselves plying the mainstream European waters, including the Norwegian fjords.
The bigger ships enabled an economy of scale that made it possible to keep fares low, but volume high - subsequently making it harder for the smaller ships to compete. Coupled with increased operational costs and emerging union interference over crew conditions, the smaller Norwegian coasters would soon find themselves all but unable to compete with the bigger ships and demoted back to intracoastal supply and mail service. In a last-ditch effort to retain some mainstream cruise tourism under Norwegian flag, the Norwegian shipping companies petition the government (in collaboration with major travel companies) for permission to advertise round-trip package holidays on the Hurtigruten service - the idea being that the subsidized service will provide a more profitable platform for domestic cruising operations. This is granted and Hurtigruten quickly starts to make a name for itself as the 'authentically Norwegian' cruise experience. This is the moment when Hurtigruten starts to switch focus from supply line to cruise line - a switch that will only accelerate as growing air travel and expansions of road and rail network drains regular passengers from the service.
The slump in immigration volumes also affected Norwegian immigration streams and by 1925 Norwegian flag carrier, Norwegian-America, Line began to send their transatlantic liners Bergensfjord and Stavangerfjord on the occasional North Cape or Baltic/North Atlantic cruise in an effort to stay operational and profitable. But Norwegian ships aside, the traffic was overwhelmingly British-flagged; P&O, Cunard Line, Orient Line, Lamport & Holt, Royal Mail Line, Blue Star Line and others. Germany was in no condition to compete after the Great War, the other European nations could not yet field much suitable tonnage or interested clientele and forget about the US liners - what few there were could not even sell alcohol onboard due to Prohibition, so who would ever want to go cruising on one of those? Once again, the Union Jack was the most frequently flown foreign flag on cruise ships in Norwegian fjords and would remain so for most of the interwar period.
Impressions from the interwar period
The 1929 US stock market crash and ensuing worldwide depression knocked the wanderlust and wherewithal out of all but the ultra-rich for a while. But the milionaires that hadn't lost their shirts in '29 continued to patronize the Norwegian luxury cruise ships and the operations continued to thrive, though not grow as the depression did manage to squash the investment flows needed for new shipbuilding programs. Demonstrating its fantastic resilience, mainstream cruising only took a short time-out. By the early 1930's it came back again, Brits still in the majority but now with quite a few new flags flying among them; the Dutch MS Johan van Oldenbarnevelt of the Netherland Line and the SS Gelria of Royal Holland Lloyd, the Belgian SS Léopoldville of the Compagnie Maritime Belge, the German SS Columbus of Norddeutscher Lloyd and the SS Reliance of Hamburg-Amerika Line, the Polish MS Batory of the Gdynia-America Line, the French SS Paris and MS Lafayette of the French Line and the Canadian SS Montclare and the SS Empress of Australia of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. all made appearances in the fjords to name but a few. They were mostly one-off visits or rare occurences but enough to indicate that the travel and leisure world beyond Great Britain was now also tuning into cruising and enough to further complicate communications for the already linguistically challenged Norwegians.
By the mid-1930’s the Germans came crusing back into the fjords in a big way, courtesy of the Nazi Kraft Durch Freude organization and its popular mainstream cruising operation (Read Hitler’s Holidays) but mostly for sail-by sightseeing. Perhaps it was concern for ideological contamination that kept German cruise guests confined to the ship but their ships rarely ever made landfall in Norway ... well, except for the D/S Dresden which made a highly unplanned and surprising landfall on the rocks of Karmøy in June of 1934 and sank shortly thereafter. All in all, the interwar years - while off to a slow start - turned into another Golden Age of cruising in Norway, and one featuring more international players and larger volumes (due to the bigger ships) than ever before. While Norway lost a good deal of mainstream traffic to foreign players, they cracked the luxury market and given a longer period of financial and political stability to evolve in, it would have been really interesting to see where they would have taken that. But then there was Hitler.
World War II
At the outbreak of World War II Norway once again declared its neutrality, but this time the Nazis wouldn’t have it. They invaded Norway in a surprise attack in April of 1940 and occupied the entire country after a 60-day campaign. The Norwegian government fled to Britain and - with central command intact - quickly mustered thoroughly organized resistance against the occupation on all fronts; The armed forces in exile formed the Free Norwegian Forces under Allied banner, the resistance movement throughout occupied Norway came together as the Milorg and the Norwegian merchant fleet - one of the largest and most modern in Europe at the time - joined together in Nortraship (the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission) to run the maritime war effort for the Allied forces. The Norwegian merchant fleet was credited with playing a crucial role in the supply of Great Britain and the war effort, without wich the allied would surely have lost, but it came at a high price: 706 Norwegian-flagged merchant vessels and the 3.670 Norwegian souls that crewed them never returned to port. Once again, all leisure traffic came to halt as mankind unleashed their worst tendencies at each other.
After the war and a (by now) customary period of recuperation, the cruise business in Norway reset itself. Cruise ships returned to the fjords in the summer (sans the German ones obviously), within their ranks now many an outdated and well-worn interwar ocean liner, relegated to cruise duty as the new generation of post-war ocean liners took over. The Meteor and the Prins Olav had been lost in the war so there was not much left of the Norwegian luxury yacht empire - Bergenske did receive the Stella Polaris back from war duty but had to spend a fortune to put her back in shape for luxury cruising. She did eventually find her niche and a loving crowd of regulars again, but by then the commercial winds and priorities had shifted and Bergenske decided to sell their lone luxury cruise ship to Swedish Clipper Line in 1951. Whatever appetite for luxury leisure travel operations they had pursued until now, it had apparently been curbed. But regardless of home flag, the sight of cruise ships returning to the fjords again no doubt served a welcome sign of things returning to normal and everyone going back to business as usual .. at least until a unique opportunity to make so much more of it came along. But let’s save that for part II – I have other things to do this month and I’m sure your tea has gone cold by now. Let’s reconvene for Part II to see where the Norwegian influence on cruising spread next.
But to recap, this explains why so many Norwegians are traditionally found at sea and how so many of them had prior familiarity with and convenient entryways into the cruise business. As a people historically predisposed to view the open ocean as the doorstep to opportunity and without much going for them at home, the Norwegians were quick to spread out across the world oceans and they were quick to pick up on cruise traffic, not just as another opportunity to get away but as a domestic business they too could master. They started participating in the perpetual flow of cruise traffic in and out of the fjords from the late 19th century onwards and surely helped to entice and cultivate more generations of young mariners into that particular niche of shipping – the lure of which is not hard to spot when you consider that the primary nautical alternatives were backbreaking fishing and freight hauling jobs.
Historically Norwegian shipping companies were also the third national shipping industry to get into cruise operations in a big way (after Britain and Germany) but the first to do so without a home market. Perhaps this constant focus on a foreign clientele was also what primed Norwegians to throw themselves undaunted at international cruise operations later on. But why did Norwegians not evolve into international cruise operators themselves up until this point. Why did they not deploy many more ships beyond Norwegian borders and become the pioneers of international cruise tourism? More than one reason, I suspect, but perhaps it's as simple as 'they did not need to'. Norway’s 25.000 km / 16.000 mi coastline, breathtaking nature and fascinating culture offered sufficient variety / attraction value to make Norway the first cruise destination worldwide to be able to carry an extended ‘one-country cruise’ on its own. As a rule of thumb (and indeed a major selling point), cruises will normally visit several different countries in the span of one voyage and very few countries have the geographical length, experiential breadth, or even number of attractive / navigable ports required to pull off a ‘one-country-cruise’, but Norway does. There was never any shortage of demand for all-Norwegian crusing, so for the first many decades of Norwegian cruise business there was never any incentive (nor enough resources with the smaller operators) to broaden the business model beyond Norwegian borders.
The business pioneers that grew Norwegian cruise business, at first domestically and then internationally, built business empires and legacy companies with plenty of familiarity and experience with cruise operations. Even the shipping companies that eventually strayed away from cruise business retained enough institutional memory of it, to not be intimidated or confused by the concept when it suddenly re-emerged as an international business opportunity. If anyone was primed to intuitively grasp the commercial potential of international leisure cruising post-WWII, it was the Norwegians. Having witnessed firsthand the incredible popularity of the phenomenon through generations, its astounding ability to rebound after world wars, pandemics and recessions and its unique ‘fit’ with the Norwegian maritime legacy, no one needed to work hard to convince a Norwegian shipping magnate that cruising could be good business.
The Question at Hand
That only takes us halfway to the answer to the original question of why there are so many Norwegians in the cruise industry because if anything the Norwegian ‘infiltration’ only picked up speed and indeed exploded with the advent of the contemporary cruise industry in the 1960s. How did that happen? How did a people whose idea of fun vacation is a solitary hike in the mountains, whose idea of fine dining is a pickled herring with Aquavit, whose primary personality traits are shy and awkward and whose inability to dance has been fertile fodder for international cruise ship comedians for decades, become so intimately involved with a contemporary leisure industry that is all about fun, fine dining, dancing and other extrovert hijinks? (Jeg bare tuller! Nordmenn er fantastiske!).
Well, that one is a little easier to pinpoint. That was a late-night phone call in 1966 and that will be the starting point of Part II of the Norwegian Connection.
This is the nineteenth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.