Mayday from Helsinki – Stockholm Cruise Ship!

The Finnish government has been paying out taxpayers’ money as grants (= gifts from taxpayers) to the companies that run cruise ships between Finland, Sweden and the Baltics. The amount of hard cash is significant – it reached around €150 million between 2015-2017 for a small number of cruise  companies.

Many other big companies also received similar large cash grants and tax benefits. The list is long and the total amount of public support for such companies is estimated by the media to be between €3 billion and €9 billion depending on your vested interests.

That cash and other tax benefits are huge with the big drawback that these benefits are no longer available for education, healthcare, other basic services, or for reductions in taxes. This should be borne in mind now that we have elections. 

Most of these companies benefiting from these subsidies are profitable and pay out normal dividends and large salaries and bonuses to senior management. 

UPM, for instance, an industrial forestry giant, received some €22 million in cash grants between 2015-2017, yet paid out €693 million in dividends with top management and the board receiving remuneration of over €20 million just in 2018. 

These are the facts from which readers can draw their own conclusions. This year’s government budget did not see and cuts or changes in the amounts or structure of these benefits although other basic services saw cuts in their funding,

However, this article makes no attempt to evaluate the various arguments made to support the reasons for these benefits, but concentrates only on describing the 3-day return trip between Helsinki and Stockholm, where your correspondent attended an in-depth seminar on Finland’s new legislation relating to high school education.

The ship carries around 2000 passengers in both directions like it has been doing for the last 30 years.

At the start of the trip, midday on Thursday, we boarded the ship that had arrived a few hours earlier from Stockholm. The cleaning folk, all immigrants employed by another company, were feverishly tidying and cleaning the cabins.

These cabins are a small 15 square meters with 4 bunk beds, one tiny shower, a cracked wash basin and a miniature toilet. An equally small TV is screwed into the wall and sour air is pumped into the room. Everything is rather worn and tired looking and designed for fast turnaround. The only things that are not screwed to the walls or floor are the toilet paper and 2 waste paper bins. You can imagine that they are one level better than a prison cell. 

My cabin had no chairs, so you are really forced to sit on the bunk bed or in one of the cafes, bars or restaurants on board. The food and drinks are what we can expect in the Nordics, but the prices are high relative to Helsinki and Stockholm. The big crowd draws are the breakfast and dinner buffets in a huge ugly restaurant where you can fill your stomach with endless amounts of food and wine for €42. That is not cheap, but most passengers tuck in because there is nothing else to do except visiting the bars or the tax-free shop.

Th tax-free shop is the most depressing place to visit because many people are buying so much alcohol that they need wheels to transport their treasures. The bottles and cans are just a few euros cheaper than the shops on the mainland! The savings are a fiction after you reach home exhausted after carrying 10 to 20 kilos of the stuff. Duty-free means that the government is actually giving another subsidy to passengers on top of the ones they have already given to the companies. Excessive drinking is encouraged and the patients line up in the morgue or hospital later on…

We finished our seminar at around 20.00h on Thursday evening and headed for the buffet. By that time there was around 1000 other passengers well on the way to inebriation and liver damage. Lively teenagers possibly between 16 to 18 years old were testing their skills with Red Bull, beer cans and the slot machines, while others were enjoying life’s early romantic experiences. 

During and after dinner, we, the seminar attendees, got to know one another better and discussed the results of the workshops and presentations. After a full day, some of us went on a short walk around the boat, but that produced little of interest. The “nightclub show” of Eastern European Stars was like my cabin, worn and tired. The best alternative was to return to the cell and lay on the bed with a good book. Sleeping was challenging because of the hard mattress, the heavy thumping from the ship’s machine room, and the screaming of the teenagers in the corridor heard though the thin cabin door. Sleep was fitful and the morning breakfast was a welcome recovery program at 07.30h local time.

Our second morning was devoted to more presentations and workshops on board, after which and we had 4-hour break to go ashore at midday. Outside, in Stockholm the sun was shining, and it took a brisk walk of 20 minutes from the boat to reach the Tunnelbanan into town.

Leaving the boat at 12.00 noon was an experience – men and women with white, drawn faces and beer cans in their hands filled the corridors. Others were obviously in a rush to the loo… excessive amounts of alcohol were clearly taking its toll.

We returned to the boat a few hours later to meet up again with our various teams and enjoyed some time together over coffee and snacks. Our seminar dinner was scheduled quite late at 21.00h local time, when the mass buffet dinner was closed, giving our 300 participants a chance to continue serious discussion about the schools and education experiences in more peaceful surroundings.

The food for our dinner was actually quite good, but the waiters and waitresses were obviously tired after their long day, and serving 300 passengers took a long time. Dinner finished at quarter passed midnight and it was again late enough to go to bed with the same good book!

Sleep came quickly after one night’s interrupted sleep and 2 long days of detailed presentations and active workshops. Breakfast, again at 07.30h local time, was acceptable, but oh, how nice it would be to get home…

So the main question here is why are us taxpayers supporting the business of mass consumption, tax free drinking, and the employment of low-cost workers working in a rather tough environment? They are professionals and do their best, and for that we the passengers are thankful. But it is difficult to see that any useful purpose is being served by dishing out taxpayers’ money to these businesses. It appears to serve no useful purpose, and that is a really bad thing! State support for these cruise ships should be stopped.

Foreign readers will be delighted to know that the Finnish Broadcasting Company has produced an excellent series on all the “drama” that these boats create. This means that these grants may at last see some financial return if viewers elsewhere want get their kicks by watching this senseless realty TV!

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