Is it time to cancel Cruise Ships for good?

Cruise Ship in the Venice Lagoon | Photo by VladoZg from Pixabay

August 9, 2021, By Nick Babyak

As populations vaccinate, parts of the World are slowly beginning to return to life as pre-Covid normal. Or perhaps a “new normal”, as some Covid-era changes may be here to stay. For example, remote work: McKinsey found that Executives plan to reduce office space by 30%, on average, and that about 20% of business travel may not return. 

Architizer also highlights how Covid has changed the way architects design offices, green spaces, restaurants, and more to accommodate factors like social distancing and decreased car use.

Cruise Ships, another pre-Covid norm put on pause during the pandemic, are now coming under scrutiny as our new normal world takes shape. The Italian government recently banned vessels over 25,000 tonnes from docking in the Venice lagoon after Unesco threatened to put the city on its “endangered list”, as well as additional pressure from various protests and petitions by locals. Other popular Cruise stops, including Brugge, Dubrovnik, and Dublin, have all implemented policies to cut down on Cruise tourism (all in 2019). Amsterdam, for example, levied a tax of €8 per Cruise Ship passenger, per day, which led to two major Cruise Lines dropping the Dutch capital from their itinerary (both adding Rotterdam as a stop, instead).

But why are cities, governments, the public, and news media pushing back against Cruise Ships? And is it time to cancel them for good?

In Sum

Port cities, locals, and news media are pushing back against Cruise Ships because they:

  • Have a massive environmental footprint at the industry level,
  • Avoid and break environmental regulations at the company level, and 
  • Burden local economies and inhabitants. 

Currently, proof-of-concept startups and new regulations seek to lead us into a new era of sustainable shipping.  

Comparing Cruise Ship Sulphur Oxide pollution to local cars |Infographic by Statista

Environmental Impact

As the chart above shows, Cruise Ships – why capital letters? “thank” Port Cities for their hospitality by polluting the cities with far more Sulphur Oxide (SOx) than all of their local cars combined. Although Sulphur Oxide is not a direct Greenhouse Gas like Carbon Dioxide and Methane, it’s bad for air quality (which can be deadly for people with existing lung/respiratory and heart issues) and causes acid rain (bad for water and soil quality, and therefore trees, crops, and vegetation). But don’t forget about Carbon Dioxide entirely, since, as a Cruise Ship passenger, you generate 3x the amount of CO2 as you would on land.

On top of air pollution, one study from the Energy Policy journal found that the “hotel functions” of a Cruise Ship (that is, excluding energy and emissions from travel) use 12x the energy of a comparable land-based hotel. Cruise Ships also lack the water waste treatment infrastructure of land-based cities, and dump sewage into the ocean (a total of over 1 billion gallons per year). Most of this is raw and untreated, which is legal, as long as ships dump more than 3 nautical miles (the distance to travel one degree of latitude, ~1,85km) from shore.

Shrinking our scope from the Cruise industry at large to individual Cruise Lines doesn’t look any better. Friends of the Earth graded 18 Cruise Lines on their efforts to limit environmental impact and transparently follow regulations, “awarding”: 

  • 9 Fs
  • 7 D/D-/D+s (including a D- to the Holland America Line) and 
  • 8 Criminal Violations

Which only leaves one C and a B- for the “winner”, Disney Cruise Line (the Little Mermaid has not not responded to Sail for the Future’s request for comment) . 

Cruise Ships are essentially floating cities, and they pollute like it. They also lack the regulation and incentives to conserve local air, water, and soil quality that land-bound cities face.

Protest against Cruise Ship Tourism in Venice |Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

Other Impacts on Port Cities

Besides the environmental impact that Cruise Ships burden both Port Cities and the planet at large with, they’ve been accused of “shaking down local economies”. Compared to land-based tourists, Cruise passengers spend nothing on lodging and less on food and drinks (both provided by the Cruise Ship), so they stimulate local port economies with a fraction of the spending. But, as you may have noticed, Cruise passengers take up just as much physical space as land-bound tourists as they crowd plazas and scenic spots. Hence a Barcelona Tourism Councilor comparing Cruise passengers to “a plague of locusts”.


In Defense of Cruise Ships (?)

it would be unfair to single out Cruise Ships without mentioning that any vacation we go on has environmental impact. For example, per km traveled, your CO2 emissions will be similar between Cruise Ships and flights. However, flights don’t come with the added Sulphur Oxide emissions of Cruise Ships. And, as previously mentioned, the hotel you might stay at after your flight lands uses about 1/12 of the energy of the “hotel functions” of a Cruise Ship. Flying is also among the least green forms of travel:

Infographic by BBC News

But: it would be unfair to single out vacations without mentioning that everything we consume has environmental impact. That is to say, the Cruise Industry produces only about 8% as much global greenhouse emissions as the global Maritime Shipping Industry (responsible for moving ~90% of internationally-traded goods, including so much of the food and products we buy). “If ocean shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest carbon emitter, releasing more CO2 annually than Germany” or about 2.2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

This would suggest buying local. However, at least for food, Our World in Data finds that what you eat (for example, beef compared to a plant-based diet) is much more important than where your food traveled from, in terms of environmental impact. Considering that the whole world eats, but only ~30 million people go on Cruises every year, the Cruise Industry producing 8% as much in global greenhouse emissions as the Shipping Industry doesn’t look good.

Fairtransport’s Tres Hombres sustainable cargo ship

Solutions & Innovations

Alternatives to fossil fuel-powered vessels are emerging, including solar electric, hydrogen-powered, and even a return to wind-powered cargo ships. Hopefully this is a sign that the wind of change is beginning to blow in the shipping industry.

Fairtransport, a startup based in Den Helder, the Netherlands, has been sailing its 32-meter Tres Hombres schooner on an emissions-free cargo route since 2009 between Europe and North, South, and Central America. “She carries a maximum of 40 tons of organic and traditionally crafted goods like Tres Hombres Rum, Cocoa, Coffee, Honey & Canned Fish.”

Another Dutch startup (based in Alkmaar), EcoClipper, is developing a fleet of sailing ships to run on four different shipping lines that cover every continent (except Antarctica). Their prototype design is for a 60-meter vessel with 20 sails that can carry 500 tons of cargo and 60 crew members and passengers.

The continued success of these proof-of-concept startups, combined with new environmental regulations from the International Maritime Organization set to go into effect in 2030, could spell an incoming green revolution in the shipping industry. Hopefully the Cruise Industry will follow a similar path.