How responsible are cruise liners?

Cruise linerThe cruise industry has been ignoring its responsibilites in local destinations for too long. Here, we examine the evidence clearly showing cruising as the bad boys of travel.

Cruising is a growing trend - it is now expected that the industry will have 20 million passengers by 2012, according to Mintel. It may seem like time spent at sea would have minimal impact on the surrounding environments, local economies, people and cultures but the facts behind this rapidly expanding industry paint a very different picture.

The stark reality is that cruise liners do have a significant ecological impact – one that has gone largely unnoticed in the global warming debate – and they bring limited economic benefit to local communities and small businesses.

According to our partner at Climate Care, a cruise liner such as Queen Mary 2 emits 0.43kg of CO2 per passenger mile, compared with 0.257kg for a long-haul flight (even allowing for the further damage of emissions being produced in the upper atmosphere). See The Guardian here. That means it is far greener to fly than cruise... In addition to the increase in CO2 emissions, there is often a need to fly to the departure points of the cruise, clocking up even further carbon emissions.

On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily - compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by local people on shore. (Source: Our Planet)

Most cruise companies claim to have very good environmental standards and we have recently seen the promising arrival of the first cruise ship to reduce engine emissions by using sea water to remove harmful components, but just look at this sorry tale of environmental fines racked up by Cruise companies (more). Mandatory environmental standards of the Cruise Lines International Association relate largely to discharging hazardous waste into the marine environment. But there are much wider environmental consequences…

Ships release an estimated 1.2 million to 1.6 million metric tons of tiny airborne particles each year. These particles have been linked to premature deaths worldwide in a recent study in 2007 by the University of Delaware, and are believed to cause heart and lung failures. According to the study, such pollution from ships, kills at least 60,000 people each year and it is predicted that this figure will increase by 40% globally by 2012, unless something is done to address the problem - such as switching to cleaner fuels. See New Scientist article here.

There is significant damage to coral reefs from cruise liners. There are 109 countries with coral reefs. In 90 of them (about 70% of cruise destinations are in biodiversity hotspots) reefs are being damaged by cruise ship anchors and sewage, by tourists breaking off chunks of coral, and by commercial harvesting for sale to tourists. (Source: Ocean Planet). According to Ocean Planet, one study of a cruise ship anchor dropped in a coral reef for one day found an area about half the size of a football field completely destroyed, and half again as much covered by rubble that died later. It was estimated that coral recovery would take fifty years.

Newer and bigger ships which are more potentially damaging to eco-systems, are being built every year to keep up with consumer demand. The Independence Of The Seas, for example, part of the Royal Caribbean International fleet due to set sail in May 2008, will carry about 4,000 passengers, has a water park with a wave machine, an ice rink and a boxing ring for celebrity fights! These mass-market cruise companies are marketing their ships as substitute resort destinations – they are in effect, floating cities.

Workers’ rights
As well as environmental issues, The cruise industry is failing its duty when it comes to other areas of responsible tourism too. Tourism Concern has long been campaigning for better conditions of workers in the industry. The labour conditions are such that wages are low and the hours are long in order for workers to try and make up their wages with passenger tips. A programme by BBC Radio 4 in August 2007 found shocking evidence of poor conditions, 18-hour working days and that some workers had to pay agents to secure their jobs. It also reported on a system of backhanders with crew members employed as waiters claiming they have to pay kitchen staff to get the cutlery to lay tables for the passengers. Read the press release here.

According to The Observer, Carnival Corp has been fined in Florida for failing to cater for disabled staff and a number of employees are currently suing it for non-payment of overtime. In many cases, cruise companies are not bound by the laws of any country and this causes many problems where waste dumping and employee conditions are concerned. Cruise companies can register their vessels in countries with accommodating attitudes to labour laws such as Panama and the Bahamas. And if the laws don’t suit the companies they campaign for change. For example, when it realized that Panamanian law guaranteed one day off a week, the cruise liners successfully lobbied for an exemption.

Local economic benefits
There is considerable debate over the degree of economic benefit cruise ships bring to local destinations. More often than not, local people are not employed on these ships and although some will call at ports along the way, bringing an influx of visitors with money to spend, it seems that cruise companies do everything they can to encourage their passengers to invest their holiday pocket money where it best suits them. According to a report by The Travel Foundation, stopovers can be very brief and passenger time on the islands is almost non-existent. The estimated amount a cruise passenger will spend on an island excursion is £40 and not all passengers disembark. The mobile nature of cruise ships means that they stock up at their home port, making minimal purchases on route and therefore the level of income that remains in the local economy is minimal. If they do bring benefit to destinations, more often than not, there are agreements in place between cruiseships and local big business, to the detriment of local small businesses.

There is disturbing evidence to show that cruise companies in the Caribbean are actually purchasing their own islands to develop and cultivate for the use of their passengers only. These “fantasy islands” are only accessible to passengers and employees and are promoted as the ultimate Caribbean experience. The cruise companies reap the profits of selling drinks, souvenirs, boat rides, rental equipment for snorkeling etc. As reported here, of the eight major cruiselines operating in the Caribbean, six own private islands which they include on their itineraries for passengers, thereby cutting out local ports of call, The islands are Half Moon Cay, Casaway Cay, Great Stirrup Cay, Princes Cay, Serena Cay, Coco Cay or at Labadee. For some thought-provoking images of Coco Cay island, from a passenger of Royal Caribbean, click here.

Corporate responsibility
Corporate social responsibility and ethical business is not high on the agenda in the boardroom either. The cruise industry is dominated by two companies, Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean and in this year’s Observer Good Companies Guide, Carnival Corp was one of the worst performers, showing little concern for shareholders’ and staffs’ concerns around the environment. According to The Observer, Micky Arison is both chairman and chief executive of the company and owns 30 per cent of the company's standard shares. This leaves little opportunity for ordinary investors to question his management. In fact, most of Carnival’s non-executives hold share options making it difficult for transparency and accountability to prevail.

Further reading on the impacts of the cruise industry:

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