How responsible are cruise liners?

Cruise liner in Georgia
Cruise liner in Georgia. Photo by Mikhail Kryshen -
The cruise industry has been ignoring its responsibilities in local destinations for too long. Here, we examine the evidence showing cruise ships as the bad boys of travel.

Cruising is a growing trend over 22 million passengers will be transported across the oceans on cruise ships in 2015, with new ships added each year meaning passenger numbers will soar over 25 million by 2019. 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 great climate change debate – and they bring limited economic benefit to local communities and small businesses.

According to 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’s report here. That means it is, in fact, far greener to fly than cruise. In addition to this, 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 3.5kg of rubbish daily - compared with the 0.8kg each generated by local people on shore. (Source: Our Planet)

However, trash isn’t the only form of waste generated by cruise ships. A 2013 environmental report by Friends of the Earth revealed that a 3,000 person cruise ship generates 150,000 gallons of sewage per week – with an additional million gallons of grey water. Shockingly, if a ship is more than three nautical miles from shore, this sewage can be dumped into the ocean untreated, with catastrophic effects on marine life – and on communities living on the shores where it washes up.

Most cruise companies claim to have very good environmental standards and 2007 saw the promising arrival of the first cruise ship to reduce engine emissions by using sea water to remove harmful components. However, just look at this sorry tale of environmental fines racked up by cruise companies. 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 were linked to premature deaths worldwide in a 2007 study 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. See New Scientist article here.

There is significant damage to coral reefs from cruise liners. 109 countries have coral reefs. In 90 of them (about 70 percent 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 as much again that was covered by rubble and later died. It was estimated that coral recovery would take 50 years. In 2015, Carnival was fined $100,000 – which will go towards reef conservation projects – for dropping anchor in the wrong place in the Cayman Islands; over a thousand square metres of live coral was damaged or completely destroyed. Environment officials have said it could take 60 years to grow back.

Newer and bigger ships, which are potentially more damaging to ecosystems, are being built every year to keep up with consumer demand. Royal Caribbean's international fleet boats some of the most enormous sea monsters, with vessels carrying well over 6,000 passengers, plus crew. They some complete with water parks with a wave machines, ice rinks, climbing walls, mini golf courses, zip lines and even boxing rings for celebrity fights. These mass-market cruise companies are marketing their ships as substitute resort destinations – they are in effect, floating cities.

Constructing ports
Ever larger ships in greater numbers require the constant creation of new harbours to dock in. To create the new port in Falmouth, Jamaica, for example, almost one million cubic metres of coral reef was dredges up, and over 5 square kilometres of mangroves were destroyed, according to Cruise Laws. Entire ecosystems were destroyed, breeding grounds for birds were lost, and the removal of reefs and mangroves expose the coastline to storms, floods and erosion; both act as natural barriers.

Cruise liner in Venice
Cruise liner in Venice. Photo by Marc Berry Reid
Workers’ rights
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. Offshore workers are unprotected by labour laws, meaning that wages for many workers are low and the hours shockingly long. Worst affected are those working below deck and well out of sight of the passengers – in the laundry room, perhaps, or the engine room – seven days a week. These staff are often from Latin America, Eastern Europe or Asia, and working on a cruise ship is not a glamorous job at all but a route out of poverty and unemployment back home. 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.

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 realised 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 cruise ships and local big business, to the detriment of local small businesses.

Cruise companies in the Caribbean are actually purchasing their own islands – or portions of 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, and renting equipment for snorkelling, etc. As reported here, of the eight major cruise lines operating in the Caribbean, six own private islands which they include on their itineraries for passengers, thereby cutting out local ports of call. For some thought-provoking images of Coco Cay 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 the 2007 Observer Good Companies Guide, Carnival Corp was one of the worst performers, showing little concern for shareholders’ and staff’s concerns around the environment. According to The Observer, Micky Arison is both chairman and chief executive of the company and owns 30 percent 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:
What you can do
Want to try a responsible cruise? Check out our small ship cruising holidays for adventures across the Mediterranean, the Poles, Galapagos and more.

Read more about responsible cruising.
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