Responsible river cruising holidays

Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
– Yogi Berra
River cruising is an increasingly sought-after form of travel: elegant, convenient and with a wealth of choice when it comes to the type of experience you want to have. Recent years have seen huge increases in bookings from the UK market alone for river cruises in India, along the Mekong and the Nile. But growth in popularity also translates to growth in risks for the often fragile environments and cultures that are so appealing to cruise passengers. As river cruising continues to expand so will congestion, and there is substantial risk of the experience being degraded for all involved.

At Responsible Travel we’re outspoken about the environmental and economic problems caused by large cruise vessels in destinations such as Dubrovnik, Venice and throughout the Caribbean. Of course river cruise boats are usually far smaller than these ‘floating cities’ – though you do see huge linters on rivers such as the Yangtze and the Amazon – but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Motorised vessels pollute the water, and may present hazards to river wildlife, while many cruise itineraries still do too little to properly support or engage with the communities they pass.

We only ever work with suppliers that we believe are making a demonstrably positive impact with their holidays. Rivers don’t have tides, but we think the tide is beginning to turn when it comes to cruising. More and more travellers are thinking about the impact their holidays are having, and looking towards operators that have a more sustainable ethos. On this page we look at some of the current problems caused by river cruising holidays, and how responsible tourism can be an effective way to counter them.

Wildlife & environment

In literature, film, song and poetry, rivers are often been used as a symbol of life. The health of a river reflects the health of the society along its banks, and the people therein. Around the world, millions of people depend on rivers for their livelihoods, and great civilisations have been built on the trade, crop irrigation and ease of transport that they allow.

River cruises operate in what are often very sensitive environments, where any negative effects such as pollution from fuel spills are going to be more severe and obviously apparent than you would see, for instance, with an ocean liner far out in the Pacific. In places such as Kerala, the Amazon and the Nile, where many local communities rely on the health of the river for everything from farming to fishing, cooking and bathing, as well as making an income from tourism, even a small amount of environmental damage can have a devastating impact. And of course the effects of pollution are compounded as rivers flow into seas, oceans and lakes.

Additionally, fast moving boats, and the noise pollution they cause, pose a significant risk to animals such as river dolphins and manatees that may be out of sight beneath the water and don’t have time to get out of the way. Boat strikes and propeller injuries, along with pollution and overfishing, are likely contributors to some species being driven to the point of extinction.
Then there is plastic pollution, an issue that has acquired urgent international significance in recent years. The Nile, the Mekong and the Yangtze are three of the world’s 10 most plastic-clogged rivers, which between them are responsible for an astonishing 90 percent of the plastic waste that reaches the oceans. Beach cleans are noble efforts, but it is our rivers that we really need to worry about.

While there is growing awareness of the potential environmental hazards presented by river cruising, in some countries and on some rivers the industry remains alarmingly underpoliced. Self-regulation and the actions of conscientious travellers seeking out responsible operators can only go so far, so this is an area we continue to monitor and apply pressure where we can.

Conscious cruising: What you can do

Given the channels they need to navigate, river cruise vessels are usually quite small, with limited space aboard for containing waste, or large supplies of potable drinking water. In addition, many rural communities have little or no capacity for recycling waste. Any efforts you can make to reduce your use of plastics on a cruise will help, such as by not bringing small or half-empty bottles of shampoo and shower gel (or taking empty containers back home with you), checking if there will be drinking water aboard so you can bring a reusable bottle, and removing any packaging for products you’ve bought at home or in the airport before travel. Carry your own bag so that when shopping in local communities and riverside markets you can refuse plastic bags whenever possible. Taking shorter showers when on board will also minimise your use of fresh water and contribution to the problem of grey water.

Before booking a river cruise, find out what the operator does in regard to minimising their environmental impact, such as reducing fuel use. Solar panels are rarely practical given the size of most boats and the amount of power they require, but well maintained engines and travelling with the current rather than against it are more fuel efficient and less polluting. You can help by travelling during periods when the water is likely to be flowing faster, and ensuring the lights and air conditioning in your cabin are turned off during the day – drawing the curtains helps keep cabins cool.

If you plan to cruise along the Nile then consider travelling either all or at least part of the way by felucca. These sail-powered vessels are not only much less polluting, but they also offer a far more relaxing and authentic experience than you would be likely to find on most small ship cruises.

Rather than trying to see everything in one trip, perhaps opt for a slower moving boat that allows for spending more time in a few places. Slower vessels present less of a hazard to river wildlife.

Overfishing leading to depletion of fish stocks is a significant problem on some rivers, where there is a never-ending source of cruise passengers looking for a taste of local cuisine. You can look into whether there are any endangered species you should avoid when they appear on the menu, and try to eat in small, local restaurants when on shore excursions where there is more likely to be an awareness of the need for sustainable fishing.

People & culture

River cruise holidays frequently look to provide an ‘authentic cultural experience’, in many cases by including shore excursions to nearby villages. But the danger with any repetitive form of travel is that local communities can become dependent on tourism, rather than making it work for them. Artificiality replaces authenticity, and there can be increases in petty crime and begging, while traditional industries are abandoned in favour of hawking trinkets to tourists. There is potential for genuine cultural traditions and ways of life to become degraded to the point that they lose their appeal for visitors, shore excursions become less frequent, and the local residents who have become reliant on cruises lose out a second time.
In addition, where you have very popular stretches of river, or parts of a region, the economic benefits of tourism may not be equally distributed, potentially leading to divisions and friction between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Major sites such as Angkor Wat, just off the Mekong, or the temples of Luxor on the Nile, are must-see landmarks on cruises along these rivers, crowded and with their infrastructure under pressure, while other smaller places that could really benefit from extra tourism income are neglected.

Well known shore excursions can be swamped during peak season with vessels disgorging their passengers throughout the day, and if these travellers then either eat aboard ship or are encouraged to stick to a select group of restaurants, they do very little to benefit the wider community.

Conscious cruising: What you can do

When done well, river cruising can be culturally immersive, but for it to be viable it’s important that local communities see a respectful and economically beneficial impact. Itineraries that feature regular shore excursions where you can meet people and shop for handicrafts help to create sustainable industries. Smaller vessels, such as feluccas on the Nile or the houseboats of the Kerala backwaters, can reach areas and communities that larger vessels cannot. They may also source their food from riverside markets which also helps to provide people with an income. Some operators also make a point of using only local crews and support staff which can provide a decent income for many families.

Rather than trying to see everything in one trip, consider a slower-moving boat that allows for more time in different places, and also means that there is less danger to wildlife in the river. Travelling off season, too, helps to spread the economic benefits of cruising across the year. Where you have a trip with a tailor made itinerary, ask the operator to select a few shore excursions that are not so widely visited that will give you a more authentic experience. Eat at locally owned restaurants whenever you can, as that sees your money directly entering the local economy.

In some riverside communities you will encounter extreme poverty and begging, which can be very difficult to deal with. Handing out money only exacerbates the problem, so if you want to really make a positive difference, ask your operator about local community projects that you can either bring donations for, and perhaps visit to learn about their work.

Some river cruises are a good way to learn more about controversial issues, good examples being the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, or the Aswan Dam on the Nile. Both projects have brought undeniable economic benefits and were arguably necessary, but have also been very controversial for their cultural and environmental impact.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Clarence] [Intro: cocoparisienne] [Wildlife & Environment: Emilian Robert Vicol] [People & Culture: CHENG CHANTHON]