What does sustainability mean for the cruise industry?

The Covid-19 pandemic brought cruise tourism to a halt. Yet as demand picks up again and mega-ships fire up their engines, concerns over health standards are now accompanied by worries about environmental impacts
Photo: Alamy

Small-scale cruising has existed for a long time and was a welcome addition to existing tourism offers, providing an additional source of revenue for existing restaurants and shops, much like yachting.

But when American-style mega-ships began to roll across the Atlantic and sail the Mediterranean, a new variant of mass tourism was born. Ballooning in size, cruise vessels have become floating resorts with strategies to maximise revenue on board and limit spending at destinations, including shortening the length of stay.

To date, there is no credible information on the economic impact and benefits of mass tourism on local economies (although a study by one of the authors of this piece proposed environmental costs are at least eight times larger than financial benefits). Yet the signs of overtourism in many cruise destinations are obvious: crowding, gentrification, excessive commercial transformations (“Disneyfication”), nearly constant traffic congestion, pollution and more.

Some local communities have rebelled, and limited progress was made, but it remains puzzling how local hoteliers and other groups have come to ignore the damage done to them by large cruises, from the dissatisfaction of their guests and the local population to the deterioration of a place’s attractiveness and the quality of its communal services.

The environmental standards and technology of mega-ships are not nearly as stringent and efficient as their terrestrial equivalents in the European Union. Experts from Transport & Environment, a transport campaign group, calculated that in 2017, one company’s luxury cruise brands (Carnival Corporation & plc’s) emitted ten times more harmful sulphur dioxide than all of Europe’s 260m passenger vehicles – and that was only in European seas. (At the time, Carnival Corporation rejected the report as being “inaccurate, misleading and irrelevant”.)

The environmental standards and technology of mega-ships are not nearly as stringent and efficient as their terrestrial equivalents in the European Union

It’s not always easy to detect and calculate damages when there is a lack of transparency, but over time, growing evidence of other major cruise companies’ subpar environmental and health standards (not to mention safety and labour practices) has emerged. Yet through extensive corporate PR and lobbying, the cruise renaissance blossomed, slowed only by the global Covid pandemic.

This pattern of environment and human health risks outweighing any benefits is enough for the EU and other regions to apply the precautionary principle – adopting “precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high”, as defined by the European Parliament – to prevent the plague of the large-scale cruise industry from spreading.

Yet the practice of using “flags of convenience” blocks any advancement of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the development of other global standards. Stakeholder inertia, poor destination governance and under-resourced control mechanisms and inspections are also significant obstacles.

Ignoring the precautionary principle, however, will always come back to bite you hard. Moreover, opaque self-oriented models cannot produce solidarity – they only serve the limited interests of some companies and politicians.

We hope the solidarity shown in crises can lead to some optimism and unity, but we must begin by asking bold questions. Do we really need mega-cruise tourism? Our answer from a scientific point of view is “no”.

Hrvoje Caric researches the environmental risks of tourism at the Institute of Tourism Zagreb; Josep Lloret is a marine biologist specialising in the study of maritime activities, oceans and human health at the University of Girona; and Lora Fleming is a physician and epidemiologist specialising in the study of oceans and human health at the University of Exeter Medical School.