Should we go on far-flung cruises?

Just because we can go to new places in high-tech ships, doesn’t always mean we should. What needs to be taken into account before we set sail?

By Simon Usborne
Published 27 Nov 2019, 13:00 GMT
The cruise industry, on course to transport 30 million customers this year, doesn’t have the best ...
The cruise industry, on course to transport 30 million customers this year, doesn’t have the best environmental record.
Photograph by Getty Images

What is happening in the cruise industry at the moment?     

As the cruise market booms, a combination of demand, shifting expectations and climate change is redrawing the atlas.

New expedition ships are plotting a course for increasingly far-flung destinations. Between 2019 and 2021, 17 specialist cruise operators will deliver 41 new adventure ships and almost 9,000 new berths, according to the 2019 Expedition Market Report by Cruise Industry News, more than doubling the capacity for destinations such as the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as Greenland, the Falklands and Papua New Guinea. 

That number doesn’t even include the new ships from the market’s heavyweights. For example, Carnival-owned Seabourn will launch two ships in 2021 and 2022 adapted for polar sailing with stronger hulls and improved manoeuvrability and fuel economy.


What does this mean for the environment?

The cruise industry, which is on course to transport 30 million customers this year, doesn’t have the best environmental record. Port cities are often smog-choked, partly because it can be cheaper for liners to run on their fuel tanks rather than local electricity. 

New rules, to be introduced next year, will require relatively ‘clean’, low-sulphur fuel. Even so, there are still workarounds, such as ‘scrubbing’ fuel with sea water to bring sulphur levels down — often dumping the wash water into the oceans. 

The new generation of adventure ships has the advantage of being smaller (most hold around 200 passengers) with newer, better technology. In June, Norway’s Hurtigruten launched the MS Roald Admudsen, a 500-berth Arctic cruiser that’s the first to run partially on battery power.

The impact of big ships on crowded destinations such as Venice and Barcelona has been widely reported.
Photograph by Getty Images

What else should I consider? 

There’s also lots of bad press about the impact of big ships on crowded destinations such as Venice and Barcelona. Expedition cruises, which are smaller, don’t necessarily pose the same threats but there are concerns about the fragile ecosystems now featuring on cruise itineraries. In the Galápagos, invasive species of rats and fruit flies have periodically hitched rides on ships. In 2007, UNESCO put the Galápagos on its ‘red list’ of endangered sites.

Yet the Galápagos is also seen as a model for how more remote destinations can manage the demands of cruise visitors while benefiting from their custom. Strict limits on numbers and high admission charges have helped, and some islands now limit boat size to as little as 40 passengers. Ecuador’s actions to regulate cruise ships helped get the ‘red list’ status lifted in 2010. Finding responsible operators as well as destinations is vital, as is investing into local communities.


Who's getting it right?

French luxury cruise line Ponant has invested millions in a high-tech explorer class capable of plotting new Antarctic courses with less impact. Le Commandant Charcot, scheduled for launch in 2021, will be the world’s first electric hybrid polar icebreaker, and will take 270 guests as far as the Weddell Sea and the ice-covered Amundsen Sea, in partnership with National Geographic Expeditions.

Quasar Expeditions, the oldest operator in the archipelago, is preparing to launch a ship that it claims will be the greenest in the Galápagos. The M/Y Conservation (18 guests) will use solar and battery power to reduce emissions and will include a water treatment plant and a waste reduction strategy. The family-run company also works with and invests in groups including the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park.

Northwest Passage
Hurtigruten, which has been chugging up and down the Norwegian coast since 1893, is increasingly broadening its horizons to include adventure destinations. Its 29-day cruise from Vancouver to Halifax follows the paths of some of the great explorers via Greenland and Canada’s northern reaches. The new boat for the route, MS Roald Amundsen, uses electrical propulsion to reduce carbon emissions by 20%.

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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