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Turning tides: sustainability and the cruise industry in 2019

Cruise companies are starting to take a proactive stance on the environmental damage caused by their ships, from investing in cleaner fuels and technologies to offsetting their CO2 emissions .

Published 5 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Crossing the Scandinavian fjords.
Crossing the Scandinavian fjords.
Photograph by Getty

It’s not easy being green: just ask the cruise industry. Over a century ago, ocean liners were essential for travel, a passage to the New World. Today, they’ve evolved into huge floating cities, sailing in the eternal pursuit of pleasure: popular, profitable, and oh-so-convenient. 

And yet critics argue cruising is a dirty business: bad for the environment and ultimately unsustainable. According to a June 2019 report by environmental lobby group Transport & Environment, in 2017, Carnival Cruise’s fleet alone emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide in European waters than all of Europe’s 260 million passenger vehicles.

As consumers get savvier and more critical about their environmental impact, sustainability has emerged as a key trend in the cruise industry. But for travellers, it’s hard to discern whether sustainability means companies are focused on sustaining their profits, the industry, or the environments they operate in. How much of the discussion around sustainability is doublespeak, and how much of it is actually genuine with tangible effects?

According to Aurora Expedition’s managing director Robert Halfpenny, the problem facing the cruise industry isn’t sustainability. It’s responsibility. “We’re making an impact, all of us are making an impact, no matter which company it is. It’s just we can do it in a responsible way.” 

The engine room 

But is the cruise industry an easy villain? “Image is a big issue facing the sector” says Scott Anderson, general manager of The Luxury Cruise Company. “Cruise ships are perceived as heavy polluters, however they comprise far less than 1% of the total global maritime community.”  

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) 2019 Environmental Technologies & Practices Report, cruise ships are at the forefront of adopting innovative technologies in the maritime industry, with $22bn (£17.9bn) invested in ships with new, energy-efficient technologies and cleaner fuels, utilising technology that didn’t exist a decade ago. However, this is primarily because so many new ships are being commissioned. Launched in October, Aurora Expedition’s new ship, the 120-passenger Greg Mortimer, incorporated an inverted bow into its design to reduce drag, travel time and fuel consumption. It also uses virtual anchoring technologies, which hold the ship’s position using propellers and thrusters without dropping anchor.

“From the drawings to the production, we’ve always had sustainability in mind,” Halfpenny says. 

Having received delivery of the new ship, the challenge for Aurora is now an operational one: putting this new technology through its paces during the upcoming polar season and making adjustments. However, Halfpenny concedes that being a small ship makes it easier to adapt. “If you’re talking about a 1,000- or 5,000-passenger ship, it would definitely be more of a challenge”. 

Sliding scale

Despite being lumped together, the cruise industry is segmented and diverse. The logistics, operating costs, emissions and environmental impact of river cruising, for example, differs greatly to that of ocean-cruising, on the one hand, and the expedition industry, on the other.  

Maureen Gordon, co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures, operates a fleet of three ships in British Columbia, the largest of which accommodates 24 passengers. For her, sustainability is about scale and choice. “We’ve chosen what to us is the right route for the planet and for our coastal community: we operate high-value trips that leave virtually all money on the coast and provide a net benefit for conservation and local career development. You can’t do this with mass volume, or with the discounting and homogenising that comes with mass-volume sales strategies. 

“And you have to have the discipline to always consider the place and its people when considering new business development; and this requires a regulatory and social environment that doesn’t punish these considerations by rewarding companies that focus solely on volume and maximising revenue.” 

Setting sail 

Launching in April, Virgin Voyages’ 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady will challenge the cruise industry status quo when it comes to bigger ships. Green initiatives will include low-friction hull paint to reduce drag and a heat power system designed to convert engine heat to electricity.

“Starting with a clean slate has allowed sustainability considerations to be part of our business decisions,” says Jill Stoneberg, director of social impact and sustainability at Virgin Voyages. “It’s allowed us to use the latest, most resource-efficient, state-of-the-art technologies on board the ship, and create an experience from the ground up that we believe reflects our brand purpose.”

Government support for new sustainable development in maritime builds has also emerged as an ongoing trend. Sea Dream Yacht Club, for example, received a $1.8m (£1.2m) grant from Enova SF (a state enterprise owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment) to help build the ultra-luxury SeaDream Innovation, set to launch in 2021.

“Norway as a country is very focused on sustainability and finding innovative solutions for environmental challenges,” says Sea Dream Yacht Club owner Atle Brynestad.

“Enova is focused on bringing new technologies to reduce pollution. It decided to provide the funding since SeaDream Innovation has been designed to incorporate technologies that are considered to be extremely environmentally friendly.” 

These technologies include an innovative battery pack that enables the ship to sail silently and without emissions for up to three hours.

“Sustainability is a large focus for us simply because it’s the right thing to do in the world that we live in today,”
says Brynestad. 

The dramatic frozen landscapes of Antarctica are a photographer's dream.
Photograph by Getty

Ship to shore

One observation from the CLIA report is that while many ships reported they had installed shore-side power capability (the ability to ‘plug in’ to the local electricity grid), many of the ports they dock at don’t have facilities that enable them to do so.

As cruising has grown in popularity, many newly popular cruise destinations have failed to keep up with the innovations the ships are installing or having capacity to cater for the industry itself. Sydney is a case in point. Larger ships are too wide to safely dock at the city’s biggest cruise terminal, while ships over 51 metres high are too tall to fit under Sydney Harbour Bridge to dock at its secondary cruise terminal. Potential sites for a third terminal were met with instant opposition by local councils.

Their apprehension is understandable. Critics argue cruise ships have a detrimental effect on the places they stop. As well as overcrowding the streets and overrunning small towns, they claim they damage infrastructure and historic sites, as well as eroding the cultural fabric, while providing limited socioeconomic benefit. 

The impact of cruising on places like Venice and Dubrovnik has been well documented. In the case of Venice, years of community backlash against cruise ship traffic peaked with the collision of the MSC Opera with the quayside and a tourist river boat this July. As footage went viral, government ministers promised change, but so far nothing has been formalised, and it’s business as usual for big ships. 

Other European cities have addressed environmental concerns with government intervention. In June, the mayor of Bruges, Dirk De Fauw, announced that the city’s port, Zeebrugge, would be reducing the maximum number of cruise ships allowed in port at any one time from five to two. 

Beyond government regulation, the industry has looked at alternative ways to monitor and manage the impact of shore visits. In Hawaii, for example, cruise companies including Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines have started working with local NGOs such as the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii to ensure the shore excursions by local operators are Global Sustainable Tourism Certified by summer 2020. 

“Working with our local checklist ensures that the shore-based excursions offered to cruise line guests meet standards for cultural and natural resources interpretation, support the local community and promote local environmental conservation efforts,” says Lauren Blickley, executive director of the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii. 

Some sectors of the cruise industry have adopted a progressive model of self-government rooted in sustainable practice. Formed in 1991, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has over 100 members, who are bound by industry standards aimed at promoting safe and environmentally responsible travel. These rules and regulations include not having more than 100 passengers on a designated landing site at one time, collaborating on landing schedules, minimum staff-to-passenger ratios and strict rules on interaction with wildlife. 

However, with over two-dozen new polar-class expedition ships set to launch in the coming years, the organisation faces a set of new challenges. “The number of new expedition ships being built now is unprecedented,” says Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, a company that pioneered expedition cruising to Antarctica in 1966.

For over 20 years, Lindblad Expeditions’s approach to sustainability has included the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund to support conservation, science, education and exploration in communities and environments that it visits through its cruises. In 2019, Lindblad Expeditions made the bold move to offset 100% of emissions from its ships, land-based operations, employee travel and its offices in Seattle and New York. 

“The cruise industry should find creative ways to protect the assets it depends on. That means nature, culture, the ocean and the climate. In our case, we’ve elected to be carbon neutral as a company beginning in 2019,” says Lindblad. 

While some companies are choosing change, legislation is making it mandatory in many cases. In January 2020, the United Nation’s Maritime Organisation (IMO) will ban ships from using fuel with a sulphur content above 0.5% — 80% lower than the current level of 3.5% — with an aim to reduce air pollution globally. While the goal is to get ships to move to fuels like liquefied natural gas, many have instead retrofitted their ships with ‘scrubbers’, which clean the cheaper high-sulphur fuel with sea water, which is then released into the ocean. 

Get on board

But what are some of the questions travellers need to ask to ensure they’re booking with an operator that takes sustainability seriously? 

“For travellers who want to book with a cruise line that takes sustainability seriously, we initially recommend that you search the line’s website for details of its environmental practices, as well as relevant news or feature stories that lines will be keen to promote,” says Adam Coulter, managing editor of the cruise review website Cruise Critic. “This will certainly give you an idea of how transparent the line’s environmental policies are.” 

Coulter recommends contacting the cruise line directly to ask specific questions. This could include enquiring about single-use plastics, how its waste is recycled and incinerated, what green technologies the company has invested in to reduce emissions, and if these initiatives are being used on the ship you intend to sail with.

All hands on deck 

By asking questions, consumers drive change. The shift towards sustainability is happening largely because it’s expected. “At the end of the day, the consumer is going to demand it. You can do whatever you want, if you’re not undertaking any sustainable travel initiatives... you’ll get passed by,” says Aurora Expedition’s Robert Halfpenny. 

“Our research shows that sustainability is something our target market cares about, more so than the average population,” says Virgin Voyages’ Jill Stoneberg. “We know our target customers care about the issues facing the environment and they prefer to make purchasing decisions with companies that are recognised as being good corporate citizens.”

But as companies look to a sustainable future, it’s clear there’s much more work to be done. 

“I think the cruise industry needs to take sustainability much more seriously,” says Sea Dream Yacht Club’s Brynestad. “The cruise industry has to find solutions to offset 100% of the CO2 emissions and continue working on recycling and becoming more sustainable than what the industry is today. The industry has a huge potential to be continuously changing for the better.”  

Top trends in sustainable cruising

New Fuels 

A number of upcoming ships are opting for cleaner fuel options. Ponant's new ship, Le Commandant-Charcot, sets sail with National Geographic Expeditions in 2021, and will be fitted with a hybrid liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric propulsion system. This will reduce ship emissions of SOX, NOX, CO2 and fine particulate matter.

Eliminating Single-Use Plastic 

From disposable toiletries to banning straws, companies are also working down the supply line to reduce the use of plastic packaging. Norwegian Cruise Line has pledged to get rid of all single-use plastic across its fleet by 2020.

Food Waste 

Sustainably sourced local fish is in, the buffet is out. Cruise lines are relying more on sustainable food sources and providing
plant-based proteins. Food waste experts such as Winnow have been working with cruise lines in mapping out solutions.

Scientific Collaboration

From installing research instruments to hosting scientists on board, ships are helping to collect and share ocean data.

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

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