When the world talks about sustainable tourism and responsible travel, travel by land or air comes under closer scrutiny every day for its impact on the health of the planet and its people. But what about at sea? We know there are plastic islands in our oceans, and that during disasters such as oil spills quantities of sea creatures die. Yet one of the major polluters of our waters seem to be slipping under the radar of consumers, and worryingly, it’s a sector of the travel industry that is growing steadily albeit with regulations that some say are not strict enough. The culprit is the cruise liner, which might look white and pristine from the surface, but in fact is leaving a dark dirty trail wherever it goes. If we are to move beyond eco friendly travel to a far more sustainable world, it’s a situation we can’t ignore.
Around 23 million passengers went on a cruise in 2016. Imagine the amount of food and drink consumed by those travellers and the resulting sewage, grey water (from sinks, showers, and laundries), chemicals, and oily bilge water (from the base of the engine room). Where does all this waste go? Incredibly, international law allows disinfected sewage to be dumped up to three miles from our shores. Filthy bilge water too can simply flow back into the sea. And this waste, combined with disintegrating plastics (which can contain lead, cadmium and mercury – metals which are dangerous to humans) and other materials, not only infiltrate every step of the food chain but studies show that the concentration of toxins measured in the tissues of animals are not just accumulative but actually magnified.
There are laws in place for when a cruise ship comes into port or drops anchor in a bay. Yet these are not always adhered to, making life around a cruise ship unhealthy for people on the land because of the subsequent water and air pollution. Waste is also offloaded onto the land as the cruise progresses, leaving the country in question to dispose of the rubbish, which not all of them by any means do responsibly.
When it comes to energy consumption, a cruise ship, of course, does not sail with the wind. ‘Many large ocean liners run on giant diesel engines, which can stand at more than three stories tall and span the length of two school buses. This equipment, along with smaller auxiliary engines, can emit dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide,’ writes Alison Moody in The Guardian. In addition, it seems that some travellers choose to cruise in the belief that it is an environmentally friendly option, when in fact, according to Climate Care, the carbon footprint of a cruise holiday could be around double that of flying abroad to stay in a hotel.
What’s concerning is that the luxury cruising trend shows no sign of abating. Demand for cruise holidays has grown 68% in the last ten years, according to the CLIA (Cruise Line International Association). And there’s a new generation of mega-liners that are like floating cities. Harmony of the Seas owned by Royal Carribean, for example, can carry up to 5479 passengers and 2100 staff, and burns hundreds of tonnes of fuel a day.
The CLIA latest yearly report states that cruise companies have ‘invested significantly over the last decade to develop new technologies to help reduce air emissions’. But many scientists and experts in the field don’t think it’s enough. If the liners don’t have a conscience about how they treat the earth, then it’s up to responsible travellers like us to think carefully before making the decision to cruise. The 2016 Cruise Ship Report Card lets travellers decide which cruise to take based on a cruise ship or cruise line’s environmental and human health impacts, while some responsible tour operators have a few small cruise liners they approve, including Responsible Travel.
‘For our small ship cruises a connection with local people and places is a key part of the experience,’ says Sarah at Responsible Travel. ‘In Croatia, for example, the ships are run and owned by local families, evenings are spent enjoying the culture and food of the small port towns the ship visits and most of the produce served on board is sourced locally. These cruises take the focus away from simply ticking off destination after destination and instead become a journey into the local heart and soul of a region or country.’ Sounds good to us.
Of course it will take more than stopping cruise trips to solve the serious issues affecting our troubled seas, which include rising temperatures caused by green house gas emissions that are killing our coral and sea life. As travellers, we can be part of the solution to inspire change on all counts.