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Expert Essay
Cruises: The Future of Cruise Tourism

What does sustainability mean for the cruise industry and how can this be achieved in light of the impact the pandemic continues to have on the cruise industry? What is the future of cruise tourism?

Honourable Edmund Bartlett, CD, MP
Honourable Edmund Bartlett, CD, MP
Minister of Tourism of Jamaica

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the slow pace of recovery, coastal and marine tourism remains one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world economy. For small island developing states (SIDS), tourism, including cruise tourism, is a major driver of economic growth and job creation, a major earner of foreign exchange and has been critical to ensuring economic resilience. Going forward, the sector’s core sustainability challenge, particularly for coastal states and vulnerable SIDS like those in the Caribbean, will be the extent to which the international community (both public and private) commits to decisive ocean-based climate actions. Cross-cutting sustainability considerations such as ecosystem protection, reducing pollution and plastic waste, biodiversity conservation and investments in green technologies within the blue economy must necessarily be mainstreamed in the development of the cruise tourism industry and tourism more generally. Oceans enable domestic and international tourism for almost 200 countries and overseas territories. Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at US$3 trillion per year, or about 5 percent of global gross domestic product, whereas the contribution of the ocean economy to global value added has been estimated conservatively to be on the order of US$1.5 trillion annually, or roughly 3 percent of global value added[1].

The development of coastal and marine tourism represents a significant component of the blue economy and its ability to help us attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This relates not only to SDG 14 (‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’) but also to the blue economy’s role in achieving other SDGs, such as SDG 1 (‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’). According to the UN World Tourism Organization, the cruise sector supports 1.2 million jobs and contributes US$150 billion to the global economy every year. As the global ocean economy rapidly expands, this presents increasing opportunities for and challenges to achieving sustainability in our ocean and on our coasts, particularly in the face of climate change and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Coastal and ocean-based tourism contributes significantly to economic development worldwide—especially in the highly tourism-dependent Caribbean. The heavy reliance on marine and ocean resources is vital for the experiences cruise passengers consume. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise subsector in 2018 contributed US$150.13 billion to the global economy, while in 2019 the sector contributed US$154.46 billion globally. At the national level, in 2019, cruise tourism contributed J$21.6 billion to the Jamaican economy through tourism recreational services, food and beverage services, passenger transport services, and recreational and cultural services.

It is important to balance the economic gains to be derived from the blue economy with the appropriate conservation and sustainable use of the resources, along with the social impact on coastal communities. The 2010–20 period ushered in the fastest growth ever in the cruise industry worldwide, with significant impacts on the marine and coastal environment. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jamaican economy earned an average of US$174.5 million through cruise tourism. In 2020, the foreign exchange earnings for cruise tourism totalled US$45.5 million.

However, as countries reeled from the economic impact of the pandemic, beneficial environmental effects of the ‘anthropause’ were observed[2]. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, energy emissions declined by 7 percent and agriculture-related environmental pressures declined by 2 percent. We need to consider the environmental impacts of cruise tourism, since cruise ships are a major producer of untreated effluents and other pollutants which threaten the ocean’s survival. The UN Environment Programme identified cruise ships as one of the principal pollution sources in marine ecosystems[3]. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that waste from cruise ships varies from 2.6 to 3.5 kilograms per person daily. Management of waste is governed by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships[4].

The cruise tourism sector’s responsiveness to sustainability demands is vital to its existence. In other words, the ocean must be kept in pristine condition, effective solid waste management practices must be implemented, and epidemiological standards must be strictly followed to enable health security and safety. One can take solace in the fact that, as much as cruise tourism can harm the environment, it also has the potential to support sustainable ocean tourism. To this end, cruise tourism must take into account environmental impacts, carrying capacity, social responsibility and the integration of tourism within the local community. Special attention must be given to environmental factors that enable a thriving cruise industry. Efforts must be made to keep the ocean in pristine condition. In addition to pollution concerns, the lessons learned from the pandemic demand that the cruise industry carefully manage health protocols to guarantee a safe, secure and seamless experience for the traveller. In addition, onshore excursions, attractions and experiences associated with cruise tourism must be structured to ensure compliance with environmental standards and practices. This also ensures that partnerships are built with local communities, as cultural assets are consumed by cruisers. This approach has been actively demonstrated in the historic town of Falmouth, where the Port Authority of Jamaica, in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, implemented several projects to make the port town more sustainable and inclusive. Continuous stakeholder consultations across various entities and communities identified priority areas for investment with significant socioeconomic opportunities. Some of the priority initiatives include the rehabilitation of Water Square in the town centre as well as the improvement and preservation of heritage infrastructure, drainage improvements and streetscaping. The Port Authority was also instrumental in the rehabilitation of the new farmer’s market at a cost of J$500 million to enhance visitors’ experience of shopping in the town. The authority also constructed a craft village to facilitate the formalisation of 90 craft traders. These vendors were trained and registered, and an association was established to represent their interests. The creation of a pedicab service facilitated integration of the townspeople into the cruise experience, as it created employment opportunities for unattached young men and residents of Falmouth and simultaneously provided an organised historical and heritage-based tour delivered in a safe manner[5].

Despite the impact, the pandemic has afforded opportunities to strengthen the viability and sustainability of the cruise industry. For example, it offered a chance to re-examine the industry’s operations and impact in order to develop strategies and policies for the effective management of disruptions. In this regard, CLIA has reported its intention, by 2027, to have 26 cruise ships powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), 81 percent of global capacity fitted with advanced wastewater treatment systems and 174 cruise ships with shoreside power connectivity[6]. The Montego Bay Cruise Port provides LNG facilities to vessels, but only to a few cruise ships. Shoreside power connectivity is also available in Montego Bay. The cruise industry is expected to return with a more sustainable, streamlined and efficient model that will place greater focus on adherence to protocols to manage risk and to preserve and protect the industry’s operations as well as the marine and ocean resources on which it depends. The cruise industry’s operations in Jamaica must strictly comply with regulations of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, as well as the Ministry of Tourism’s COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols[7].

As the world begins to prepare for its emergence from the pandemic, one of the most important considerations is public health and safety. Stringent measures and protocols for public health and safety must be established in partnership with health and port authorities. An alignment and collaboration between public health requirements and industry practices are necessary to establish and adhere to safety protocols and measures, especially those concerning medical and health facilities onboard vessels.

Cruise tourism is critical to the economic sustainability of the Caribbean. The Caribbean region is among the world’s leading ocean cruise destinations and one of the most lucrative spaces for cruises. According to Caribbean News Digital magazine, the Caribbean receives approximately 60 percent of the global share of cruise ship passengers. The Caribbean Tourism Organization reported that approximately 25 million cruise ship passengers visited 24 Caribbean destinations in 2014—a figure that increased by 11 percent in 2015. This presents a considerable opportunity for the economic development of ports as well as the social development of port communities. This will allow the development of measures which will allow ports and cruise lines to systematically address the industry’s economic, social and environmental impacts.

More important, cruise tourism and sustainable cruise tourism can be a transformational tool for communities that have traditionally been locked in a culture of silence. The integration of a cruise port development in the historic township of Port Royal is intended to transform the historically rich community into a sustainable heritage, environmental and cultural attraction, while upgrading its physical infrastructure and improving the economic and social conditions of the residents. The development will ultimately guide the transformation of the town into one with inclusion of the local people as well as good governance and management of sensitive ecological and natural resources. Concerted efforts were made throughout the project to foster collaboration among the key government agencies and to facilitate the integration of the people of Port Royal in the entire development exercise. A significant project modification arising from stakeholder discussion was the relocation of the on-port tertiary-level sewage system (which was originally only for the port) to an offsite location. The sewage treatment plant will utilise modern technology in its operations, allowing for a minimised building footprint and increased operational efficiency.

Our current moment offers an ideal opportunity to redefine cruise tourism. The future of the industry will be driven by investments in technological advancements that seek to increase efficiency and improve experiences while reducing social and environmental impacts. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to accurately define the physical limits of destinations, vary travel itineraries and design effective destination conservation and rehabilitation projects. Governments will need to adjust to the growing demand for cruises by ensuring that the necessary regulatory and legislative arrangements are in place. The promotion of sound environmental practices, resilience strategies and environmental management systems will be essential for a reimagined cruise tourism industry. Finally, the on-land experiences and attractions that support cruises must adapt and evolve with new creative and innovative strategies in order to satisfy the increasing demand.

The health and sustainability of our ocean are critical to the survival of the tourism industry and, by extension, our planet. In this regard, as a small island developing state, Jamaica welcomes the goal of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) to achieve a sustainable tourism economy by 2030[8]. The period that follows COVID-19 will see increased growth in coastal and marine based tourism, especially cruise tourism. This demands the implementation of sound and robust strategies, policies and management practices that ensure viability and sustainability for countries and communities, for this generation and the next.


[1] P.G. Patil, J. Virdin, S.M. Diez, J. Roberts and A. Singh, Toward a Blue Economy: A Promise for Sustainable Growth in the Caribbean (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2016), https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/965641473449861013/pdf/AUS16344-REVISED-v1-BlueEconomy-FullReport-Oct3.pdf.

[2] I.A. Callejas, C.M. Lee, D.R. Mishra, S.L. Felgate, C. Evans, A. Carrias, A. Rosado et al., “Effect of COVID-19 Anthropause on Water Clarity in the Belize Coastal Lagoon,” Frontiers in Marine Science, 5 May 2021, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.648522.

[3] L. Jeftic, S.B. Sheavly and E. Adler, Marine Litter: A Global Challenge (Washington, DC: UN Environment Programme, 2009).

[4] L.S. Johnson, Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report, no. EPA 842-R-07-005 (Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008).

[5] Jamaica’s voluntary national review (2018) defines ‘unattached youth . . . as those who are in the age group of 14–24 years, unemployed or outside the labour force, and not in school or in training’. Jamaica Voluntary National Review Report on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, June 2018, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/19499JamaicaMain_VNR_Report.pdf.

[6] Cruise Lines International Association, 2022 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook, https://cruising.org/-/media/clia-media/research/2022/clia-state-of-the-cruise-industry-2022_updated.ashx.

[7] C. Patterson, “Protocols Being Developed for Resumption of Cruise Operations,” Jamaica Information Service, 13 August 2021, https://jis.gov.jm/protocols-being-developed-for-resumption-of-cruise-operations/.

[8] “Coastal and ocean-based tourism must be sustainable, resilient, address climate change, reduce pollution, support ecosystem regeneration and biodiversity conservation and invest in local jobs and communities.” High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, Transformations for a Sustainable Ocean Economy: A Vision for Protection, Production and Prosperity, 2020, https://www.oceanpanel.org/ocean-action/files/transformations-sustainable-ocean-economy-eng.pdf.

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