Cruise tourism: Business as usual or a responsible turn?
Prognosticating about the future of anything in volatile global contexts is prone to under- or overstatement, yet futures scenario thinking remains vital to understanding the myriad trajectories likely to emerge. The global tourism industry is an exemplar of vulnerability to unpredictable global events, and one whose economy has been hugely disrupted by the pandemic-induced slowdown. The flip side has been a boon to the fight against climate change and decarbonisation, as travellers have been largely grounded and the environment has been given room to heal.
As the long shadow of the pandemic dissipates, and a return to unfettered travel returns, early signs point to a tourism rush as the summer of 2022 beckons in the Northern Hemisphere. Alas, after having furloughed or dismissed workers, and mothballed aircraft and hotel rooms, whether an undermanned and underprepared tourism industry will stave off the emergent chaos remains to be seen.
One part of the vast global tourism supply chain at the vanguard of the coronavirus pandemic was cruise tourism. Censured for being an archetypal laboratory for the spread of contagion, the industry was the first to be shut down, bringing to a halt the armada of cruise ships usually traversing the globe.
Accordingly, I will aim to answer two questions about the status quo of cruise tourism:
- What does sustainability mean for the cruise industry, and how can this be achieved in light of the pandemic’s continuing impact on the industry?
- What is the future of cruise tourism?
In doing posing these questions, I am reminded by Friends of the Earth of the cruise sector’s and policymakers’ underwhelming commitment to sustainability, responsible tourism and ocean health:
For decades, the cruise industry’s business practices have put the environment, climate, and public health of coastal communities, passengers, crew, and coastal and marine ecosystems at risk. In addition, most governments have refused to enact strong regulations for the cruise industry, ignored the ongoing damage the industry does to communities and the environment, or have caved to industry pressure to develop their pristine resources for industry profit.
Sustainable cruise tourism: A shot across the bow
Like ‘sustainable tourism’, ‘sustainable cruise tourism’ is an oxymoron, saved only by slick marketing and public relations campaigns in online and glossy print advertisements. What could be more unsustainable than hauling a cruise ship the size of several shopping malls across the high seas, while at the same time spewing out exhaust fumes and fouling pristine waterways?
Cruise holidays have become de rigueur, appealing to escapist fantasies of getting away from it all, so redolent in the everyday, and more so after the confinement of a long pandemic. Underlining its popularity is a business model that makes for easy and convenient consumption, at price points usually attractive to the budget-conscious mass tourist market. Consider multiple destination itineraries, dawn-to-dusk activities, endless buffets, rolling entertainment, and the familiarity and security of containment on a vessel without having to jostle at airline check-in counters and customs and immigration checks.
The cruise tourism business model is a genius creation—registering companies in offshore tax havens, plying the high seas where little international policing is possible, employing crew from less-developed and low-labour-cost countries under dubious working conditions, and containing passenger spending aboard, and all the while convincing destinations that the potential to convert cruise tourists to actual staying visitors is plausible. What is more, in not being land-bound, the ability to pull up anchor and move on to more favourable and profitable operating jurisdictions is advantageous in times of crisis, or where destination managers and their governments start demanding a bigger slice of the pie, and more genuinely sustainable operations.
But like many dominant industry sectors that employ thousands of people, and have the appearance of being able to boost economies, their powers of advocacy and lobbying effectiveness has helped cruise tourism stave off more effective regulation. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, the sector’s opposition to calls for it to be responsible and accountable was noticeable. This mirrors the way it has tended to rebuff criticisms of the general business model (to be clear, I refer to large cruise liners that comprise the lion’s share of the cruise tourism market, as distinct from smaller expedition and river cruise operations).
If the cruise tourism sector wanted to pursue genuine sustainability, and de-prioritise profitability as its primary goal, curtailing shifts towards gigantism would be a starting point. Furthermore, calls for more efficient and decarbonised ships have largely fallen on deaf ears, with some emerging exceptions.
Furthermore, the cruise tourism sector cannot see itself as manifestly removed from the well-being of port communities and the impacts of its cruises on lagoon and ocean health, water quality and coastal and structural erosion, among others. These effects have been the bane of many of the world’s most popular cruise destinations—cruise companies profiting from port visits while giving little consideration to the longer-running and escalating social and environmental harms to destinations.
The essential premise of sustainability is to ensure that the planet is not compromised for generations to come. Consequently, whether the cruise industry can demonstrate that its operations are in accordance with genuine social and environmental sustainability intentions remains to be seen. This too is a persistent challenge for the wider tourism sector generally.
The future: Responsible cruise tourism or more of the same?
What is certain is that cruise tourism as a popular mode of travel will persist. Cruise tourists are loyal in their consumer behaviour. What is more, cruise-based holidays are generally attractive in terms of value-for-money and are amenable to family and social groups keen on holidaying together in a contained setting. Most important, cruise tourism can offer an ideal fillip to other tourist segments, while giving more remote and peripheral destinations access to hordes they would otherwise struggle to attract.
In recent times, however, and particularly prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the effects of overtourism in popular cruise destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik and Miami dominated discussion about the cost of cruise tourism for destination communities’ social and ecological well-being.
As could be expected, the cruise tourism’s key advocacy body, the Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA), sings the praises of the sector: ‘CLIA cruise lines are leaders and innovators in responsible tourism and offer the best way for travelers to experience the world. . . . The cruise industry has always been a leader in responsible tourism, including its demonstrated commitment to environmental protection, being stewards of the places we visit, providing rewarding career opportunities, and above all, to the health and safety of guests and crew’.
Whether evidence supports such self-praise remains questionable. For such evidence to emerge, cruise companies would need to provide researchers and investigators unfettered access to data. Continuing to batten down the hatches, as it were, invites doubt about the industry’s overall sustainability credentials.
In its 2021 Cruise Ship Report Card, one of the sector’s earliest and most ardent critics, Friends of the Earth, ranks 18 major cruise lines and 202 cruise ships, showcasing key measures in the areas of sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, transparency and criminal violations. With very few exceptions, the sector continues to undershoot anything that might resemble responsible cruise tourism and a commitment to ocean health.
Problems with cruise ships are extensive. From the overall environmental impact of cruise ships to cruise ship pollution effects on marine life—the cruise industry needs to clean up its act. In order to have clean cruising, we need the cruise industry to stop contributing to the climate crisis, polluting our air and water, destroying marine ecology, oceans, beaches and coral reefs with waste, and hiding their emissions.
When it comes to the health of the ocean and the well-being of communities that rely on them, such criticism does apply solely to cruise tourism. What it does demonstrate is that creating a sustainable cruise tourism will require transcending lip service and business as usual and beginning to put people and planet before profit. This is a wider malaise that is emblematic of tourism, and corporate business models more broadly.
Greenwashing and cruise tourism have become synonymous as the sector’s largest actors continue to pay little heed to the concerns of destination communities and environmental activists and instead prioritise shareholder value and return on investment. The view of the ocean as a thoroughfare, a bottomless and resilient dumping ground and someone else’s problem, remains stubborn.
Early signs are that a post-pandemic recovery of cruise tourism is in the offing. Forward sales of cruise holidays are reported, destinations desperate for recovery are welcoming cruises with open arms and the itch to travel is resurgent. The future of cruise tourism in general is assured—its enormous popularity has proved resilient to crises—but whether it acknowledges and acts on the urgency of more responsible and sustainable operations remains in question. Until it does, the ocean’s health and the well-being of the humans and non-humans who rely on it remain in the balance.
A recent headline in the Washington Post blares, ‘Cruises Are Smashing Records despite COVID on Board: “Life Goes On”’. Therein lies the enormity of the challenge. To make cruise tourism more sustainable and responsible, and overcome consumer ambivalence, is a vital task made more difficult by cruise industry hubris.
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