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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?

Ross A. Klein, PhD
Ross A. Klein, PhD
Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada

Following the COVID-19 caused shutdown in early 2020, the cruise industry began a return in early 2022 and over-optimistically expects to be back to normal in 2023. The restart was slow, and not without difficulties caused by the lingering effects of the pandemic. However, as requirements loosened for cross-border and international travel, passengers returned and cruise tourism gained momentum. The challenge now for cruise tourism post-pandemic is for all industry partners to benefit from the return of cruise ships and cruise passengers.

The resumption of cruise tourism coincides with cruise corporations’ renewing their commitment to sustainability. It is difficult to guess what this means, given that it was 2002 when the corporations first proclaimed their commitment to sustainability. But what does this word mean for the cruise industry? Answering this question requires a broader view. Cruise corporations (and the lines and ships they operate) are just one partner in the creation of cruise tourism. Others include governments, non-governmental organisations (including those representing cruise industry interests), ports, businesses and vendors. The list could go on, but it is of greater value to realise the complexity of each of these groups or segments. A port of call, for example, includes diverse interests, each with its own view of sustainability. The port authority, which collects port fees and operates the physical port, may have a different view of sustainability than citizens concerned with preserving the destination’s environment or sociocultural elements. The sustainability of bringing 10,000 or more passengers to a port will be viewed quite differently by a cruise line than by diverse segments comprising the port of call.

One way of disentangling the differences is to use the term responsible tourism. Responsible tourism brings to the forefront the question ‘Sustainable for whom?’ Sustainability for a cruise corporation emphasises the balance sheet. The goal is to increase revenue while reducing costs. The losses during the pandemic were obviously not sustainable. But there is more than the balance sheet. Carnival Corporation, as one, has historically performed poorly when it comes to social responsibility and labour. The London Times[1], in a 2004 corporate profile of Carnival Corporation, rated the company relatively high on share performance (9/10), fat-cat quotient (8/10), future prospects (8/10) and strength of brand and innovation (7/10), but relatively low on social responsibility (3/10) and attitude towards employees (4/10). Being responsible would likely be reflected in a more balanced profile. For a start, they could increase wages, be more vigilant in reducing emissions and treat ports more equitably.

Responsible tourism introduces a moral component[2]. It is a question not just of cruise line revenues and costs but also of the revenue and costs to the community and its constituents. The costs and benefits to a port of call may be economic, sociocultural or environmental. Responsibility asks whether the core of cruise tourism—the port of call—is treat fairly and equitably. Sadly, no exemplars stand out, although some companies (e.g. expedition cruise ships, small operators) are more sensitive and responsive to local communities than the large corporate operators, which together constitute more than 95 percent of cruise ships. On the flip side, the state of Alaska has been proactive in regulating environmental practices, as well as economic relationships with ports.

Responsibility and health

The post-pandemic era provides a good illustration of divergent views of sustainability. Fewer restrictions on cruise passengers and on onboard labour is good for the cruise operator’s bottom line but does not necessarily demonstrate responsibility to ports of call. Prior to a cruise ship visit, a port should be informed of the vaccination status of all passengers and crew, and a full account of all illness reports recorded in each of the previous 10 days. That allows the port of call to be informed of potential risks posed by the visit. It is notable that the first cruise ship scheduled to visit Canada in 2022 had its port calls at Vancouver and Victoria cancelled because of a Centers for Disease Control investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak[3]. The ship, Ruby Princess, reported 253 cases of COVID-19 in five weeks[4].

The flip side is the cruise industry’s perspective. Though transparency may be the moral thing to do, responsibility to stockholders requires a public relations machine that makes invisible the scale of COVID-19 on cruise ships. They want to reassure passengers of the safety of cruise ships. This tact was taken when waves of Norovirus undercut the perceived safety of cruise vacations; the strategy was described in detail at the 2003 World Cruise Tourism Summit[5]. Bad publicity is bad for business. At the same time, transparency to passengers and to communities can have positive public relations value. Online reports as recent as May 2022 reveal that passengers are unable to receive full information about COVID patients onboard.

Another illustration is revealed around medical emergencies on cruise ships. Medical facilities are limited, so medical emergencies must be debarked in a port or have a medical evacuation. This is sustainable for the cruise line—it offloads responsibility for the ill passenger, including liability, and it minimally impacts the ship’s itinerary. From another perspective, the question is where these ill passengers end up and at whose expense. Is there cost to the port where passengers are left? Yakutat, Alaska, sought to charge cruise lines because of the demand on the town’s emergency services—its only ambulance was often used for cruise ship emergencies, which made it unavailable for local emergencies. Ships never made a port call at Yakutat—passengers were transferred by tender and left behind. The cruise lines refused to pay the levy, and subsequently an amendment was added to the Maritime Security Act prohibiting the levy[6]. While this may be a unique situation, it draws attention to the need for cruise lines to be more sensitive to the communities on which they depend.

Responsibility and labour

Cruise ship labour illustrates another way sustainability may diverge from responsibility. It is cost-effective for cruise lines to employ workers, often from developing countries. They are immersed into a hierarchy with clear lines around race, culture, gender and authority (sexual harassment and sexual assault are long-standing and persistent problems[7]). The standard employee contract requires a 77-hour workweek and can continue for 10 months without a day off (the length often varies with skin colour or country of origin). The salary for many is less than $2 an hour. Though mandatory gratuities and service charges have increased significantly over the past 20 years, the incomes received by workers have not. Pay scales need to be more equitable and fair, and workers should be represented by a traditional-style labour union (with grievance rights). If wages kept pace with the Consumer Price Index, a worker earning $500 a month should earn $850 today. That is not that case.

Cruise lines have also limited worker rights of grievance and their protection of health and welfare through arbitration clauses inserted in employment contracts[8]. This followed a period where most major cruise lines were sued by workers for unpaid overtime—discovery in the Princess Cruises case revealed a baker working 19 hours a day—8 hours unpaid overtime every day. It also showed different pay scales for workers from different countries, even when filling the same work role.

These labour practices are sustainable for the cruise line. If asked, the industry unapologetically says workers take their jobs freely and can leave anytime they want. That may be true, but the situation appears quite different through a lens of responsibility. Take one example told to me by a musician who had just lost his job with Norwegian Cruise Line. The cruise line fired all Hawaiian musicians playing Hawaiian music on ships in Hawai‘i, replacing them with Filipino musicians playing Hawaiian music. The Filipino musicians cost less, worked more hours and appear Hawaiian when dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Most passengers knew no different, but to the native Hawaiians the cruise line was not behaving responsibly. Similarly, Princess Cruises in 2019 apologised for cultural insensitivity after cruise ship employees posed in New Zealand as Maori performers with careless scribbles on their faces and wearing skirts not reflecting Maori culture[9].

Responsibility and the environment

The cruise industry says its ships meet or exceed all international environmental regulations. This is meant to be reassuring, but there are two problems. First, though Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has mandatory environmental regulations for member cruise lines, it has never punished or fined a cruise line for violating these regulations (even those found guilty of felony offenses). A CLIA vice president was asked about this in a community meeting in Rockland, Maine; his response was that they had ‘pull[ed] the company aside and given them a stern talking’. That attitude did not further the industry’s desire to be viewed as leaders in sustainability. The local community was not reassured.

The second problem is ambiguity as to what it means to ‘meet or exceed international regulations’. That there are no international regulations around greywater (4,000-passenger ships produce more than 1.5 million litres of greywater every day) should raise concerns for ports since greywater can be legally discharged virtually anywhere in most jurisdictions. Incinerators are similarly not regulated when at sea, even though incinerators onshore are regulated. And though many cruise ships have advanced wastewater treatment systems, the systems do not always operate as promised and their discharges are often exempt from limitations or regulation[10].

The Ocean Ranger Program in Alaska was a good strategy for ensuring that cruise ship practices and promises correspond, and that discharges into coastal waters meet water quality standards. Alaska’s experience, as the only jurisdiction worldwide to monitor cruise ship discharges and enforce regulations, demonstrates that cruise ships often fail to meet water quality standards. Violations of air quality standards are also enforced through local observers. Enforcement positively impacts cruise ship behaviour.

Another approach is reflected is a recent port-led initiative in the Pacific Northwest. Ports, governments and cruise lines are working to form a ‘green corridor’ where cruise ships traversing the coastal waters of British Columbia and Alaska would operate without fossil fuels by 2050[11].

Responsibility and ports of call

Ports of call are a critical element in cruise tourism. Ports significantly contribute to passenger satisfaction. They are also a huge source of cruise lines’ income and profits through shore excursions, shopping programs, ownership of cruise terminals and much more. The responsible cruise tourism lens asks whether economic benefits are equitably distributed to all segments of a tourist destination and whether negative sociocultural and environmental impacts have been minimised. The perception of sustainability or responsibility is vested with stakeholders involved in and impacted by the development of tourism products. Thus, when considering the economic benefits of cruise tourism the focus may not be on income derived from cruise tourism but instead on the degree to which economic benefits are distributed equitably between the cruise line and port and among the stakeholders and segments of society in the port. The cruise line’s goal is to retain as much of the income as possible.

Belize provides an illustration. Passengers arrive by tender at Fort Street Village in the centre of Belize City. The village is contained by a wall and security fence and has within a range of shops, eateries and bars, many of which are found in other Caribbean ports. The retail space is expensive, so few local merchants can afford it; there is a small crafts market for them in another area, but the rents again are significant. The merchants have some income, despite heavy overhead costs; they do better than merchants outside given that few cruise passengers venture independently from the village. Most passengers take shore excursions from which the cruise ship takes 50 percent or more of the price paid by a passenger. A passenger expects a $50 product, but the shore excursion provider receives less than $25. The excursion provider is challenged to provide a quality product while still retaining a small profit. It is of mutual benefit for shore excursion providers to receive a higher payment—they can upgrade their product and elevate passenger satisfaction, but pressure from cruise lines is usually to reduce costs.

Cruise lines similarly pressure ports to keep port fees low. Many ports have been unable to significantly increase head taxes for decades. That doesn’t serve the port. A port fee in 1990, keeping pace with the Consumer Price Index, should have more than doubled by 2022. A $10 port charge in 1990 would equitably be $22.69 in 2022. Cruise lines and ports have divergent interests in seeing these fees increase.

People pollution is another concern for ports of call. This refers to situations where the number of tourists or visitors exceeds the comfortable carrying capacity of a port community, such as when cruise ships collectively disgorge tens of thousands of passengers in a port at one time. Overcrowding has implications for the community and for the experience of passengers. As regards the latter, visitors don’t have an opportunity to interact with and to experience local culture; local cultures may be treated disrespectfully. The sheer volume of cruise passengers compromises the experience of all. On ‘cruise days’ in Belize, for example, locals warn land-based visitors to avoid Xunantunich, one of the country’s main Mayan sites visited by cruise passengers. Passengers’ experience of the sacred site is limited by the short time spent and by the overwhelming number of other cruise passengers sharing the small site. Cruise days are especially busy for the operator of the hand-cranked bridge that crosses the river to get to the Mayan site (quaint when crossing in a single vehicle on a lazy day), and for some craftspeople selling wares at the crossing point, but most passengers stay in safety on their air-conditioned bus and are whisked someplace else. Ideally, cruise lines would work with port communities (and with each other) in itinerary development. Rather than force a port to be proactive and place daily limits on cruise passengers (as has been done in Key West) or on cruise ship size (as in Venice), it would better for cruise lines and communities to find mutually agreeable solutions.

In closing

The challenge for cruise tourism post-pandemic will be for all industry partners to benefit from the return of cruise ships and cruise passengers. Cruise corporations want to return to profitability; the major lines all increased service fees (gratuities) and bar prices in 2022, and they are likely to put more pressure on ports of call. The challenge for ports and their constituents is to treat cruise tourism as a business, the way the cruise corporations do. They need to not only get their fair share but also enough benefits to make cruise tourism worth it. A clear business model is needed with targets for income and methods to offset costs.

Ports need to maintain self-esteem[12]. They may benefit from working cooperatively with one another[13], a strategy the cruise industry has thwarted in past. In any case, they need to meet cruise lines (and those who speak for them) as equals. A cruise ship needs a port to fill its itineraries, which gives the port a degree of power. The port needs to know its value to a cruise line before it begins negotiations. Too often ports (and their constituents) rely on cruise lines and cruise line representatives for data on such things as passenger spending even though these industry-supported experts often overstate the economic benefits of cruise tourism. A study of cruise passenger spending in Halifax, Nova Scotia, revealed that the cruise industry had significantly and systematically overstated passenger spending[14]. The lesson is that port communities need to do their own independent research, and to enter negotiations from a position of strength, based on facts and realistic expectations. Ports also need to engage in inclusive consultation with all involved with and/or impacted by cruise ship visits—this is often the case in smaller communities in Alaska and the Canadian North.


[1] London Times, Corporate Profile no. 104, 16 February 2004, 22.

[2] R.A. Klein, “Responsible Cruise Tourism: Issues of Cruise Tourism and Sustainability,” in “Cruise Tourism: Emerging Issues and Implications for a Maturing Industry,” special issue of Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management 18 (2011): 103–12.

[3] S. Little, “Start of Cruise Season Delayed as First Planned Arrival in Victoria Is Scrapped,” Global News, 2 April 2022, https://globalnews.ca/news/8730681/vancouver-cruise-cancelled-covid-19/.

[4] N. Diller, “Princess Cruise Ship Has 253 Coronavirus Cases in 5 Weeks,” Washington Post, 27 April 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2022/04/27/ruby-princess-coronavirus-outbreaks/.

[5] R.A. Klein, Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2005).

[6] Klein, Cruise Ship Squeeze.

[7] R.A. Klein and J. Poulston, “Sex at Sea: Sexual Crimes on Cruise Ships,” Journal of Tourism in Marine Environments 7, no. 2 (2011): 67–80.

[8] R.A. Klein, “Are Current Regulations Sufficient to Protect Passengers and the Environment?,” Testimony before US Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Hearings on Oversight of the Cruise Ship Industry, 1 March 2012.

[9] D. Jones, “Princess Cruises Apologizes for ‘Cultural Insensitivity’ after Employees Pose as Maori Performers in New Zealand,” Washington Post, 3 December 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2019/12/03/princes-cruises-apologizes-cultural-insensitivity-after-employees-pose-maori-performers-new-zealand/.

[10] R.A. Klein, Getting a Grip on Cruise Ship Pollution (Washington, DC: Friends of the Earth, 2009).

[11] H. Bernton, “A Cruise Ship ‘Green Corridor’ in the PNW? Ports Make Pact over Carbon Emission Goals,” Seattle Times, 20 May 2022, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/a-cruise-ship-green-corridor-in-the-pnw-ports-make-pact-over-carbon-emission-goals/.

[12] R.A. Klein, “Playing Off the Ports: BC and the Cruise Tourism Industry” (Vancouver, BC: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2005).

[13] Klein, “Playing Off the Ports.”

[14] B. Kayahan, R.A. Klein and B. VanBlarcom, “Overstating Cruise Passenger Spending: Sources of Error in Cruise Industry Studies of Economic Impact,” Journal of Tourism in Marine Environments 13, no. 4 (2018): 193–203.

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