Blog Action Day: Why you should rethink that cruise

This post is my contribution to Blog Action Day, which this year is focusing on climate change.

We’ve heard it all before. Air travel is evil. If your vacation involves a plane then you are burning the planet.

While this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it’s quite true that aviation is one of the fastest growing contributors to climate change. There are also dozens of schemes where you can buy carbon credits to “offset” your flights – though the science and oversight behind this is questionable. Aviation only accounts for 1.6% of global greenhouse emissions right now, but would become the biggest emitter in the developed world if it’s not reined in. There is some sign of action – airlines, aircraft companies and airports recently presented a plan to the United Nations to slash emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050. Even so, we need to be flying less, not more.

Yet there is form of travel that does not attract nearly as much flak – but should. Cruising. Think it’s a green alternative to air travel? Think again. It’s worse!

Dominica - Roseau cruise ship dock

Cruising is a big business and a growing one. At the start of this year, the cruise sector was predicted to be the only part of the US travel industry to grow in 2009, despite the recession. [Update: And, apparently October is National Cruise Vacation Month in the US, so my post is more timely than I thought!].

But did you know that these floating cities are just about one of the most polluting and socially destructive ways you can travel? In fact, when it comes to carbon emissions, cruising is worse than air travel. Much worse. A cruise liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to North America produces far more greenhouse emissions per passenger mile than an aeroplane making the same journey. Seven times as much, according to some calculations. And that’s before you even count any flights to and from the ports of embarkation and disembarkation.

And the air pollution is just the start of it. The mind really starts to boggle when you look at how much crap the cruise ship is spewing into the ocean at the same time. Here’s what Friends of the Earth, which is campaigning for better US government regulation of the cruise industry, has to say about the current situation:

“Cruise ships currently operate largely unregulated. They release hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage and polluted water (containing bacteria, metals, viruses and nutrients) into  our oceans and coastal waters as close as three nautical miles from shore. According to EPA’s Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report, sewage generation rates for large cruise ships can range as high as 74,000 gallons per day, per vessel. These discharges occur near shellfish beds, public beaches, and sensitive pristine marine ecosystems. Like floating cities, cruise ships carry thousands of passengers at any given time and are growing both in average ship size (increasing by approximately 90 feet every five years) and demand.”

Friends of the Earth has put together a cruise industry report card, scoring 10 major cruise companies on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and accessibility of environmental information. The highest score, for Norwegian Cruise Lines, was a B and even they scored a D for air pollution. Two companies, Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Line, rated a big fat F.

And that’s all before you look at the human impact. Which is huge.

Some of these cruise ships are absolutely ginormous. They arrive at their destination, a small fishing town in the Mediterranean perhaps, or an historic but small city like Charleston in South Carolina. Thousands of people get off the boat and flood the city on foot, or in rental cars, and get back on the ship at night before they can spend too many tourist dollars in the local economy. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew are unloading all the waste they didn’t dump at sea and foisting it on the city authorities. Hmm, it doesn’t sound very sustainable, does it?

Boats and ships make sense in some parts of the world. When I went to Svalbard in the Arctic, I took a trip on an ice-strengthener (different to an ice-breaker, but similar). There was no other realistic way for me to explore this beautiful part of the world and it was the trip of a lifetime. Yet we weren’t talking about a floating city – this was a small ship with room for about 50 passengers, plus tour company staff and the ship’s crew.

And they might make sense for you. Perhaps you really love cruising, you’re scared of air travel, not keen on road trips and there are no trains in your area. I can’t relate to this but it might be true for some people. I’m not saying you should miss out on your holiday – but do go in with your eyes open. Consider going for a smaller ship or using the Friends of the Earth report card to make your decision. Let the cruise liner’s sales and marketing staff know that you care, and ask lots of hard questions on board. Sign the petition to support the Clean Cruise Ship Act.

But if you are like most people and a cruise trip is just one of many vacation ideas you are tossing up, perhaps you might want to give it a miss after all?


The photograph of the cruise ship is by BR0WSER on Flickr, reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.


Climate talks

On EcoSalon: Your role in the Copenhagen climate talks

My climate change site: Countdown to Copenhagen

New media: TckTckTck

News: Guardian Copenhagen site

Related posts on green travel

Train travel

Riding the scenic West Highlands Railway (by me on EcoSalon)

10 things to love about train travel (by me on EcoSalon)

Road trips

Greening the great American road trip (by me on EcoSalon)


Green your city breaks (by me on EcoSalon)

Shangri-La no more (Roaming Tales)

Should tourists visit Peru’s Incan ruins? (Roaming Tales)

Related posts:


  1. I think it has been known for a long time that cruise ships are the travel industry’s dirty little secret. But most passengers have no idea of how filthy the vessels are to the environment. Most ships are foreign registered and not regulated by US. It does not behoove the big travel glossies, newspapers or web sites to discuss the drawbacks of cruise ships when so much ad $$$ is generated by them. Cruise ships are not my choice of travel for more reasons than I have the time to list. But for many people it’s an easy option that gives them the ability to go somewhere without much fuss or thought.
    .-= Marcy Gordon´s last blog ..Harvest FUN Day! =-.

    Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about ad revenue – and I’m amused that Google is serving up cruise ads on this page! – Caitlin.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this article, Caitlin! I was hoping someone today would cover this topic. Marcy is correct; I’d say the average person has no clue just how severely cruise ships impact the environment. I certainly didn’t before this week. I saw that quote above about how many more people ships can carry now, along with another one about how cruise lines are rerouting ships away from areas where there is piracy to already heavily-trafficked routes in the Caribbean. That made me wonder about whether the islands in the Caribbean are even remotely equipped to handle such a dramatic increase in the number of tourists descending all at once upon them. (I would guess not.) It sounds to me like a perfect storm for negative environmental impact.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..Blog Action Day 09: Some Highlights =-.

  3. Have you seen

    Does this certificate mean anything? Do other cruise lines have it?
    .-= Keith´s last blog ..The Way of the Island =-.

    I hadn’t seen it before and I’m not sure what to make of it now. The ISO certification is meant to be fairly rigorous but I don’t know about this ‘Green Star’ thing from RINA (the Italian shipping register). I find this claim a little overblown: “By awarding the “Green Star” RINA certifies that Costa ships do not damage the environment and that they contribute to keeping the air and the sea clean.” – Caitlin.

  4. Well researched and well written article C. I doubt the sort of folk who go off on these massive cruise liners, know or care, a great deal about the pollutant factor. And what about the `super yachts`? Apparently Australian tycoon James Packer`s new toy consumes 500 litres diesel an hour at cruise speed.

    Cruising is mainstream here in the US and so is trying to be green, so I am hopeful that pointing out the downside of cruising can have an impact. Good point about the super yachts. I guess that’s the nautical equivalent of a private jet? – Caitlin.

  5. Excellent Caitlin! I wish more travel writers would write on this topic!

    One just needs to sit in a tiny ancient village like Dubrovnik, Mykonos, Capri or world class ruins like Ephesus as we have… when 30,000 cruise ship people arrive at once to witness the obvious destruction and incredible waste.

    Who in their right mind would even want to travel like this or even consider it traveling? Sure, one really gets a sense of a place dashing about for one day with 30K others…riiiight!

    “Tourism is a like a fire, you can cook your dinner on it, or it can burn your house down.”

    We’ve been traveling the world as a family, non-stop since 2006 & do whatever we can to avoid the masses from cruise ships that are destroying so many gems and our precious water. Each city sized cruise ship doesn’t carry 30K people, but the harbors are over flowing with multiple city sized ships from many countries.

    Travel by boat is wonderful, but sailboats or cargo ships are a much better & greener way to do that.

    Did you see my related post that I wrote for Earth Day?
    .-= soultravelers3´s last blog ..Family Travel Photo – England =-.

  6. This is a very thought provoking article on a subject that deserves the attention it’s been getting lately. Thanks, Caitlin – for leading me and countless others to take another hard look at the situation. My family & I are world travelers, and we’ve used countless modes of transport – including some that I’m quite sure are far more polluting than cruise travel. We’ve also taken a number of cruises, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities for “field research” in this area.

    I agree that we should all think very carefully about the environmental consequences of our actions, even our vacations. And it’s very important to hold major corporations like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Wal-Mart accountable for their actions, too.

    When we speak out against the practices we deem harmful, I think it’s important that we don’t lose our heads, though. The issue of preserving the environment is more complex than most people realize, and very difficult to separate from the related economic issues.

    I think Friends of the Earth does a great service by calling our attention to the need for more regulation of cruise lines, but their assertion that “cruise ships currently operate largely unregulated” is laughable – at least where it concerns the major cruise lines, which are subject to a number of U.S. laws and international treaties, including MARPOL 73/78, and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. Of course, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be more regulation, and perhaps a more unified set of regulations, but let’s not exaggerate.

    If you visit any of the major cruise lines’ websites, you’ll find a lot of information and disclosures about their environmental policies. You may choose not to believe it if you want, but it’s clear that they are not indifferent to the scrutiny they have been receiving from environmentalists. I’ve spoken with officers aboard cruise ships about this and have seen in person the elaborate procedures they are required to follow, so I know it’s not just propaganda on the websites (at least not entirely). One captain aboard a Royal Caribbean vessel even went as far as to point out all the ways in which they are exceeding the existing regulations.

    As for the comments about the negative impact of these throngs of tourists which the ships disgorge onto these tiny islands and villages – I agree, it’s pretty grotesque, and certainly not the most sensible way to explore these exotic locations. But I know from firsthand experience that not only are these places equipped to handle the throngs, they welcome them with open arms (or at least, they welcome the contents of the throngs of wallets)!

    It’s a great idea to push for more regulation of the cruise lines, no doubt about that. But I think it’s a little unfair to paint them as completely reckless polluters spewing enormous amounts of toxic filth into our oceans and skies – that’s not the reality I’ve observed.
    .-= 4suitcases´s last blog ..Lessons Learned: Packing =-.

    Thank you for your comment, Marc. I appreciate you bringing a different perspective to the table. :-)

    I don’t feel my original article was unfair and I never accused anyone of being “completely reckless”! The reality is that cruise liners do spew enormous amounts of toxic filth into our oceans and skies. Better regulation AND enforcement would help reduce that so rather than “enormous” amounts, we might be looking at merely “large” or perhaps “moderate” amounts. I didn’t just link to Friends of the Earth – the Guardian article quoted half a dozen experts from various backgrounds.

    I must disagree with you on the people in the ports welcoming the cruises with open arms. The city authorities might because they earn direct revenue, and some businesses will try to seize the opportunity as well. But I don’t think it’s a wholly universal welcome – that’s not the reality I’ve observed. ;-)

    Even if hordes of cruise tourists WERE universally welcome in the ports because of the cash incentive, it doesn’t mean they’re not destructive. I don’t believe we should be so willing to sacrifice our natural and cultural wonders and the amenity of our communities for short-term monetary gain. If the ports find it difficult to say no and thus regulate supply, perhaps we as travel consumers should try to alleviate demand? Just a thought.

    - Caitlin.

  7. And a very good thought it is, Caitlin!

    Again, I applaud your contribution to the debate on this topic. I agree that educating the consumers of cruise vacations may very well be the best way to address the issue.

    This article has definitely prompted me to take a closer look at my own assumptions and to some further research into this. Thanks!
    .-= 4suitcases´s last blog ..Lessons Learned: Packing =-.

    I definitely agree with you that it’s important “not to lose our heads” when we speak out about issues – it can be counter-productive if that happens. So thank you for reminding me to keep a cool head and thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you had that conversation with the ship captain! – Caitlin.

  8. And don’t you think it’s funny that due to the twisted logic of Google, this article appears under a banner ad for cruise vacations? :D

    Sorry, I’ll go away now…
    .-= Marc´s last blog ..Lessons Learned: Packing =-.

    Yes, I do! LOL. No need to go anywhere. – Caitlin.

  9. Caitlin alerted me to this post. She knows that I cruise and asked if I would like to comment.

    First of all, thanks for caring enough about the environment to write about it, specifically the environmental impact of cruise ships. There’s no doubt that they do have an impact, although so does almost every other form of travel.

    I also have concerns about the “report card” mentioned here. What methods are they using to come up with the numbers? Are they scientifically sound? Do we know? Shouldn’t we be questioning all parties concerned?

    It’s easy to attack a glamorous target like the cruise industry. But if travelers are going to use a report card to decide the merit of cruising on a specific ship, let’s come up with report cards for resorts, hotels, theme parks, etc. Do you travel by RV, offloading your waste into the tank at the RV park? Do you know what happens to it? Are you sure it’s being handled in an environmentally correct way? The health of our oceans is not just a matter of stopping large cruise ships. Everything we do on land eventually affects the oceans of the earth.

    I cruise and write about it, paying my own way. The cruise line that I’m most familiar with takes environmental concerns seriously. I’ve just returned from a 52-day cruise in the Pacific. There’s no way that I (or the 699 other passengers) could have visited approximately 20 ports over a large geographic area in a more environmentally sensitive way. In my opinion,to have flown to each of the ports, hired a car, etc. would have been much harder on the environment.

    On my cruise, I sat on the balcony and watched hundreds of barges, junks and small boats parade up the Huang Pu River in Shanghai 24-hours-a-day. Who monitors them? What pollution acts are they committing? From the looks of the river, quite a few. How many cruise ships were there? Two.

    Cruising through Asia, the lights of hundreds of small fishing boats blinked at us as we sailed through the night. What do they do with their waste? “Yes, but they only represent a few people,” you might say. But those same boats return to the same area night after night. Do you think they aren’t doing any damage to ocean waters?

    My point is that all watercraft, of any size, should be monitored. Yes, we need to protect our oceans.

    Millions of people cruise each year. If the cruise industry ceased to exist, those people will choose another form of travel, polluting in a different way. Is it fair to ask them to stay home while the rest of us go on our merry way?

    The best part of this debate is the awareness that it has raised. Thanks, Caitlin.
    .-= Donna Hull´s last blog ..What’s a Travel Blogger To Do? =-.

    Thank you for taking the time to leave such a long and thoughtful comment. – Caitlin.


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