Eric Marx reports on how cruise operators are working to defuse their biggest sustainability challenges

Looking back at 2018, the travel industry will likely celebrate another year of record growth.

Roughly 1.3 billion overseas trips were made by travellers last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Globally, that’s a doubling of the numbers just since 2000.

Yet amidst the celebrations the industry is now also hearing another sound: municipalities bemoaning how tourist hoards are crowding out locals in popular destinations, particularly Mediterranean port cities. The pressure is especially fierce for the world’s 20 hottest tourist destinations, which have an increasing proportion of the market. By 2020 it is forecast that they will see more visitors than the rest of the world combined.

In Europe alone, the cruise market has grown by 49% in the past 10 years

The fast-growing cruise industry is seen as the prime offender. Some port cities are putting limits on cruise ship arrivals. Santorini in Greece is one example. Others include Barcelona, Ibiza and Majorca.

In January, a new €8 tax on “day-tripper” cruise passengers came into effect in Amsterdam, prompting two cruise lines, MSC Cruises and Cruise and Maritime Voyages, to cancel future stops in the city.

The Venetian government has also supported a proposal to impose a €10 tax on day-tripping cruise passengers in its recent budget bill.

Over-tourism is a problem in Venice, which is a popular cruise ship destination. (Credit: Jaro68/Shutterstock)

According to industry research, from 2004 to 2014 global cruise vacations grew 20% faster than global land-based vacations. In Europe alone, the cruise market has grown by 49% in the past 10 years.

There are over 300 cruise ships in service today and more are being launched over the next few years, Moreover, the ships themselves are growing in size, with the largest ships holding more than 6,000 passengers and burning upwards of nearly 100,000 gallons of fuel a day.

But academics say the cruise industry is well suited to managing the over-tourism crisis. “Cruise ships still have quite a bit of integrated control in the level of service and quality, and in the size of their ships,” said Christian Laesser, a tourism professor at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.

Tourism that is beneficial to the residents and guests of a destination requires planning and management

Unlike air travel, theirs is not a commodity business, explained Laesser. Like ports, they have the ability to control access and, thus, carrying capacity.

“You have to negotiate and go through the proper political process,” he added. “That is essentially what the tourism industry and cruise ships do.”

That’s a position backed by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry advocacy group, which describes the recently introduced day-tripper tax in Amsterdam as “disproportionate”.

Amsterdam has imposed an €8 tax on ‘day-tripper’ cruise passengers. (Credit: Comaniciu Dan/Shutterstock)

“Transit cruise passengers represent only 1% of the total tourist traffic in Amsterdam and last year the City of Amsterdam received over €60m in net revenues from the Port of Amsterdam as a result of cruise calls to the city,” the CLIA said in a statement. “In comparison the remaining 99% of the tourist traffic are expected to contribute ... just short of €80m [in tourist taxes] in 2019. It is self-evident that the contribution of cruise passengers is extremely disproportionate.”

Typical cruise-line itineraries are established more than a year in advance. Destinations know how many passengers are arriving months ahead, as well as when they’re leaving and how long they will stay, noted the association’s director of public affairs, Catharine Montgomery, in an e-mail.

“Putting limits on tourism is not necessarily the answer,” Montgomery continued. “Tourism that is beneficial to the residents and guests of a destination requires planning and management.”

Like Dubrovnik, Rome wants to experiment with redirecting tourists and perhaps even limiting them

A case in point is Bergen, a popular cruise port that lies in the heart of Norway’s fjord region.

As recently as October, local media reported a majority in the city council favouring a reduction in the number of cruise ship calls at the city. But CLIA headed this off by working to find long-term “sustainable solutions” that make it possible to resolve concerns, Montgomery said.

Another example is Dubrovnik, a frequently visited cruise destination whose picturesque Old Town is regularly stampeded by travelling hordes numbering in the thousands – a situation that has been exacerbated by its starring role as a backdrop in the hit TV series Game of Thrones.

Dubrovnik’s popularity has soared since its starring role in Game of Thrones. (Credit: Kjell Leknes/Shutterstock)

Threatened by Unesco with the loss of its heritage status, Mayor Mato Franković responded by working with CLIA to curb the number of cruises during peak times and stagger arrivals. The plan is to limit the number of visitors to 4,000 people a day, and to tackle other measures such as rising coach visits, said Mayor Franković, speaking at last year’s Responsible Business Summit Europe in London.

But with a new EU-funded airport and a highway under construction linking the airport to Dubrovnik there are those who remain sceptical of the mayor’s efforts.

Like Dubrovnik, Rome wants to experiment with redirecting tourists and perhaps even limiting them. Barcelona is no longer approving new hotels, Paris has strictly regulated Airbnb and other apartment-rental platforms, and Palma de Mallorca has even completely banned the renting of holiday apartments on them.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to destination sustainability

“The entire travel industry must work together,” warned Montgomery. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to destination sustainability.”

But over-tourism is only one of the cruise industry’s challenges. Its environmental impacts are also under the spotlight, with global regulations being instituted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on sulphur and carbon emissions stemming from ship exhaust fumes.

A global cap on sulphur emissions coming into effect in 2020 should go a long way to curtailing the industry’s use of bunker fuel, an extremely low-quality, high-polluting fuel blend, while a hard mandate limiting CO2 emissions could be in place as soon as 2023.

Cruise ships’ reliance on bunker fuel will be hit by emissions caps. (Credit: Holger Wulschlaeger/Shutterstock)

This expectation was bolstered by a strategy document issued in April by the IMO, which is a UN agency in charge of shipping representing 170 signatory countries.

The historic agreement defines for the first time the shipping industry’s commitment to tackle climate change: by 2050 all commercial vessels will have to cut their CO2 emissions by at least 50%.
Already this has prodded Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, to announce in December a pledge to slash its emissions to zero by 2050.

“We will have to abandon fossil fuels,” Søren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer, told the Financial Times. “We will have to find a different type of fuel or a different way to power our assets. This is not just another cost-cutting exercise. It’s far from that. It’s an existential exercise, where we as a company need to set ourselves apart.”

Why not switch to diesel instead, install emission-abatement technology, and wait for a decarbonised fuel?”

There is also movement in the cruise sector, but thus far neither Carnival Corporation nor Royal Caribbean Cruises, the industry leaders, have offered up anything resembling a hard zero decarbonisation commitment.

Royal Caribbean Cruises will be introducing its first fleet of liquified natural gas (LNG) ships in 2022 and is investing in fuel cell technology, which converts chemicals into electricity. Carnival Group, which owns AIDA and the P&O lines, has also increased its investment in LNG, which burns sulphur and is soot-free.

Some LNG ships claim a reduction in CO2 emissions of 15%, though that depends crucially on keeping leakage of the greenhouse gas methane to a minimum in ships and bunkers.

“LNG can reduce air pollutants significantly, but its carbon footprint is more or less the same as with diesel/HFO [residual fuel oil],” according to Dietmar Oeliger, head of transport policy at NABU, a German environmental group that monitors cruise shipping.

“Investing massively in LNG infrastructure might cause lock-in effects,” Oeliger added. “Why not switch to diesel instead, install emission-abatement technology, and wait for a decarbonised fuel?”

Most ocean-going cruise liners are either installing new exhaust filtration systems (“scrubbers”) or purchasing cleaner-burning distillate fuels. For the sector’s 300 ocean-going cruise liners LNG is simply too costly an investment, said experts.

Norway’s parliament adopted a resolution that would halt emissions from cruise ships and ferries in the fjords 'as soon as technically possible'

Many see LNG as a transitional technology that will lead to the banishing of conventional petroleum-based fuels.

That prognosis was given significant backing last March with the release of a report by the International Transport Forum (ITF), an inter-governmental organisation with 59 member countries that acts as a thinktank on transport policy for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The ITF report asserts that an almost complete decarbonisation of shipping could be achieved by 2035 using currently known technologies.

Norway is planning to halt emissions from ships in its fjords. (Credit: Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock)

The challenges are considerable, but the report authors point to high-level reductions coming from hydrogen or methanol in fuel cells, advanced biofuels, electric energy from renewable sources or energy from environmentally friendly technologies such as power-to-gas, solar, battery storage and wind assistance.

Meanwhile, in April 2018, Norway’s parliament adopted a resolution that would halt emissions from cruise ships and ferries in the Norwegian world-heritage fjords “as soon as technically possible and no later than 2026”.

The assumption is that the fjords will only service electric ships in eight years’ time, bringing about what would be the first zero emissions zone at sea.

It seems the net zero-emissions future is already here. The hardest part may just be in changing industry mindset.

Eric Marx is a Berlin-based journalist covering issues ranging from green energy to sustainable sourcing, climate change and transparency. he has served as a correspondent for ClimateWire news and as an energy reporter with Montel newswire

Main picture credit: Lena Seritova/Shutterstock


This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Tourism briefing. See also:

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over-tourism  tourist industry  cruise ships  sustainable shipping  Venice  Dubrovnik 

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