Why you need to boycott cruise ships right now

by Hazaar the Bazaar
cruise ships, boycott, ice, environmental concerns

It’s all prawn cocktails, balmy jazz nights on the deck and kids clubs- well, at least this is what the cruise ship industry want you to think. In reality, cruise ships have a slimy underbelly, and we need to boycott them right now. Here’s why.

The statistics are mind-boggling. From 2011, the number of cruise passengers rose 20%.

More people are choosing to cruise every year. A whopping 26 million passengers set sail globally in 2018. It may be the perfect no-stress holiday the working class are on the hunt for, but at what cost?

Scandals, cover-ups and missing cruisers have kept the industry under fire for decades – but the underbelly goes far deeper.  From environmental catastrophes to slave labour concerns, the consumerist funhouse as described by Vox, continues to fly under the radar expertly.

History of Cruise Ships

To kick things off, we have to understand the foundations of the cruise industry and how we got here. From the mid 19th century, liners supported the Transatlantic route from North America to Europe for the elite. The jetliner evolved over time to be more time and cost-competitive. In the late 60s, the competition caused the commercial ship industry to buckle, so they swiftly switched to develop the mass market. Now, cruising was affordable for everyone.

The modern cruise industry began with the founding of Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1966. Royal Caribbean International soon followed in 1968 and Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972. Recognise any of these names? These names are household travel and leisure names. These three corporations together control 82% of the cruise market worldwide.  They all play a key role in continuing the slimy habits of the cruise industry.

cruise ships, boycott, ice, environmental concerns
Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

Environmental Concerns

Your carbon footprint triples in size once you step onto a cruise ship. The Pacific Standard reports that one ship produces as much pollution as a city.  Besides exhaust fume pollution and carbon, the industry discards of trash, fuel and sewage directly into the ocean.

One cruise ship emits the same amount of pollutants in one day as one million cars. A recent study by Transport & Environment found that in 2017, the 203 cruise ships operating in European waters emitted a combined total of 62 kilotons of sulphur oxides. More than half of these were Carnival Cruise Lines or its subsidiaries. During the same period, Europe’s 260 million registered vehicles emitted just 3.2 kilotons. Sulphur oxide forms airborne gases known to attribute to acid rain and lung cancer- and these issues are already happening right under our noses.

In the UK, an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of shipping industry emissions. In France, 10% of the air pollution in the port city of Marseilles is a direct result of increasing luxury cruise liners docking in their harbour.

Shipping fuel emits vast amounts of CO2, sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, as well as particulate matter containing organic carbon, black carbon, polycyclic hydrocarbons and heavy metals- a very toxic cocktail. The negative impact is dependant on the quantity and quality of the fuel used.

The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) has advised of a 2020 deadline for the global shipping fleet to change from heavy sulphur fuel to more expensive low sulphur fuel to reduce emissions. But yet again, the industry is trying to dance its way out of responsibility.

Instead of opting to buy clean fuel which would vastly reduce emissions, the industry is doing everything in their power to save money. The Guardian estimates that as many as 4500 cruise ships have turned to scrubbers, branded as “emission cheat” systems. The scrubbers wash cheap fuel to pass environmental standards – but the pollutant residue is dumped directly into the ocean anyway. Pointless? Yes.

German whistleblower NABU says the industry is rapidly undergoing ‘green-washing’ to look ‘clean’. Their report said “pollution from the cruise ship industry is still massive, despite claims newer vessels are clean and green.”

The ships are also polluting the ocean in their day to day routines. According to a study from the Environmental Protection Agency, one ship produces in one day: 21,000 gallons of human sewage; one ton of solid waste garbage; 170,000 gallons of wastewater from showers, sinks, and laundry; 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from the massive engines; 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals; and 8,500 plastic bottles. Cruise Market Watch estimated there to be 314 ships worldwide at the end of 2018 – so improper waste disposal is a huge problem.

Though cruise ships are a small part of all international maritime activity, the industry generates a significant percentage of the waste and pollutant emissions, both at sea and while docked at the port.

One of the biggest barriers to a green cruise industry is the murkiness surrounding maritime laws and the jurisdiction a cruise ship falls under. As ships are not required to follow any state or national laws once in international waters, there is room for a lot of ‘corner-cutting’.

New technology exists aiming to reduce waste production on cruise liners, including onboard incineration plants, however, without strictly enforced international laws, the industry is likely to further sidestep these solutions.

Now that we’re talking laws – let’s get even dirtier on the cruise industry.

cruise ships, boycott, ice, environmental concerns
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Loopholes in Environmental Law

Maritime laws are a curious thing. Unlike the land, water obviously doesn’t observe strict borders. It’s constantly in a state of flow, so discharge in one jurisdictions’ waters have implications on another’s.

Cruise ships might be considered floating cities, but they are held to far lower standards. The ships are subject to the state laws from where they left, so they are obviously not held accountable for much in the open water.

Washington and Alaska set the standards when it comes to waste disposal legislation in the US. But counteractively, most ships under Alaskan or Washington jurisdictions wait until they reach Canadian waters to dump their waste. Once in Canadian waters, they can’t be held accountable for their actions. The issue of a ‘bandaid fix’ is also rampant. While there is legislation to stop ships disposing of their waste within a few miles of most shores, it’s highly unregulated. It also becomes a moot point, as the waste is later returned to coasts by ocean currents. Installing appropriate onboard treatment systems should be a main focus of the industry right now, but it’s very far away from being a reality.

Albeit the standards set in few US states, the Water Clean Act is littered with loopholes- and cruise ships take advantage of them. While shore-based waste treatment is required to meet high standards of sewage treatment and report all discharges, cruise ships are exempt from obtaining a discharge permit and are allowed to discharge sewage after very little treatment.

While the cruise industry unabashedly portrays a try-hard squeaky clean family-friendly image, it’s not what it seems. As The Windrose Network says “ there is a long history of breaking the law, seeking all kinds of concessions and non-regulation by lobbying and local regulators; in addition to the progressive accumulation of hundreds of pollution violations, which have resulted in higher-level enforcement actions and the payment of millions of dollars in environmental fines for illegally dumping water waste, garbage and other toxic waste into coastal and international waters.”

Friends of the Earth alleges that Royal Caribbean has committed upwards of thirty violations between 1992 and 2009, being fined more than $30 million USD.

In 1998, they were fined nine million dollars for illegally dumping oil and other hazardous pollutants through the ships greywater system. They then entered a plea deal after admitting they had routinely dumped oil in this manner from their fleet.

It’s not uncommon for companies to be involved in actions like this. Multiple companies have been fined for installing permanent piping in their fleet to allow oil and other waste to be discharged directly overboard. This enabled the employees to bypass the pollution control devices and falsify record books of this monitoring.

The industry also has influence over Washington. It’s not only jumping through legal loopholes; they’re also actively fighting the government for their right to ignore environmental health. Reports show that the industry has spent over $31 million lobbying against the US government – and they’re successful with flying colours. Stricter laws and regulations are regularly blocked. Over five separate years, legislators tried to approve the Clean Cruise Ship Act which would implement a ban on dumping waste near the US coastline. The industry hired lobbyists with expertise in security, crime, and environmental impact to fight it. The act finally passed in 2008.

cruise ships, flag of convenience
Photo by Pontus Wellgraf on Unsplash

Cruise Ships flying the Flag of Convenience

Most cruise ships sail under the Flag of Convenience. This means a ship and its company are registered in countries outside of its country of ownership. By flying the flag of their registered country, they are subject to its rules and regulations.

This is done to lower fees and avoid stringent labour and environmental laws – basically dodging anything that gets in the way of more profit. Cruise lines ultimate deny this is why; they claim it’s done to provide ‘greater legal flexibility when arranging itineraries and new ships.” Hmm?

By being registered in a foreign country, the cruise liners are also able to dodge corporate income tax. Boo. It’s also a lot more difficult for industry stakeholders and the public to hold them accountable.

Royal Caribbean is registered in Liberia, Carnival in Panama and Norwegian in Bermuda; all of these countries are exploited by the cruise industry for their low minimum wage and loose labour laws. In Liberia, the minimum wage is $4 to $6 USD per day; in Panama, it’s $1.22 to $2.36 USD per hour; and in Bermuda, there is currently no minimum wage.

Under the Flag of Convenience, a lot can go wrong. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), it more often than not means low wages for the crew, very poor working conditions, overworking and ‘uncertain compensation in case of accidents’.

Because there’s so much information, let’s consider a case study on Royal Caribbean. Being registered in Liberia means they can employ crew members from lower-income countries without providing work permits. They also often confiscate their identification documents and make them work for over 10 hours a day. Pay is often as low as $1.25 and their tips are withheld. Tourism Concern says “Meanwhile, employees suffering from inhumane treatment and the lowest wages are kept out of sight below deck, where tourist eyes and tips cannot reach them. Consequently, the average tourist only sees the front-end staff and has little idea of the slave-like conditions occurring below their feet.”

In 2014 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Royal Caribbeans’ Oasis of the Seas was subject to a random labour inspection while docked for dry-rock repairs. They were subsequently fined over one million euros for violating Dutch labour laws and the IMO. Inspectors found that at least 85 employees, the majority from the Philippines and South America, lacked work permits and were being overworked.

As a testament to ignoring this warning, Royal Caribbean then sent its sister ship for dry-rock repairs in Cadiz, Spain instead – and since then, has avoided Rotterdam.

As Tourism Concern says, ‘as long as there are states that turn a blind eye to violations, the cruise industry does not have much incentive to improve’.

local lady, aswan, egypt, colours
Photo by Ali Hegazy on Unsplash

The exploitation of local communities

Aside from exploiting weaker governments, the cruise industry actively takes advantage of the places it visits, too. It’s common for cruise ships to invest in port terminals that only benefit themselves. They also threaten to boycott destinations if they attempt to raise their port charges.

The industry exploits local people in return for a picture-perfect destination. For years, Royal Caribbean promoted their resort Labadee as an ‘exotic oasis in the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean’. Cue public outrage, because Labadee is actually in Haiti. Although they finally now advertise Labadee as Haitian, the company has outrightly excluded the local people from being involved in the tourism industry. The only locals on the island are sellers at the ‘authentic artisan market’.

The Haitians are therefore left out of the economic benefits of their luxury resort. According to Tourism Concern, ‘Royal Caribbean shamefully exploits the Haitian landscape while paying an ineffectual and corrupt government who certainly is not trickling down economic gains to the population’.

Post Magazine reports ‘machine-gun-toting guards patrol barbed-wire fences installed to keep the impoverished local population away from those zip-lining, windsurfing, snorkelling guests…most think they’re on a private island and don’t even realise they’re in Haiti.’

The Haitian Prime Minister also recently approved a deal with Carnival. Their plan is to begin a similar project at another Haitian island.

Another way the industry exploits the local community is by exploiting their retail market. Passengers receive recommendations for the best deals and the best products while onboard. In reality, the stores that are recommended pay absurd annual ‘subscription’ fees to be recommended. The businesses are also required to pay the cruise line a percentage of their revenue made from cruise passengers.

This means that a cruise passengers’ wallet rarely leaves the ship, even if it looks like it does. The industry infamously claims to inject ‘much-needed revenue into lower-income destinations such as the Caribbean’. That claim couldn’t be further from the truth- most locals don’t see that money.

Post Magazine says ‘Critics argue that very little money is actually spent during shore excursions as passengers dine, shop and pre-book tours aboard ship.’ Rather than keeping small Caribbean islands afloat, the reality, they say, is that large numbers of low-value passengers bring few if any economic benefits to the destination communities, but still clog the streets.

On top of this, cruise lines actively maximise time spent on board and minimise time docked at destinations. This is strategically done to maximise onboard spending. Interestingly enough, in February of this year, there was a violent attack in Antigua on three French passengers. This has discouraged guests from leaving their ship out of fear. It kind of makes you wonder why they wanted to go on a cruise to a far-fledged country, anyway right?

In October 2018, the Bahamas government made the striking decision to stop paying cruise liners to dock in their capital. Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar said, “So why are we giving incentives for people to come to Nassau and sit on the boat, eat their food and not spend money in our country?”

You’re correctomundo, Mr. D’Aguilar.

It’s a similar story in Barcelona. A city already battling over-tourism, it’s now suffering under increasing air pollution because of the cruise ships which dock there. In 2017, cruise ships emitted nearly five times as much sulphur oxide as all of Barcelona’s cars combined. According to The Guardian, most passengers visit the city for around 5 hours and spend around €57 each, before returning to their ship.

tourism, tropical waters
Photo by Yap Chin Kuan on Unsplash

So what can we do?

While boycotting flying is a hot topic in the sustainability movement right now, it’s strange that the cruise industry is flying beneath the radar. In my opinion, this industry should be one of our biggest concerns.  So what makes this conversation different?

Flying is, at times, unavoidable for a lot of us. We can all aim to fly less, but we all have work trips and loved ones who live far away. Sometimes it’s inevitable. A lot of people in rural areas (for example the Pacific Islands) also depend on flying for transport or for supplies and aid. It’s not simply black and white.

Cruise ships, on the other hand, are completely avoidable and unnecessary. While they are a safe and calm option for an elderly person on vacation, the rest of us have no reason to cruise. Tourism Concern aptly says ‘they are more harmful to the environment than most other forms of travel and, since cruises are predominantly for pleasure, unjustifiably negligent.’

So why do we let it slide? While environmentalists have been calling for us to boycott the cruise industry for a while now, we obviously haven’t got the memo. Cruise passenger numbers are growing every year and they don’t seem to be slowing down.

So what can you do? Don’t cruise. Tell all of your relatives and friends and co-workers to not cruise. Don’t give your money to this industry. If we curb our demand the industry won’t keep building bigger and fancier ships. The bigger and fancier, the worse the environmental impact. As for elderly cruising – this is the only viable reason I think a person has to indulge in a cruise. It’s a low-effort, social and easily accessible getaway.

So if you have to take grandma on a cruise, here are a few tips to make your impact a lot more positive.

  1. Get creative and think of another low-effort easy getaway you can take grandma on. This isn’t always possible, but I thought why not pop it in here at number one?
  2. Research the heck out of your cruise company. Avoid the major players (Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Carnival) and their subsidiaries. Check out this cruise report card by Friends of the Earth here. You can check the company rating as well as the individual ship rating.
  3. Choose a cruise where you’ll actually be spending a decent amount of time off the boat. 
  4. Ignore the hype on the ship. Don’t take recommendations from the ship on where to buy things. Instead, once you’re onshore, seek out the local and authentic community and give your tourist dollars to them. If you spend money at a recommended shop or eatery your money is going right back to the cruise ship.

The most important thing to remember is to do your research. The company you choose will make the world of a difference to your negative impact. We need to demand more from the cruise industry starting yesterday and focus on exploring ethically – whether you can do that with cruise ships or not, I’m not sure. That’s up to you. But now you have the facts, so use them wisely.

Have you ever taken a cruise? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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Teja October 15, 2019 - 4:39 pm

I’ve always been somewhat cruise curious, being someone who likes being on boats. But definitely off my list forever, now. I carbon offset my flights, and even if I could stomach the other things (which I can’t), I can’t dream to offset a cruise, so that tells me something about how environmentally irresponsible this option is.

Hazaar the Bazaar October 24, 2019 - 12:33 am

Hey Teja! I completely agree with you. I grew up by the sea so was always in a boat – that made me super cruise curious too! But yep, after researching this one I’m out for good. Thank you so much for you comment and everything you do for the world xx

Frank O'Leary November 16, 2019 - 1:46 am

Just to correct your statement ‘ The Guardian estimates that as many as 4500 cruise ships have turned to scrubbers’, which is incorrect. The article is taking about all types of ships, including vast cargo ships, not just cruise ships. (And there are only around 250 cruise ships in total).

Hazaar the Bazaar November 22, 2019 - 4:38 am

Hi Frank! Thanks very much for your comment- I am headed to the article right now to revise and will be editing very shortly. Thanks very much for that! I found a lot of cloudy information on data for how many ships there were and must have made an accidental error. Appreciate it!

Kim December 22, 2019 - 2:51 am

Excellent essay, but I disagree about it being acceptable for the elderly to cruise: no one, regardless of age, needs a vacation, especially one so harmful. Plus, a huge percentage of cruisers are indeed over 60, so if we want to end the industry, all ages need to be included in the boycott.

Hazaar the Bazaar December 27, 2019 - 7:35 pm

Hi Kim! Thank you so much for the kind words 🙂 Oh I completely agree with you – personally I do not think being old warrants needing to cruise either, but I do know a lot people have a different perspective to me. Amazing point that most cruisers are over 60 – I’m going to look into this now! Do you know of any elderly friendly ways to take a holiday? Perhaps this is something we need to conquer alongside the boycotting of cruises!

Have a great day Kim 🙂


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