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Column: To cruise or not to cruise

By Meera Dattani
Written by
Meera Dattani

It’s become one of the most popular ways to travel in recent years, but cruising also faces accusations for poor environmental standards, food waste and pollution. So how do you cruise, conscience-free?

Journalist Meera Dattani investigates.

What are the problems with cruises?

Cruising has certainly become controversial as it gains in popularity, with pollution one of the major concerns. 2017’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary ‘Secrets of your Cruise’ revealed that air pollution on board some ships was equal to some of the world’s worst polluted cities, while sewage is the other problem. Maritime regulations mean raw sewage can be dumped at sea once the ship is only 12 nautical miles (13.8 land miles) out from shore. There have also been reports of damage to coral reefs by large cruise ships.

In cities such as Venice, larger cruise ships (over 55,000 tonnes) have been banned from docking in the city, due to the damage they inflicted on the fragile lagoon. Dubrovnik also has problems where up to 10,000 passengers can descend on the old town in one day — and in an area home to a population of just 1000, this type of heavy footfall isn’t always welcome. And while not exclusive to cruising by any means, reports of workers’ rights has come under scrutiny too. Cruise ships employ thousands of people and there are concerns over low pay, sub-standard accommodation and unfair contracts with staff forced to work long hours for tips.

So how do you ensure you’re on an ethical cruise?

Avoiding vessels that carry the population of a small town, often called ‘floating hotels’ is one way to cruise better, from an environmental standpoint. Large ships can also have a negative effect on the destination, with a ‘cruise ship radius’ around the port attracting passengers to spend only in those areas – and with most cruises all-inclusive, passengers aren’t spending in nearby cafes. In some cities, it’s also created a glut of junk souvenir shops in a concentrated area.

Small-ship cruising, such as expedition or river cruises, is another way to avoid the pitfalls. There may be fewer facilities onboard but the idea is you’re focused on the destination. It’s also more conducive to meeting fellow passengers and it’s far easier to get to know the captain, crew and che, all of which adds up to a more immersive, local experience. Small ships are also much better suited for wildlife spotting and visiting delicate ecosystems such as Antarctica as vessels can navigate different routes and smaller groups make for a more memorable experience.

Of course, there’s the argument across all sectors of tourism that in fragile environments such as the Arctic, Antarctica and the Galapagos, should we be visiting at all? However, some of the larger ships may be doing more harm to the environment they’ve come to visit due to the greenhouse gases they’re producing. Additionally, done right, all tourism can be a forced for good, increasing revenue for national parks for conservation initiatives and supporting small local indigenous communities. Just follow your guide’s lead when it comes to etiquette ashore; the basic principle is ‘Leave no trace’.

While the jury is out on cruising in general, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the colossal liners at sea are detrimental to the environment until stricter rules are enforced. Smaller ships run by companies who state their environmental concerns and aims are a good place to start; and where local communities and visitors mutually benefit from the exchange, tourism can be a positive.