Crusade against the Environment

Interview with Canadian cruise expert Ross A. Klein

By Christina Kamp

They are getting bigger and bigger, more modern and even more luxurious, and the environmental standards are also improving. However, we wanted to know from "cruise junkie" Ross A. Klein why cruise ships continue to be such a problem for the environment and why developing countries do not really benefit from cruise tourism. Ross Klein is a well-known author of several books on cruise tourism. He is a Professor of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

TW: Why is cruise tourism so harmful for the environment? Does a cruise affect marine ecology more severely than if people had stayed on the beach?

Ross Klein: Cruise tourism poses a number of issues for the environment, including wastewater (both sewage - 32 litres per person per day - and gray water - 350 litres per person per day), solid waste (2.5 - 3 kg per person per day), sewage sludge (28,000 litres per ship per day), oily bilge water (28,000 litres per ship per day), and air emissions from engines (equivalent to 350,000 automobiles) and incinerators. As small cities, cruise ships produce huge volumes and much of this is dumped into the ocean or released into the air. Just in terms of solid waste, cruise ships account for 24 percent of solid waste produced by all oceangoing vessels. Each of these wastes has negative implications for the environment.*
In contrast to cruise ships, those choosing a beach holiday may produce the same amount of waste, but the waste can be treated to higher standards than possible on a cruise ships. Solid waste is more likely to be either recycled or properly incinerated (unlike on land where incinerators are regulated by local laws, incinerators on cruise ships operate without regulation).

New ships all have Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems (AWTS), and many existing ships have been retrofitted (but there is great variation by cruise line). The major problem is that the AWTS are not able to effectively deal with some pollutants (ammonia, nickel, copper, zinc) and do not address nutrient loading. Compared to developing nations where wastewater treatment may be limited or nonexistent, the ship-based AWTS are a positive step. However, compared to developed countries where sewage treatment is fairly rigorous, the ships aren't equal. Of course there is a problem that cruise lines often send their ships without AWTS to developing countries, so many ships are discharging poorly treated waste in those regions while the same company discharges much cleaner waste in areas around developed countries.

Air emissions from engines are also a problem - cruise ships use bunker fuel where they are allowed (three percent sulphur content), and low sulphur fuel (0.5 percent) where it is required (e.g. California, areas of Norway), but these fuels are considerably dirtier than fuel used in cars, modern buses, and other modes of transportation.

TW: Air travel is under serious criticism because of its contribution to climate change. Are cruise ships similar "climate killers".

Ross Klein: Cruise ships pose some of the same problems as airplanes. Take for example that the carbon footprint of a typical cruise ship, per passenger kilometre, is 36 times greater than the carbon footprint of a Eurostar train passenger and more than three times that of someone travelling on a standard Boeing 747 or a passenger ferry. In addition, cruise ship discharges into the ocean have deleterious effects on marine life and the health of our oceans. Notably, nutrient loading from wastewater negatively impacts coral; other waste impact the health of fish and other marine life. Recent studies suggest reductions in the biodiversity of the oceans compromises the ability for the oceans to act as a carbon sink and in turn exacerbates climate change. While the cruise industry has begun to respond to critics with technological changes, these changes have been slow. With as many as 8,000 or 9,000 people on a cruise ship, the environmental impact is significant.

Another factor that should be considered is that many cruise passengers use air travel to arrive at the ship. The carbon footprint of cruise tourism includes not just the environmental impacts of the ship, but also travel to and from the ship, as well as tours taken by passengers onshore.

TW: In what respect could a developing country like Haiti benefit from cruise tourism?

Ross Klein: The benefit of cruise tourism to Haiti is limited. Without infrastructure and tourist attractions, the country is likely to do no better than its current lease of Labadee to Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, which uses the prime beachfront location (with security fences to keep locals out) as a private island where passengers disembark and enjoy a day on the beach. A private island is a major money maker for the cruise line because all passenger spending goes to (or through) the cruise line. The economic benefit to the local economy of Haiti is limited.

The problem for developing countries generally is even greater. Cruise ships are businesses and operate to make a profit. They do this "on the backs" of ports. Ports build cruise terminals and infrastructure, usually recouping only a small percentage of their investment. In addition, local merchants receive only a percentage of passenger spending. Cruise ships hold back as their commission 50 percent or more of what passengers spend on shore excursions. In addition, they charge hefty fees to stores promoted onboard as "preferred" shopping outlets, and may also expect payment of commissions from stores not promoted. A recent study in Belize found that while cruise passengers account for 75 - 80 percent of the country's foreign visitors, they account for only ten percent of employment in the hospitality sector.
Most recently, cruise corporations have begun buying and/or building cruise terminals. The positive is that cruise ships and their passengers have modern facilities, however the negative is that the economic impact on the local economy is further reduced as income from these terminals go to offshore, foreign-registered corporations. Local merchants wishing to sell their wares must now rent space from the cruise line if they want to have access to cruise passengers as they disembark or embark.

* As detailed in "Getting a Grip on Cruise Ship Pollution". By Ross A. Klein for Friends of the Earth, December 2009 (see

Further information:

Tourism Watch Newsletter: The most important background information every 2-3 months by mail.


The most important backgrounds every two to three months Subscribe here