Until the emergence of COVID-19, cruising, as a holiday choice, faced little widespread public scrutiny, and largely maintained its allure. But in the space of several weeks, no amount of public relations has been able to avert the public gaze away from the predicament of passengers and crew of several cruise ships stranded across various jurisdictions.
Cruising as a category of leisure travel has a long history, pre-dating the arrival of the jet engine, harking back to a time when long, languid journeys aboard cruise liners to exotic destinations were de rigueur.
The Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company operating out of Southampton, England, was the principal forerunner of cruising holidays. In 1844, it diversified from carrying cargo and mail, towards offering glamorous sojourns to port cities in and around the Mediterranean.
Whether cruising the islands of the Caribbean or South Pacific, or the port cities of southern and central Europe, Japan and Southeast Asia, and increasingly in far-flung places such as Antarctica, or in and around ports of the Arctic and sub-Arctic, cruising enables travellers to explore the world from the comfort of their cabins, while enjoying the all-inclusive tariff.
In more recent times, cruising as a mode of travel has gained enormous popularity, and unassailed loyalty from cruisers, shooting to prominence and gaining a foothold in most tourism hotspots around the globe. The promise of multiple destinations without the hassle of tedious airport transit and security measures, most introduced in the 2000s, has doubtless helped its expansion.
The global cruise tourism industry is dominated by behemoths Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation, who collectively operate via myriad brand names, and have complicated and largely opaque financial structures.
Cruising has continued to enjoy a growth trajectory, much envied by other sectors of the global tourism industry. Although, the exponential growth in ports such as Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik, among others, has seen it accused of overcrowding destinations and underlining overtourism symptoms.
Cruising has tended to fly under the radar of public scrutiny, and has managed to steer clear of the pressures on flying – and the accompanying flight shame movement that advocates flying less.
The cruise sector’s cheerleader, Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA), predictably sings its praises, highlighting that globally, “cruising sustained 1,177,000 jobs equalling US$50.24 billion in wages and salaries, and US$150 billion total output worldwide in 2018”. Without COVID-19 hindsight, CLIA projected 32 million passengers in 2020.
Most noticeably, cruise ships continue to grow in size, and when in port, resemble floating hotels or shopping malls, casting long shadows over the surrounding destination landscape, and obliterating any sense of place.
In the pursuit for more sustainable travel, cruising has tended to fly under the radar of public scrutiny, and has managed to steer clear of the pressures on flying – and the accompanying flight shame movement that advocates flying less.
While a distinction is necessary between large cruise liners that drive mass cruise tourism, from expedition cruising or much smaller vessels and other luxury variants, the myriad advantages of cruising centre on a number of pillars underpinning its desirability, including being favourably priced generally; potential for multi-destination itineraries; and all-inclusive tariffs, including meals and activities, from casinos to cabaret, spas, swimming pools, and shopping centres.
Cruising’s day of reckoning
The emergence of COVID-19 and its links to cruise tourism gained ascendency with the stranding of the Diamond Princess off the coast of Yokohama, Japan. The quandary as to what to do with a ship stricken with hundreds of coronavirus cases proved to be a forerunner of what was to come in jurisdictions elsewhere.
In conjunction with industry leader CLIA, the sector has withstood and deflected much criticism on account of past accidents (the ill-fated Costa Concordia comes to mind), health crises, and precedents of unresolved crime on board. However, COVID-19 appears to have changed all of this, where the association between cruising and the spread of the virus is writ large across the global landscape.
Health crises on board cruise ships are not unheard of, and of most prominence is the spread of norovirus, a driver of acute gastroenteritis, so often reported.
As the World Health Organisation related: “The rapid movement of cruise ships from one port to another, with the likelihood of wide variations in sanitation standards and infectious disease exposure risks, often results in the introduction of communicable diseases by embarking passengers and crew members.”
COVID-19 has arguably given the cruise sector its greatest day of reckoning, and whether it can regain the goodwill and trust of the travelling public remains in question.
Cruise tourism critique
Critical inquiries into the efficacy of cruise tourism as a mechanism for destination development, and its broader social, economic and environmental imposts, have tended to spotlight the spuriousness of the sector to measure up to the platitudes and promises that pervade its self-serving narratives.
A stalwart in the drive to keep the cruise sector accountable, Canadian academic Ross Klein, has long argued that the key players in the sector have continuously rode roughshod over their obligations to ensure environmental integrity. Furthermore, Klein lambasts the cruise sector’s corporate social responsibility credentials, accusing it of evading tax obligations, flouting labour rights and compromising destination sustainability:
Cruise ships sail in international waters under flags of convenience from countries prepared to ignore labour and international maritime standards, providing opportunities for abuse of labour rights and environmental regulations. (Klein and Roberts, 2003.)
Christine Chin’s seminal investigation into the cruise sector argues that the sector’s “pursuit of profits, passengers’ consumption of pleasure and foreign seafarers’ performance of work” highlight multiple contradictions, especially regarding morality concerns, and ethical production and consumption.
More recently, Ross Dowling and Claire Weeden’s detailed exposé of the cruise sector spotlights the drive for technological innovation and expansion into destinations that hitherto experienced little tourism. What’s clear is that the sector is counting on continued growth, with new ships under construction or being ushered in, ensuring that the business case for cruising remains steadfast.
The number of people cruising has more than doubled, from 10.6 million passengers in 2004, to more than 22.3 million in 2015. The size of ships has increased, from a high of 3500-passenger capacity in 2006, to vessels that now carry more than 6000 guests and 2500 crew. (Dowling and Weeden, 2018.)
On top of the growing demands for destination ports to accommodate cruise gigantism, the power of the sector’s key players is firmly entrenched in labyrinthine financial structures and deeply embedded in tax havens, allowing it to evade regulator scrutiny.
Despite the growing cognisance over the contradictions and concerns regarding cruise tourism, according to Dowling and Weeden, “this appears to be of little consequence to cruise-goers”, as they’ve continued to be attracted to cruising in ever-growing numbers.
Grassroots environmental activist group Friends of the Earth has possibly been one of the most ardent groups scrutinising the sector’s duplicitous claims of exercising more environmentally responsible practices on one hand, while conversely not enabling transparency to legitimise its claims. In its 2019 Cruise Ship Report Card, Friends of the Earth claim: “Most travellers don’t realise that taking a cruise is more harmful to the environment and human health than many other forms of travel.”
On top of the growing demands for destination ports to accommodate cruise gigantism, the power of the sector's key players is firmly entrenched in labyrinthine financial structures and deeply embedded in tax havens, allowing it to evade regulator scrutiny.
In examining the environmental footprint of 16 major cruise lines and 185 cruise ships, Friends of the Earth proffers a damning indictment of the sector, especially its slowness to adopt more environmentally responsible operations. A testament to this is exemplified in the multimillion-dollar fines issued to Carnival Corporation for repeated breaching of dumping prohibitions.
The overreach of cruising into places underpinned by highly vulnerable social and ecological backdrops is underlined by the sector’s expansionary ambitions. The drive for more visits to both the Arctic and Antarctic is emblematic of this.
In their examination of cruise expansion in the polar regions, Michael Lück, Patrick Maher and Emma Stewart highlight the problematic nature of more tourism in what are clearly fragile environments, asking: Can cruise activities in the polar regions ever be synonymous with environmental and social sustainability?
Lück, Maher and Stewart are consistent like most scrutineers of cruise tourism, where remaining sanguine about the sector’s ability to adopt more stringent corporate social responsibility practices appears futile.
Pros and cons
Cruising maintains an abundance of pros and cons, and the question for destinations is whether, on balance, the costs associated with attracting and hosting cruise ships presents a commensurate return on their investment. There’s little doubt that in pure numbers, cruise tourism can bestow destinations with increased visitation, and the potential expenditures that come with this.
At the same time, and as a result of the sector’s current woes shrouded in COVID-19, cruise tourists have mostly wised up to the one of the serious pitfalls of cruising – the risk of contracting serious illness while at sea.
Undoubtedly, assessing cruise industry bona fides should go beyond the port visitation and spending. There are myriad pros and cons, and the challenge for port jurisdictions and their communities is in being able to reliably assess the extent to which the sector makes beneficial contributions, or whether the opportunity costs of encouraging its growth may be detrimental.
- Cruise tourism can increase overall visitation to a destination. In raw numbers alone, the number of passengers on board generally points to direct visitation, assuming passengers disembark and do more than simply walk around the key attractions when in port. However, given the general opaqueness of cruise tourism data, the percentage of passengers who actually disembark remains questionable.
- Cruise tourists can make an economic impact on destinations; however, the extent to which this is exaggerated remains a legitimate question. Although, for some destinations, cruise income underpins their entire tourism industry. While more often than not passengers will pay an all-inclusive tariff, containing as much spending on board is clearly in the interests of cruise companies. Also, incidences of gouging higher-than-normal commissions from the sale of onshore tours are common grievances put forward by port-of-call communities.
- That cruising can help connect regional destinations to the visitor economy is a truism, especially if they may be off the beaten track and away from destination gateway points. This is especially true for ports of call in small island developing states, or regional, coastal and river towns.
- Cruise holidays are popular – the exponential growth of the sector is testament to this. Forward bookings into 2021 show considerable increases over 2019 levels, suggesting that the sector’s ability to bounce back is almost assured. This would be a godsend for destinations that will be reeling from COVID-19 closures.
- The environmental impacts of cruise tourism are very often glossed over, and if recent pecuniary measures against Carnival Corporation are any indication, what has been established might be the veritable tip of the iceberg. The greatest difficulty in assessing the true environmental impacts of cruises is the opaqueness of the sector’s operations, and that closely monitoring its activities on the high seas is extremely impractical. Voluntary compliance and reporting seem to be the only course of action, but ensuring adherence is almost impossible.
- Occupational health and safety standards on cruise ships have a chequered history, and COVID-19 has shone the light on what has been an ongoing problem in relation to the easy and rapid spread of illness. Additionally, crimes on board ships are notoriously difficult to resolve on account of the flags ships fly, and the locations where incidents take place, mostly in international waters, makes jurisdiction oversight unwieldy.
- Popular destinations can become inundated with a disproportionate exposure to cruising, as articulated in laments over port cities such as Venice, where cruise ship arrivals have continued to climb, disgorging thousands of passengers for the day within a very small area. The ripple effects of this on tourist experience, local community wellbeing, and destination sustainability is mostly detrimental.
- Cruise tourism operators are known for flying flags of convenience tied to tax havens, with the clear intention to circumvent tax obligations in countries where they operate. Additionally, this arrangement also underwrites their liability in situations where crimes occur onboard. Moreover, their legal obligation to uphold labour rights is also served by this arrangement, making breaches of their duty to crew difficult to prosecute.
Cruise tourism going forward
Despite the body blows to cruise tourism, the extent to which it has the potential to bounce back is exemplified in the way forward bookings for cruises into 2021 show considerable growth as compared to the pre-COVID-19 era in 2019.
There’s no doubt that the pressure on the cruise sector to exercise more diligent corporate social responsibility should not let up. After all, what little that has faced scrutiny and been subsequently punished suggests that flagrancy in regard to environmental and social obligations might be more widespread than thought.
However, it’s difficult to ignore the sector’s magnitude, as well as its potential to help drive tourism development in port cities around the globe. It’s been the fastest-growing sector in tourism, and the challenge for regulators, policymakers, destination managers and communities is finding the sweet spot to optimise impacts from cruise tourism.
Cruise tourists have a vital part to play in demanding higher levels of corporate social responsibility from the industry, while at the same time exercising responsible consumption, and favouring operators that can demonstrate transparent, ethical and trustworthy practices.
Prognostications about the demise of cruise tourism might prove to be premature, given the seemingly bottomless bucket of money it has at its disposal, and the extent to which financial markets remain bullish on an eventual recovery.
Ultimately, the sector’s largest organisations must more cooperatively drive change regarding its operational deficiencies. Continuing to thumb their nose at critics, and disregard concerns in the pursuit of profitability, may no longer be passable in a time where reforming the wider tourism industry is in play.
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