Sustainable Cruises: Are They Worth It and What Are the Options?

Cruise companies have a great responsibility to be more mindful of sustainability requirements.
boat made out of leaves

The days of countless ships cruising beyond new horizons to meet the relentless demands of passengers are over. The looming specter of a climate crisis has brought the cruise industry into sharper focus and more scrutiny than ever before.

The global chair of the Cruise Lines International Association, Adam Goldstein, recently said: “The cruise sector represents 2% of the overall travel industry, we are a small part of the 1.5 billion individual trips made per year, but we need to play a leadership role in sustainable tourism.”

[Check out HT's most recent coverage on the cruise industry and what the hospitality industry is doing to improve sustainable operations.]

For better or worse, the pandemic has changed the cruise industry forever—cruise lines simply have to invest in environmental stewardship for both financial and political reasons. As things stand, there is still a long way to go, but passenger trends and new sustainability regulations indicate a clear momentum towards sustainable cruises as a future venture.

Let’s take a closer look at what environmentally-friendly cruises are currently available, how affordable they are, and what cruise lines can do to help advance a greener future.

Heavily Regulated Sailing Areas

The Norwegian fjords are some of the most stunning areas of natural beauty in the world—and as such—they have become a highly sought-after destination for cruises. Over the past few years, the increase in traffic through these waters has led to more focus from regulators to reverse the tide against the environmental impact of cruising in Norway.

From March 1 this year, Norwegian authorities will require that all ships must either operate on 0.10% S-compliant fuels (IMO regulations already require vessels to use low-sulfur fuel alternatives with a maximum sulfur content of 0.5%). The idea is that policy measures such as these can lead to fully emission-free cruises in fjords and the surrounding waters by 2026. Elsewhere, the Galapagos is another heavily protected region—cruise ships are now limited to a maximum of 100 passengers. The Galapagos National Park Authority governs the routes around the islands and allocates designated slots for ships to visit the island.

The conundrum for both scenarios in Norway and the Galapagos is the need for tourism to sustain the areas economically while maintaining the natural beauty that makes them so attractive in the first place. 

Are Sustainable Cruises Affordable?

Although cruising around the Galapagos and the fjords of Norway sounds wonderful, these areas are amongst the most expensive places to visit. Ships need to be retrofitted or even purpose-built to follow the regulations for cruising in those areas. Furthermore, since the capacity onboard is limited, the cruise ships need to charge higher ticket prices to make the voyage worthwhile. Once more cruise destinations adopt similar capacity and emission rates requirements, the prices will not be so astronomical.

Emissions and other Measures

Aside from imposed regulations on cruises, huge technological innovations are already underway to cut emissions. The easiest option for cruises to be more sustainable is to install exhaust cleaning systems called “scrubbers” that use seawater to clean the fuel before releasing it into the atmosphere.

According to a recent Guardian report, more than 90 percent of cruises plan to use this technology in the near future. However, it should also be noted that it is not a sure-fire way to solve the problem—if the washed water is not evenly distributed in the ocean it could still cause contamination problems if multiple cruises release the fuel in the same zone. The more expensive options for cruise lines involve liquefied natural gas (LNG), fuel cells, and storing the washed fuel onboard to be safely deposited later on land instead of in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is simply not the global infrastructure in place to provide the fuel types that will be needed for the future. While there will be a significant increase in LNG availability in the coming years, this process will take time and will not yet cover every port visited by cruise ships. Therefore, the best option for companies is to adopt a dual-fuel strategy whereby vessels use both gas and liquid fuels to phase in reducing emissions.

In terms of extra measures cruises can take, Oceania Cruises paved the way last year when they announced their initiative to eliminate plastic water bottle waste. In partnership with Vero Water service, their two-phase operation involved providing guests with reusable bottles to keep forever and distillation systems throughout the cruise.

While cruise ships do not have anywhere near the same impact on the environment as airplanes, companies still have a great responsibility to be more mindful of sustainability requirements. The IMO standards for cleaner fuels aim to reduce the entire shipping industry’s carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. Some companies are going even further—Carnival Corporation aspires to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. While these goals may seem less ambitious than those set by other industries, they are more achievable and realistic given the difficulty of changing the reliance on non-renewable resources.




Nicholas Kyriakides, Co-Founder and COO of both netTALK CONNECT, a global digital communications provider, and netTALK MARITIME, a  communications intelligence company that specializes in location services & telehealth technologies for cruise lines.