By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 11 Nov 2023 • 12:17
Cruising criticism. Credit: Image by chandlervid85 on Freepik
Cruises are the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry; increasingly popular with travellers who want to see the world via a relaxed mode of transport and in a luxury environment that has an emphasis on customer service. However, with a growing number of ports banning or limiting cruise ships, is the trend in danger of reversing?
Cruise ships are big business and the hot holiday of the moment. The industry, worth 18 billion US dollars in 2022, is expected to reach 25 billion US dollars by the end of 2023 and supports over a million jobs worldwide.
Currently, the world’s cruise ship fleet stands at 430 with more planned all the time, and after a collapse in the market during COVID restrictions, as of 2021 total cruise ship passenger numbers stood at over 13 million.
The cruise market share is dominated by three big players, Carnival Cruises has 45 per cent of the market, followed by Royal Caribbean with 25 per cent and Norwegian Cruise Line with 15 per cent.
By far the biggest destination for cruises worldwide is the Caribbean with 45 per cent of passenger share. Central and Western Mediterranean is the second most popular with 17 per cent of passenger share, followed by Asia and China (12 per cent), Northern Europe (8 per cent), Eastern Mediterranean (6 per cent) and the North American West Coast and Mexico (4 per cent.)
In Europe, by far the busiest port is Barcelona with 5.48 million cruise passengers in port a year. The Civitavecchia port of Rome sees 4.99 million passengers and Marseille 4.7 million. Genoa, Palma de Mallorca and Southampton all see over 2 million a year and Naples, Savona, Piraeus in Athens and Valencia all experience between 1.5 and 2 million cruise passengers in their ports a year.
Not only is the number of cruise holidays increasing every year but the size of the ships sailing is super-sizing. The ‘mega-ship’ is defined as a cruise ship that holds over 4,000 passengers and Royal Caribbean is the leader in these floating vacation cities, currently owning the five largest ships in operation.
The largest cruise ship in the world in 2023 is Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, a leviathan at 362 metres (1,188 feet) long by 64 metres (209 feet) wide. It takes up to 7,000 passengers and 2,300 crew members and has 24 bars and restaurants over eight specially designed themed neighbourhoods.
The Wonder of the Seas is due to be eclipsed in January 2024 by the new largest cruise ship, Icon of the Seas. The 365-metre monster vessel can carry up to 7,600 passengers and 2,350 crew and will boast 20 decks, seven swimming pools and the biggest waterpark afloat.
Along with the increasing popularity of cruise holidays and the number of large cruise ships, there is growing disquiet and even anger amongst the communities of some port cities and towns that pay host to the vessels.
The first well-publicised ban on large cruise liners was Venice in 2021, which outlawed ships that displaced more than 25,000 tons from passing through the Giudecca Canal and in front of Saint Mark’s Basilica. The move followed a cruise liner crashing into a harbour in Venice in 2019, injuring five people and complaints about the sudden and vast influx of tourists when one or more of the ships were in dock.
The next ban proposal came from Amsterdam in 2023 due to growing concerns about both the number of tourists, 20 million in 2022, and the nature of the tourism. More than 2,100 ships have docked in Amsterdam since 2020 and 3.8 million passengers have gone through the port during that time.
As part of a raft of measures to control tourism, that included a ban on smoking marijuana in public, earlier closing times for restaurants and the end of in-store alcohol sales after 4pm from Thursday to Sunday, the city voted in favour of banning ships docking in the centre of the city and proposed new docks built further away.
Other ports have moved to severely limit the number of cruise ships able to dock, for instance, the island of Santorini started limiting the number of cruise ship passengers allowed per day to 8,000 in 2019. The Croatian city of Dubrovnik and Palma de Mallorca have also limited cruise ship arrivals to three cruises a day with only one of them being allowed to bring more than 5,000 passengers. New England town, Bar Harbor in Maine, voted for a daily cap on cruise passengers and residents of the Florida tourist town Key West called for similar restrictions. Monterey, California, Juneau in Alaska and Charleston, South Carolina all have strong local pressure groups looking to curb, or ban, the arrival of the ships.
French Polynesia banned cruise ships carrying more than 3,500 passengers at any of the country’s ports, including at popular Bora Bora and Tahiti now only allows ships with fewer than 2,500 passengers.
Barcelona, Europe’s busiest port, is now moving to eject cruise liners from the World Trade Centre pier, which is a popular dock with passengers as it’s a mere 10 minutes’ walk from La Rambla. In 2022 Barcelona paid host to 2.32 million passengers arriving on 805 cruises. From October 2023 cruise ships are barred from docking at the North Terminal and instead will have to go to the Moll d’Adossat terminal in the South of the city near Montjuïc. From there passengers have to transfer to the centre of Barcelona via a 30-minute bus ride.
Not every port is opposed to cruise ships. In Spain, Málaga is notable for encouraging the growth of the number of cruise ships docking and paid host to the giant Wonder of the Seas in April 2022.
The acting mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, when on his crusade against cruise ships, was quoted as comparing disembarking cruise passengers to “a plague of locusts” and it is the phenomenon of sudden, large influxes of passengers from these ships that contribute to the issue of over-tourism in popular destinations.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that large numbers of passengers would be good for the local economies of the ports they visit, however, studies into cruise ship passenger spending point to a rather different conclusion.
One study, conducted in Victoria, British Columbia highlighted that cruise tourism constituted nearly 12 per cent of the total number of visitors to the city but was responsible for less than two per cent of tourist spending. The research found that cruise passengers spent, on average, 87.36 Canadian dollars a visit versus an average of 710 Canadian dollars for stayover visitors and even non-cruise daytrippers spent 1.6 times more (137.46 Canadian dollars) than the average cruise passenger.
In Norway’s largest cruise harbour, Bergen, which hosts more than 300 cruise ships every season the local University of Bergen conducted a study that found that up to 40 per cent of passengers never left the ship when it was in dock and for those that did go ashore, the average spend was less than €23. The study also found that cruise tourists had a lower inclination to revisit a destination when compared to land-based tourists.
These findings are actually not too surprising when one considers that most cruise holidays are sold as packages that include food and drink, so passengers are more inclined to disembark for a wander, photo opportunities and the odd snack and then return to the ship for meals which they’ve already paid for as part of the holiday.
In addition to a plethora of restaurants, the mega-ships boast shopping arcades where everything from high fashion to luxury jewellery is sold tax and duty-free. The Wonder of the Seas even has a 1,400-seat theatre so anything and everything a passenger could want is already on board and there’s little incentive to disembark, other than to buy a fridge magnet to show you’ve been there.
Perhaps the biggest argument against cruise ships in popular ports is the environmental impact they have. The European Federation for Transport and Environment produced a study that found that In 2022 the 218 cruise ships operating in Europe emitted over four times more sulphur oxides than all of the continent’s cars put together. In Barcelona alone, the 106 cruise ships docking there that year produced more emissions than 531,749 cars giving the city the dubious distinction of being the most polluted port in 2022.
According to a recent study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, a large cruise ship can have a carbon footprint that is greater than 12,000 cars, while passengers on an Antarctic cruise can produce as much CO2 emissions on a seven-day voyage as the average European in an entire year. In addition, a large cruise ship produces around a ton a day of rubbish.
The study concluded that “This research shows that cruising, despite technical advances and some surveillance programmes, remains a major source of air, water (fresh and marine) and land pollution affecting fragile habitats, areas and species, and a potential source of physical and mental human health risks.”
Friends of the Earth produces an annual Cruise Ship Report Card that grades cruise lines against four areas; sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency, giving each company a final grade from A (excellent) down to F (unacceptable). The very best grade achieved by a cruise company in 2022 was a C+ and the two largest companies, Carnival and Royal Caribbean floundered at the bottom with an F.
Cruises have, to date, been something of an environmental disaster and the roll-call of cruise companies receiving penalties for environmental violations is long and grim. In 2016, the largest company, Carnival, pleaded guilty to seven felony charges and paid a 40 million US dollar penalty for illegally dumping 4,227 gallons of oily waste 23 miles off the British coast in 2013 and then trying to cover it up with falsified official logs.
As part of the sanctions, eight Carnival subsidiaries were audited for five years by a court-supervised Environmental Compliance Program however, in 2019 the company was fined 20 million US dollars for violating its probation for environmental offences and in 2021 a one million US dollar fine was imposed after Carnival pleaded guilty to a second violation of its probation.
The cruise industry has a very long way to go before it can be considered even remotely environmentally friendly, although CNN has reported that one Norwegian cruise company, Hurtigruten, has unveiled plans to launch an emission-free electric cruise ship with retractable sails covered in solar panels by 2030.
It’s very likely that the environmental impact of cruising and the problems around over-tourism that concern some ports are not likely to dissuade the average holiday-maker from booking a cruise. The numbers don’t lie and they tell the story that cruises are the fastest-growing area of the travel sector.
If more ports either completely ban, or drastically limit, the number of cruise ships able to dock in their centre that may give some travellers a pause for thought. Part of the joy of a cruise for most people is the ability to alight directly into the heart of a beautiful port and experience the sights and culture for a few hours, before reboarding and sailing off to the next stop.
However, if the ports are increasingly aesthetically unappealing commercial docks on the outskirts of cities that require a transfer by public or cruise line laid-on transport to the centre, that may take the shine off the experience.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org
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